#406  from Innovative Leader Volume 8, Number 6          June 1999

Challenge Is the Opportunity for Greatness
by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner, Ph.D.

Mr. Kouzes is chairman of Tom Peters Group Learning Systems in Palo Alto, California and Dr. Posner is Dean of the Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University.  They are the authors of The Leadership Challenge, Credibility, and Encouraging the Heart (Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 1995, 1993, 1999).

Take out a piece of paper and draw a line down the center. Now think of  the people you consider leaders. They can either be contemporary or historical. Think about the men and women who you believe have led their organizations, communities, states and nations. Write their names in the left-hand column.  In the right-hand column opposite each name, record the events or actions with which you identify these individuals. When you think of each of these people, with what situations do you associate them?

Now review this list. Here is what we predict you’ll find: If some of the leaders are business people, you have associated them with the turnaround of failing companies, the start-up of entrepreneurial ventures, the development of new lines of products or services, or other business transformations. For those on your list who are leaders in government, the military, the arts, the community, or the church we would predict a similar kind of association. Most likely you identify them with social transformations. When we think of leaders we recall times of turbulence, conflict, innovation and change.

But we need not investigate well-known leaders to discover that all leadership is associated with pioneering efforts. In our study of personal best leadership cases involving thousands of managers across the globe we were struck by the fact that all the cases were about significant change. Regardless of function, regardless of industry, regardless of level, the managers in our study talked about times when they led adventures into new territory. They told us how they turned around losing operations, started up new plants, installed untested procedures, or greatly improved the results of poor-performing units.

In talking about their best leadership experiences, people chose to focus on times of change. They did not choose to write about stability and the status quo. This attitude was summed up by one senior executive: "Leadership requires changing the business as usual environment.”

The case of Patricia M. Carrigan was typical. Carrigan was the first female assembly plant manager in General Motors history. The task she faced was awesome: Turn around GM’s most troubled plants.  Within two years that plant became an entirely different place. Its successes were evident in the fact that it became the first plant in GM history to attain the widely accepted corporate standard for high quality in the first published audit after start-up.

The results were testimony to the unprecedented cooperation between management and labor, but were also a tribute to one leader's willingness to accept the challenge of change.  Says Carrigan: "The challenge is posed by what's out there and by our need to survive. The ability to participate in that challenge and to make it a shared challenge in the organization is an incredible task for a leader. The question is, ‘How are you going to that?’ If you're going to expect an organization to take some risks, you have to show some willingness to do that too.”

Leaders Are Change Agents

So one of the first lessons we learned from our leadership research is that leaders are change agents and innovators. At the same time, we found that people do not need to be entrepreneurs to lead. Neither must they be intrapreneurs--an entrepreneur inside a corporation. In fact, we maintain that the majority of leadership in this world is neither entrepreneurial nor intrapreneurial. In our research, we found that well over half the cases were initiated by someone other than the leader (usually this person was the immediate manager).

Some take this finding as discouraging. It is seen as a lack of initiation on the part of our managerial personnel. We see it otherwise. If we examine our own careers as managers, we realize that much, if not most, of what we do is assigned. Many of us don’t get to start everything we do from scratch. We don’t always get to hire all our people, choose all our colleagues, decide on all the products and services. That's just the reality of business.

We’re actually encouraged to find a substantial number of examples of exceptional leadership in situations which were not self-initiated. We would be terribly pessimistic if the only times people report doing their best is when they get to be the founder and CEO. That would rule out a whole lot of people and the majority of business opportunities.

Whether one is an entrepreneur, an intrepreneur, or just a manager, the leadership attitude is what makes the difference. That attitude is characterized by a posture of challenging the existing process. Leaders are individuals who find opportunities to alter the status quo, whether they found the company or not. They view every job as an opportunity to change the business-as-usual environment.

The Intrinsically Motivating Environment

Another clue to success in leadership came when we reviewed the answers to this item on our personal-best questionnaire: "What five or six words would you use to best describe the character (the feel, the spirit, the nature, the quality) of this experience?"

In coding the responses, the most frequently used words were “challenging,” “rewarding” and “exciting.” Words signifying intensity--“dedication,” “intense,” “commitment,” “determination”--and inspiration--“inspiring,” “uplifting,” “motivating,” “energizing”--also appeared regularly.  “Unique,” “important,” “proud” and “empowering” also got a fair share.  Fully 95% of the cases were described in these terms.

