[Note: This post was updated July 2020 for freshness & clarity.]
“The notion that there are only a few great people who can lead others to greatness is just plain wrong. Likewise, it is wrong to suggest that leaders come only from large, or small, or already great, or new organizations, or from established economies, or from certain industries, functions, or disciplines. The truth is leadership is an identifiable set of skills and abilities that are available to anyone.”
—Jim Kouzes & Barry Posner
This paragraph succinctly sums up the book:
“The Leadership Challenge is about how leaders mobilize others to want to get extraordinary things done in organizations. It’s about the practices leaders use to transform values into actions, visions into realities, obstacles into innovations, separateness into solidarity, and risks into rewards. It’s about leadership that makes a positive difference in the workplace and creates the climate in which people turn challenging opportunities into remarkable successes” (Kouzes & Posner, 2017, p. xi).
The first edition of The Leadership Challenge came out in 1987. The fifth edition (2012) marked the 25th anniversary of the book and the sixth edition (2017) marks the 30th anniversary. The sixth edition has been revised to address current challenges and includes more international examples and a focus on business issues.
It is remarkable how The Leadership Challenge and The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership model have withstood the test of time and continue to be so well received. I think two factors play important roles in its longevity: (1) The Leadership Challenge is evidence-based, and (2) Kouzes & Posner are skilled in nicely weaving case studies of real people demonstrating the practices of exemplary leadership throughout the book that it actually reads and flows well.
At the heart of The Leadership Challenge is The Five Practices framework, which resulted from analysis of thousands of case studies and millions of survey responses (Kouzes & Posner, 2017). Kouzes and Posner illustrate The Five Practices framework with hundreds of examples of real people doing real things. With each new edition of the book, the research, stories/cases, and examples of what people do when they are at their best as leaders are updated.
“The more we research and write about leadership, the more confident we become that leadership is within the grasp of everyone. The opportunities for leadership are boundless and boundaryless” (Kouzes & Posner, 2017, p. xii).
“While the context of leadership has changed dramatically over the years, the content of leadership has not changed much at all. The fundamental behaviors and actions of leaders have remained essentially the same, and they are as relevant today as they were when [Kouzes and Posner] began [their] study of exemplary leadership” (Kouzes & Posner, 2017, p. 13).
Kouzes and Posner began and continue with a very basic question, “What did you do when you were at your personal best as a leader?” The stories, behaviors, and actions that the leaders described led to the creation of The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership® model. “When leaders do their best, they Model the Way, Inspire a Shared Vision, Challenge the Process, Enable Others to Act, and Encourage the Heart” (Kouzes & Posner, 2017, p. xii).
According to Kouzes and Posner, the Ten Commitments of Leadership—the essential behaviors that leaders employ to make extraordinary things happen—explain the fundamental principles that support each of The Five Practices.
- Practice #1: Model the Way
- Commitment 1. Clarify values by finding your voice and affirming shared values.
- Commitment 2. Set the example by aligning actions with shared values.
- Practice #2: Inspire a Shared Vision
- Commitment 3. Envision the future by imagining exciting and ennobling possibilities.
- Commitment 4. Enlist others in a common vision by appealing to shared aspirations.
- Practice #3: Challenge the Process
- Commitment 5. Search for opportunities by seizing the initiative and looking outward for innovative ways to improve.
- Commitment 6. Experiment and take risks by constantly generating small wins and learning from experience.
- Practice #4: Enable Others to Act
- Commitment 7. Foster collaboration by building trust and facilitating relationships.
- Commitment 8. Strengthen others by increasing self-determination and developing competence.
- Practice #5: Encourage the Heart
- Commitment 9. Recognize contributions by showing appreciation for individual excellence.
- Commitment 10. Celebrate the values and victories by creating a spirit of community.
After analyzing thousands of leadership experiences, Kouzes and Posner found, and continue to find, that “regardless of the times or settings, individuals who guide others along pioneering journeys follow surprisingly similar paths. Although each experience was unique in its individual expression, there were clearly identifiable behaviors and actions that made a difference” (Kouzes & Posner, 2017, p. 12).
When making extraordinary things happen in organizations, leaders engage in The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership (Model the Way, Inspire a Shared Vision, Challenge the Process, Enable Others to Act, and Encourage the Heart).
“These leadership practices are not the private purview of the people we studied. Nor do they belong to a few select shining stars. Leadership is not about personality. It’s about behavior. The Five Practices are available to anyone who accepts the leadership challenge—the challenge of taking people and organizations to places they have never been before. It is the challenge of moving beyond the ordinary to the extraordinary” (Kouzes & Posner, 2017, p. 13).
Practice #1: Model the Way
“To effectively Model the Way, you must first be clear about your own guiding principles. You must clarify values by finding your voice” (Kouzes & Posner, 2017, p. 14). However, because a leader’s values don’t exist in a vacuum, he will also need to affirm the shared values of the group.
