Leader Volume 8, Number 6
Challenge Is the Opportunity for
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,
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.”
Are Change Agents
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).
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
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.
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.
Intrinsically Motivating Environment
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?"
coding the responses, the most frequently used words were
“challenging,” “rewarding” and “exciting.” Words
signifying intensity--“dedication,” “intense,”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
are some suggestions on how you can search for challenging
opportunities in your leadership role:
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.