I have books piled high next to my bed. Most of us do. I have grand aspirations to read them, but work and life take that precious reading time away. This past year I wanted to re-read The Leadership Challenge by Kouzes and Posner. I wanted to utilize this book as a framework for my advising group (RSA), but discovered much more for myself after reading it thoroughly. After six months (yes, it took me that long) I finished the book and am glad to provide you some insight on the book.
For those who don’t know about The Leadership Challenge, it was written as a leadership development program and highlights the practices leaders engage in. It focuses on participatory leadership compared to positional or situational leadership. The book outlines five practices of exemplary leadership: Model the way, Inspire a shared vision, Challenge the Process, Enable others to act, and Encourage the heart.
Model the way refers to leading by example. There were several sections in this area that really spoke to me. A quote that really spoke to me was “Leadership begins with something that grabs hold of you and won’t let you go” (p. 52). The authors expressed that good leaders spend at least 10 percent of their day committed to the spirit of what they do. Leaders make visions and values tangible by aligning actions with values. As I read this chapter, I reflected on my daily behaviors. Do my behaviors reflect the values I want passed on to my staff? How do I know whether they understand and possess these values? An excellent strategy provided by the authors was story-telling, the art of sharing stories as a training, recruitment and hiring tool. Another strategy they provided was tradition setting, a powerful method to help staff feel empowered and receive recognition.
Inspire a Shared Vision refers to dream sharing with members; it talks about how to develop a shared sense of purpose and direction. This chapter emphasized credibility and caring as the framework of leadership. Without these two elements, leaders are not able to achieve their organization’s mission without the assistance of everyone. A great quote by the Chinese philosopher Lao Tse wraps up this concept of inspiration: “Tell me, I may listen. Teach me, I may remember. Involve me, I will do it” (p. 162). I love this quote because it speaks to what I hold dear regarding learning–that it occurs through a purposeful and intentional experience.
Challenge the process refers to making change by doing, and challenging the status quo. It’s about throwing out template agendas and routines and exploring the possibilities. I really enjoyed this chapter. One exercise the chapter proposes is conducting an idea gathering activity: “Call three people (students/staff) who haven’t used your services (or that you have interacted with) and ask them why. Call three recent students you have interacted with and ask them why. Make sure that you devote at 25% of every weekly staff meeting to listening to outside ideas for improving processes and technologies and developing new products and services” (p. 203). I have taken this to heart by asking those tough questions such as “Why we do things?” and “How we can improve?”. This is necessary if we really want to put the student at the center of everything we do. The concept that leaders are experimenters, doers, and failures really hit home for me. I often feel that I cannot make change at my work, although I try every day to make or create something new that I think will be for the betterment of our students. When something doesn’t get approved or requires more loopholes to jump through, I am nearly ready to give up; but when I reflect on this concept of “challenge the process” and the psychological hardiness one needs as a leader and a change agent, my strength is renewed.
The fourth practice is Enable others to act. This chapter highlights the importance of trust and mutual benefits. A sense of accountability, empowerment, and competence allows people to make an impact on the organization. In turn, they are more satisfied, engaged, and connected to the organization. This chapter has a great exercise called the “leaders coach” that focuses on fostering accountability (p. 298). The leader is seen as a mentor or a coach, who is responsible for creating a climate within which others feel enabled enlarge their sphere of influence.
The last practice focuses on Encouraging the heart. It’s about the celebration and acknowledgements of others, not just yourself. It involves adequate praise and social support. This chapter is full of ideas about how to recognize people, from the “bragging board” to “community tour”. I love recognition and applauding those who have done a good job. Writing monthly OTMs (Of the Month) through the NRHH website is part of my monthly routine. I challenge my staff to highlight a student once a week who has made a difference in his or her floor community. There is so much potential in our students and our staff, but we often “run out of time” to celebrate their work. I challenge you to permanently schedule in your calendar times you will demonstrate your care and provide social support to those you oversee. You’ll be amazed at how good you will feel and how much the action of recognition impacts others.
The biggest message I received from this re-read was that leadership is an affair of the heart and that it should come from love. The focus of the leadership challenge is not on positional leadership, but rather on participatory leadership. It is not about me as the lone leader. It’s about others and their experience with me. At the same time, it IS about me as an exemplary leader. I have to model the way and challenge the system. I have to create systems that enable others while inspiring them to greatness. I have to applaud our accomplishments and create a space for that. Only through all this work can love conquer all.
Kouzes, J., and Posner, B. (2007). The Leadership Challenge. CA: Jossey Bass.
Licinia “Lulu” Barrueco Kaliher, Ed.D., is a Ray Street Complex Director at the University of Delaware.