The Truth about Leadership: Kouzes and Posner

The common perception of Leadership is very much paradoxical. On one hand, people acknowledge that it is a skill to be honed, but on the other hand, institutions and corporations alike select individuals that seem more promising than the rest based on criteria that range from their demeanour to academic excellence. Bestselling authors James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner offer better perspective on leadership in their 2010 book, The Truth about Leadership.

1- The Truth is that You Make a Difference.

Kouzes and Posner introduces the first truth as a critical yet commonly overlooked facet of leadership: our mindset. In their own words, everyone can be a leader, all it takes is a change in attitude, a conscious choice to move from questioning “Will I make a difference?” towards “What difference will I make?” However, most fail to achieve or even discover their latent potential because they simply do not understand their own capacity to create change, instead they busy themselves with finding leaders in others.

Therefore, for most budding leaders, the journey to become a leader requires a two-fold change in mindset.

Firstly, we have to start looking inwards. The crux of this section is this: the capability to lead is intrinsic to us all. Many times, when we encounter challenges, we look outwards for leaders to follow or guide us. But, in reality we already possess all the tools needed to make the first step. To develop your latent potential, focus on these Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership.

This model emerged from Kouzes and Posner’s research on effectual leadership. Individuals that exemplify these practices had notable positive impact on their constituents and others they work with. Believe in your own ability and take ownership as a leader and drive the change you wish to see!

Secondly, leaders are closer than you think. Being a leader is not prerogative to those in the spotlight- based on Kouzes and Posner’s research, those that create a personal impact are more likely than prominent figures to be considered role models. You don’t have to possess money or status to take initiative, you can lead others from any position and at any capacity! What is important is for us to take initiative and lead.

2 - The Truth is that Credibility is the Foundation of Leadership

Relationships are usually centred around expectations, and leadership is no exception. Though much focus have been placed on what leaders expect from their workers, the opposite holds weight too. For all that leadership starts with believing in yourself, it can only continue if others believe in you as well.

Research has shown that the source of credibility comes from one being trustworthy, possessing expertise in a relevant domain and being dynamic. These form the foundation for one to become an admired leader whom constituents are willing to follow. In other words, credibility is the foundation of admired leadership.

Kouzes and Posner have found that the top four characteristics that people voted for admired leadership are honest, forward-looking, inspiring, and competent.

A way to understand what these four characteristics truly mean is to consult the Real® Leaders Framework as researched and designed by Dr. Lily Cheng and Dr. Peter Cheng.

The expectations of honesty correspond with the essentials of character and credibility that shape culture in the Who-Ness of real leaders. Real leaders build their character based on their values that are intertwined with ethical and moral principles. In short, they embrace values that are able to withstand the scrutiny of ethical and moral standards. The secular world has witnessed too many leaders of all levels, who have derailed and fell from grace as a result of the bad values they upheld.

In the natural order of things, when leaders demonstrate a credible character, they are worthy of their constituents’ trust and followership. This necessitates a self-reflection for leaders to keep their values in check against ethical and moral standards and make deliberated efforts to ensure they live out the worthy values to earn the followership of their people they lead.

Next, the expectation to be inspiring and forward-looking is comparable to the essentials of conviction with courage. People expect leaders to possess genuine enthusiasm and optimism as it serves as a sign of high commitment and clarity regarding the direction for the future. Beyond understanding their leader’s vision, people also want to know where they come into play. Whether their aspirations align with that of their leader’s will determine their degree of commitment to the cause.

Lastly, the expectation of being competent identifies with the essential of competence in the What-Ness of Real Leaders. People will only follow leaders that have reliably proven to get things done and have the skills to follow through on the promises that they make. For leaders, this necessitates self-awareness: to understand your own capability and possess the courage to admit when you don’t know something but are capable of learning.

3 - The Truth Is That Values drives Commitment

Understanding a person and the decisions they make goes far beyond browsing their job resume and current work responsibilities. Even for ourselves, it is imperative for us to reflect and understand our own values as it dictates two things: (a) decision-making especially during times of strife and (b) what and how much you will commit to.

Kouzes and Posner found that people who are clear on their personal values are not only substantially more committed to their organisations, their commitment is also unfazed by their clarity of the organisation’s values. This means that personal values is most influential in determining the degree to which individuals commit.