“No one will believe you’re serious until they see you doing what you’re asking of others. You either lead by example or don’t lead at all.” —Jim Kouzes & Barry Posner
“Deeds are far more important than words when constituents want to determine how serious leaders really are about what they say. Words and deeds must be consistent” (Kouzes & Posner, 2017, p. 14).
Practice #2: Inspire a Shared Vision
Leaders imagine an exciting and attractive future for their organizations. They envision and dream about what could be and they wholeheartedly believe in those dreams, and they’re confident in being able to make extraordinary things happen.
“Leaders envision the future by imagining exciting and ennobling possibilities” (Kouzes & Posner, 2017, p. 15). They need to make something happen, change how things are, and create something that no one has created before.
“You can’t command commitment; you have to inspire it. You have to enlist others in a common vision by appealing to shared aspirations” (Kouzes & Posner, 2017, p. 15).
Practice #3: Challenge the Process
“Challenge is the crucible for greatness. Every single personal-best leadership case involved a change from the status quo. Not one person achieved a personal best by keeping things the same” (Kouzes & Posner, 2017, p. 16).
“Leaders are pioneers willing to step out into the unknown. However, leaders aren’t the only creators or originators of new products, services, or processes. Innovation comes more from listening than from telling, and from constantly looking outside of yourself and your organization for new and innovative products, processes, and services” (Kouzes & Posner, 2017, p. 16).
Practice #4: Enable Others to Act
“Grand dreams don’t become significant realities through the actions of a single person. Achieving greatness requires a team effort. It requires solid trust and enduring relationships. It requires group collaboration and individual accountability” (Kouzes & Posner, 2017, p. 17).
“[C]onstituents don’t perform at their best or stick around for very long if they feel weak, dependent, or alienated. When you strengthen others by increasing self-determination and developing competence, they are more likely to give it their all and exceed their own expectations” (Kouzes & Posner, 2017, p. 18).
Practice #5: Encourage the Heart
“Being a leader requires showing appreciation for people’s contributions and creating a culture of celebrating the values and victories by creating a spirit of community” (Kouzes & Posner, 2017, p. 19).
“Believing in others is an extraordinarily powerful force in propelling greater performance.” —Jim Kouzes & Barry Posner
Encouraging the heart is not about being pretentious or phony in order to create a false sense of camaraderie. It is not something you can fake. “Celebrations and rituals, when done in an authentic way and from the heart, build a strong sense of collective identity and community spirit that can carry a group through extraordinarily tough times” (Kouzes & Posner, 2017, p. 19).
The Five Practices Make a Difference
“Exemplary leader behavior makes a profoundly positive difference in people’s commitment and performance at work.”
—Jim Kouzes & Barry Posner
The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership are the core leadership competencies that emerged from Kouzes & Posner’s analysis of thousands of Personal-Best Leadership Experience cases.
“These five leadership practices—Model the Way, Inspire a Shared Vision, Challenge the Process, Enable Others to Act, and Encourage the Heart—provide an operating system for what people are doing as leaders when they are at their best, and there’s abundant empirical evidence that these leadership practices matter. Hundreds of studies have reported that The Five Practices make a positive difference in the engagement and performance of people and organizations” Kouzes & Posner, 2017, p. 20).
After reviewing responses from more than three million people around the world to the Leadership Practices Inventory (LPI), a 360-degree instrument assessing how often leaders engage in The Five Practices, Kouzes and Posner said this:
“Those leaders who more frequently use The Five Practices are considerably more effective than their counterparts who use them less frequently” (Kouzes & Posner, 2017, p. 20).
How a leader behaves is what explains the difference in why people work hard, how committed they are, and their pride and productivity (Kouzes & Posner, 2017).
Leadership Is a Relationship
“No leader has ever gotten anything extraordinary done by working solo.” —Jim Kouzes & Barry Posner
“[L]eaders don’t make extraordinary things happen all by themselves” (Kouzes & Posner, 2017, p. 28).
“Leaders mobilize others to want to struggle for shared aspirations, and this means that, fundamentally, leadership is a relationship. Leadership is a relationship between those who aspire to lead and those who choose to follow” (Kouzes & Posner, 2017, p. 26).
What People Look For and Want from Their Leaders
Top 4 Characteristics of Admired Leaders (Kouzes & Posner, 2017):
“Honest, competent, inspiring, and forward-looking are the essential characteristics people want in a leader, someone whose direction they would willingly follow” (Kouzes & Posner, 2017, p. 39).
Incredibly, what people look for in a leader (a person who they would willingly follow) has been remarkably consistent over time (over three decades), and does not significantly vary across countries, cultures, ethnicities, organizational functions and hierarchies, genders, levels of education, and age groups (Kouzes & Posner, 2017).
Credibility Is the Foundation
“People want to follow leaders who are, more than anything, credible. Credibility is the foundation of leadership. Constituents must be able, above all else, to believe in their leaders. For them to willingly follow someone else, they must believe that the leader’s word can be trusted, that she is personally passionate and enthusiastic about the work, and that she has the knowledge and skill to lead” (Kouzes & Posner, 2012, p. 37).