Whether it is overcoming adversity or creating something unique and new, an exciting challenge is the context most conducive to doing our best as leaders. Enterprising situations contribute to a sense of personal achievement and self-worth. Boring tasks don’t promote leadership or high performance.

What made the leaders' projects exciting and challenging was the nature of the tasks themselves. It was the intrinsic value of the work that stimulated and motivated them. It was the chance to solve a unique problem, discover something new, explore uncharted territory that energized them. It was definitely not the extrinsic rewards that drove our leaders to perform at their best.

There’s an old management cliché that says: "What gets rewarded gets done." So the business world offers a lot of extrinsic rewards to get people to perform. Money, stock options, bonuses, perks, prestige or position are all some of the carrots we dangle. Our study leads us to conclude something radically different. It’s not what gets rewarded that gets extraordinary things done in organizations.  Not at all. It’s what is rewarding that causes people to excel.

Whether it’s doing our best as leaders or individual contributors, answering the summons of adventure lifts our spirits. There ‘s something about being invited to do better than we have ever done before that compels us to reach deep down inside and bring forth the warrior within.

The lessons for leadership are clear. First, for leaders to perform at their personal bests they must experience the project itself as enjoyable and challenging. They must feel it is one which calls upon them to use all of their skills and talents to the fullest. Second, if leaders wish to get the best from others, they must search for opportunities for people to create or outdo themselves. Leaders must find opportunities for people to solve problems, make discoveries, explore new ground, reach a difficult goal or figure out how to deal with an external threat. And they must make it fun.

Third, leaders must know their people. In order to find the proper balance between action opportunities and individual skills, leaders must know what others can do and what they find personally challenging. It’s not just what challenges the leader that’s important. It’s what challenges everyone and is within their capabilities to perform.

Action Commitments

Here are some suggestions on how you can search for challenging opportunities in your leadership role:

1. Treat every job as an adventure. Even if you’ve been in your job for years, treat today as if it were your first day. Ask yourself, "If I were just starting this job what would I do?" Chances are you would do some things differently. Begin doing those things now.

2. Treat every new assignment as a turnaround, even if it isn't. Ask for a tough assignment. Ask your managers to give you an opportunity to take on that losing operation. Challenge is the training ground for leadership. There’s no better way for you to test your own limits than to voluntarily place yourself in difficult jobs.

3. Question the status quo. Right now make a list of all the practices in your organization that fit this description: "That's the way we’ve always done it around here.”  For each one ask yourself: "How useful is this to becoming the best we can become? How useful is this to stimulating creativity and innovation?" If your answers are, "Absolutely essential," then keep it. If not, find a way to change it. Review all the policies and procedures. Ask yourself the same question and take the same action. Vow to eliminate every stupid rule and every needless routine within the next quarter.

4. Go out and find something that is broken. There's is an old cliché that says "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Nothing could stifle innovation more than that attitude. There’s always something that needs fixing in every organization. Go find the things that need fixing in yours. Wander around the plant, the store, the branch, or the office. Look for things that don’t seem right. Ask questions. Probe.

5. Add adventure to every job. Leaders are not the only ones who do their best when challenged. All of us do. For people to excel, they must find what they do intrinsically motivating--rewarding in and of itself. Challenge, we’ve learned, is the key ingredient in activities that are enjoyable. Look for ways to add challenge to the jobs of people in your unit.

You can do this by asking people to join you in solving problems or by asking them for creative ideas. Or by delegating more than just the routine jobs, like filling out forms. The magic of quality circles is challenge. People who were previously never asked for the time of day, are now given the problem-solving tools and the opportunity to contribute.

6. Make the adventure fun. Find ways to make the job fun for yourself and others. If you aren’t having fun doing what you’re doing, chances are you’re not doing the best you can do. And the same is true for others.

We’re not talking about a laugh-a-minute party here. Every moment cannot be fun, but the overall experience can be. There’s absolutely no reason why every employee cannot be given the opportunity to solve a problem, create a process, or learn a new operation.

When it comes to getting extraordinary things done in organizations, challenge provides the opportunity for greatness. The first leadership challenge is to find those opportunities to change, grow, innovate and improve. We wish you an exciting journey.

© 1999 James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner.  All rights reserved.

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