Simply put, our values make up the crux of who we are, and shape every aspect of our existence- our moral compass, openness and priorities. As such, being certain of your values breeds the confidence to assert yourself and acting with determination, which only comes with being certain of your decisions. In turn, this higher degree of self-awareness will translate into heightened efficacy in individual performance, leadership and performance of constituents as well.

As illustrated earlier, it is imperative for leaders to reflect on whether their values withstand the scrutiny of ethical and morals principles. Failing which, leaders might face the possibility of living in their own world of values that might lose the followership of their people.

4 - The Truth Is That Focusing on the Future sets Leaders Apart

Think back to the top four characteristics Kouzes and Posner found that workers expect from their leaders- honesty, forward-looking, inspiring, and competence. Three of the above characteristics honesty, inspiring, and competence can be classified as source credibility”, which makes a person credible. However, one characteristic remains- being forward-looking.

The ability to look ahead is the defining competency of leaders, an expectation that is above and beyond the responsibilities expected of a regular team member. Visualising the potential impacts on stakeholders, anticipating future challenges and coming up with pre-emptive measures are necessary abilities of successful leaders.

Taking the next step from being a contributor to a leader requires developing and eventually mastering the ability to anticipate the future. Leaders need to dedicate time and consistent effort into actively visualising the future of the organisation and the wider economy. It help to heed The World Future Society’s recommendation, to classify future trends according to six distinct categories: demographic, economics, government, environment, society, and technology.

Furthermore, it is important for leaders to remind their constituents of the bigger picture. In the context of the current shift to remote work, it has become easier for workers to develop tunnel-vision on the minute details and lose sight of the company’s overall vision. Failure to consider the future might otherwise spell doom if leaders remain unprepared for whats to come.

5 - The Truth is That You Can’t do it Alone

Leadership is about the relationship between leaders and their constituents: how they treat and feel about each other. As such, the success of leaders is very much contingent on their ability to connect with their team members and get them to collaborate effectively. Remember- Leadership is a team sport, it requires collaborative effort and focus, which is not always centred around the leader.

Next, forming a connection requires communication- not just speaking, but also listening. Understanding the perspective of team members and being cognisant of their needs requires investing time into speaking and more importantly listening to them.

As Kouzes and Posner put it: “When leaders are in tune with the emotions of others, they create resonance between leader and constituent and among constituents, much like the musicians when their instruments are in tune. Insensitive, tone-deaf leaders drive negative emotions and create dissonance in a group. This discord is highly destructive to the group’s functioning. Only resonant leaders generate the amplification that enables groups to produce exceptional results.”

Beyond communication and understanding, leaders can best establish a true connection with their constituents by assuring them of a shared vision. Here, the team members must be able to see how the organisation’s and leader’s plans will help them achieve their own aspirations.

But connecting with constituents is just the beginning, Kouzes and Posner’s research revealed that the ability to empower is a mark of great leaders. Great leaders are able to use their understanding and connection with their constituents to motivate them to perform better and show them sufficient support to bolster their self-belief.

One way to empower team members is to ask questions. The act of asking questions allows constituents to form unique ideas and solutions, and this autonomy also serves to establish a sense of belief in the constituents.

6 - The Truth is That TRUST Rules

There’s a positive relationship between trust and performance: the more people trust, the more they’ll do.

When people feel secure and trust that you and the organisation will protect their welfare, they will focus on meeting higher-order needs of greater importance to the organisation. Examples of these activities include forming strong and cohesive relationships, mastering tasks, achieving organisational objectives, and learning new skills and knowledge necessary to prepare for future assignments.

Trust is the framework that supports all relationships, but building that structure of trust begins when one person takes a risk and opens up to another. If you’re the leader in the relationship, that person needs to be you. Moreover, Trust (although intangible) is built through very tangible ways. The first step is to demonstrate to others that you have both the character (honesty and integrity) and the abilities (competence and expertise) to do your job and to look out for their welfare.

Research has shown that a few key behaviours contribute to whether others perceive you as trustworthy- here are 4 actions to keep in mind:

7 - The Truth is That Challenge is the Crucible for Greatness

Think about the admired leaders in history- the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Mohandas Gandhi and Nelson Mandela- do you know what they have in common? They almost always encounter and lead others through major strife and injustice.

Even in our own lives, the personal best leadership cases involve triumphs over adversity and doing things that had never been done before- they are all about challenge and change. Leadership is how people guide others through uncertainty, hardship, and other significant challenges. Besides challenges, leadership also involves attempts to disrupt the status quo even during normality, which will awaken new possibilities and opportunities.