“Constituents also must believe that their leader knows where they’re headed and has a vision for the future. An expectation that their leaders be forward-looking is what sets leaders apart from other credible individuals” (Kouzes & Posner, 2012, p. 37).
Kouzes-Posner First Law of Leadership: If you don’t believe in the messenger, you won’t believe the message.
Kouzes-Posner Second Law of Leadership: DWYSYWD—Do What You Say You Will Do.
What I Miss from the 5th Edition That Is Not in the 6th Edition:
In the 5th Edition, there’s a 1-page summary at the beginning of each of the five practices (i.e., Model the Way, Inspire a Shared Vision, Challenge the Process, Enable Others to Act, and Encourage the Heart). It’s great because it served as a brief introduction to each practice AND touched on each of the two Commitments. Each practice has two Commitments of Leadership [10 Commitments total; 2 Commitments for each of the 5 Practices; each Commitment has its very own chapter].
A Brief Comparison Between The 5th and 6th Editions:
For a short comparison between the 5th and 6th editions, I chose two cases. The first case is under the “Make Something Happen” section in the “Search for Opportunities” chapter. The second case is located under the “Educate and Share Information” section in the “Strengthen Others” chapter.
The 6th edition does a nicer job integrating real world examples and comments in support of the 10 commitments.
For instance, under the “Make Something Happen” section in the “Search for Opportunities” chapter, in the story about Emily Taylor and how she made something happen, I found that the 6th edition made better use of Emily’s own words to powerfully illustrate the idea that high performers work beyond their job descriptions and recognize opportunities that others do not (Kouzes & Posner, 2017). In the 5th edition, the example Kouzes and Posner (2012) provided [under the “Make Something Happen” section in the “Search for Opportunities” chapter] and their use of that person’s words weren’t as compelling in bringing that same idea (i.e., making something happen) to life.
Similarly, under the “Educate and Share Information” section in the “Strengthen Others” chapter, the real-life example of Jeff Allison’s situation (in the 6th edition) and how he was able to strengthen others by investing in time and initiatives that developed their skills and fostered their confidence was better than the example provided in the 5th edition — again, I believe it’s because Kouzes and Posner selected better real-life examples and made better use of the actual quotes to support the concepts being discussed as well as bring them to life.
What I Really Like:
There are 13 chapters in all in the 6th edition, with 10 chapters covering the Ten Commitments of Leadership (these are essential behaviors that leaders employ to make extraordinary things happen). The Ten Commitments of Leadership also explain the fundamental principles that support each of The Five Practices (Kouzes & Posner, 2017).
At the end of each of the Commitments of Leadership chapter (two chapters for each practice [10 Commitments total; 2 for each Practice]), there’s a very helpful and practical “Take Action” section that tells you “what you need to do to make this leadership practice an ongoing and natural part of your behavioral and attitudinal repertoire” (Kouzes & Posner, 2017, p. xiv).
Visually, two dramatic changes are welcomed surprises with the 6th edition of The Leadership Challenge. First, the updated charts and graphics to color really make the model and ideas more striking and appealing. Second, the 6th edition uses heavier and bright white paper to print the text on and this makes it much easier to read. I had a hard time reading the 5th edition because of the color of the paper (I’m referring to the hard copy of the book).
Summary: The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership model—the backbone of The Leadership Challenge book—states that leadership is an observable set of similar patterns of behavior (skills and abilities) that can be taught and learned by everyone. Three decades of research provide strong and enduring support for the model. When leaders are at their personal best, they demonstrate five core practices: they Model the Way, Inspire a Shared Vision, Challenge the Process, Enable Others to Act, and Encourage the Heart. Credibility is the foundation of every leader-follower relationship. For leaders to be viewed as credible, they need to consistently do what they say they will do (DWYSYWD). Finally, followers look for and expect four characteristics from their leaders (someone they would willingly follow): honest, competent, inspiring, and forward-looking. These four prerequisites for leadership have stood the test of time and geography.
The Leadership Challenge is a compelling, evidence-based, practical, and delightful masterpiece. Kouzes and Posner skillfully weave real examples and actual words of ordinary people achieving extraordinary things in their organizations throughout to support decades of empirical data. To ensure that they drive their points home, they include ten “Take Action” sections summarizing what you need to do to make each leadership practice a part of your daily repertoire. The result is an extremely robust, yet eminently practical model of leadership development. With substance (30 years’ worth of data and counting) and stories (hundreds of them) to bring the substance to life, The Leadership Challenge is a must-read for anyone interested in the study and practice of leadership. It is truly a book that should be required reading for both leaders and followers. As Kouzes and Posner aptly point out, we’re only able to see a complete picture of leadership by asking followers what they admire and look for in a leader. The Leadership Challenge earns my highest recommendation.
Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership + Talent Development Advisor
Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2012). The Leadership Challenge (5th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2017). The Leadership Challenge (6th ed.). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.
Disclosure: I received The Leadership Challenge (6th ed.) as a complimentary gift, but my book review was written as though I had purchased it.