Nonetheless, challenges remain the greatest catalyst that breeds leaders. Why? That is because challenges force you to face yourself- when you are backed into a corner you will be forced to reconsider what is important and what you value. Many people that have experienced life-threatening, even torturous circumstances, have found ways to turn them into tests of strength and determination.

However, most stumbling blocks are more personal and not newsworthy at all. Kouzes and Posner highlight Sam Liu’s experience- Liu was a front-line manager, who oversaw shuttle truck operations between Hong Kong and Shenzhen, China, which suffered from excessive waiting times. Although this was considered a low-level process, Liu and his counterparts developed a new truck order processing system that substantially improved efficacy and conserved hours of waiting time, illustrating the importance of challenging the process.

Ultimately, regardless of scale, challenges serve as a double-edged sword. Challenges can either expose or enhance your level of commitment and resilience towards the bigger picture as it they are required to learn from mistakes and overcome adversity. Facing challenges and failures are part and parcel of experimenting with new ideas and trying for change, but it is necessary that lessons are learnt from these mistakes and put into practise.

8 - The Truth is That You either Lead by Example or You Don’t Lead at all

Can you recall? Modelling the Way is one of five practices that comprise of Kouzes and Posner’s exemplary leadership. While the need to lead by example is certainly not groundbreaking news, applying it in practise remains a challenge for most. When it comes to modelling the way, leaders have to use their two tools- what they say and how they act:

a) What you say- Leaders must clarify their personal values.

The first step is communication, the shared values expected of one another must be clearly established by the leader. Much of getting the team to buy-into a shared vision is contingent on the mutual trust between the leader and their team (Recall Truth 2: the Truth is that Credibility is the Foundation of Leadership). Remember to stay true to your word and own up to your mistakes!

b) How you act- Leaders must align their actions to the shared values of the company.

Nonetheless, just discussing beliefs and values is not enough, as the saying goes “you’ve got to walk the talk”. Even when a team agrees in theory, not every individual might truly comprehend what sacrifices aligning themselves with the shared values will truly take.

In Kouzes and Posner’s own words: “A leader must go beyond just talking about organisational values—such as customers are always right—you must demonstrate how to do this!”

9 - The Best Leaders are the Best Learners

Do you still remember the first truth? The crux of which implores us to rethink our conception of leadership- leaders can be anyone and come from anywhere, requiring the self-belief in your own capability to make a difference. In the same vein, leadership can be honed, and the best leaders work on improving their skills and abilities incessantly, regardless of how much they have already achieved.

Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck associates those that believe in leaders being born with a fixed mindset, which refers to the belief that “your qualities are carved in stone”, without any potential to grow. Those with a fixed mindset will subsequently be less willing to put forth the time and effort needed to become better than you already are. On the flip side, those that possess a growth mindset, which refers to people that believe that you can learn new skills no matter your present level of performance and active training and development will pay off, are more likely to do what it takes to improve.

10 - The Truth is That Leadership is an Affair of the Heart

Just by looking at the depiction of leaders in pop-culture, such as Donald Trump in the US reality TV show ‘The Apprentice’, it is easy to notice a prevailing notion of successful leaders as highly pragmatic and cut-throat. In their own words, Kouzes and Posner acknowledged that “there’s a prevailing myth that managers are supposed to divorce their emotions from a situation and approach things purely rationally.” However, things have been proven otherwise.

Kouzes and Posner go on to share their research that the highest performing managers and leaders are the most open and caring, whereas lower performing leaders tend to be less affectionate, open and encouraging.

Think back to the Real® Leaders’ Framework- can you recall the competencies of compassion and character? Although these competencies are not widely spoken about in the organisational context, most recounts of best leadership experiences involve a heartfelt exchange with their leaders. Leaders and team members will develop a more human connection when they are engaged with people they care about and doing things that really matter to them.

So can you forge a human connection with your constituents? Here are three areas of focus that will help you show them you care!

Ultimately, The Truth about Leadership helps serve as a guide for leaders to take a few steps to develop themselves, regardless of their status or stage of life. But, it is only a smart part of Kouzes and Posner’s research into leadership, which includes renowned The Leadership Challenge. To discover more about the works of Kouzes and Posner or the Real® Leaders Framework, contact us at or visit our website.

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