My Leadership Challenge
Full disclosure, my favorite leadership book of all time is The Leadership Challenge by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner. The book is in its 6th edition, sold more than 2 million copies, and translated into 22 languages, so I am not the only one who feels this way. I was introduced to this work in 2006 during my Seton Hall University Master of Arts in Strategic Communication & Leadership program. After having experienced a cadre of tyrannical leaders over the years, I held out hope that there had to be a better way to lead. Fortunately, Kouzes and Posner showed me and millions of others that there is.
First published in 1987, the world has been in constant flux, yet the five exemplary leadership practices and their ten commitments have stood the test of time. My most recent leadership challenge involved a request from Warden Exchange, a program run by Prison Fellowship. Their challenge to me? Connect the five exemplary leadership practices and ten commitments from The Leadership Challenge with the frameworks and models found in my most recent book, Peernovation: What Peer Advisory Groups Can Teach Us About Building High-Performing Teams.
Warden Exchange convenes solutions-minded corrections officials seeking to help transform prisoners’ lives so they can rejoin society as good citizens upon release. It facilitates peer-to-peer experiences for prison wardens and their teams throughout the US (and now internationally) so the participants can learn from one another. From time to time, they ask me to present content and guide peer-to-peer exchanges that help members maximize their experience together. I have enjoyed the privilege of working with Warden Exchange since 2016.
While I am not a certified Leadership Challenge facilitator, the heart of what they wanted required my creating clarity about the relationship between the two books. Before this request, I never overtly made the connection. Yet once I did, I was astounded at how Peernovation’s primary frameworks fit hand in glove with The Leadership Challenge and serve as powerful reinforcing elements to its five exemplary leadership practices.
Here are the five exemplary leadership practices, followed by a sampling of how Peernovation’s frameworks support Kouzes and Posner’s seminal work:
- Model the Way
- Inspire a Shared Vision
- Challenge the Process
- Enable Others to Act
- Encourage the Heart.
Modeling the Way involves being clear about your values and living those values. Walking the talk, if you will. A central tenet of Peernovation is that the leader is a part of the team, not apart from it. It’s not about having a leader at one side of the table barking orders and pointing fingers. It’s about being in it together and accepting shared responsibility for the outcome, whether it involves achieving a specific goal or how much the team celebrates small wins. It’s easier to model the way if you are a part of the team rather than apart from it.
Inspiring a Shared Vision serves as the ultimate expression of your values. It includes envisioning the future by imagining noble possibilities and appealing to shared aspirations. Replace the word values with aspirations in the Team Triad Model, where everyone shares responsibility for the outcome, and the aspirations are genuinely shared. Not compliant with the leader’s aspirations – embraced by everyone on the team.
As Kouzes and Posner describe it, Challenging the Process encompasses searching for opportunities by seizing the initiative and looking outward for innovative ways to improve and experiment, and taking risks by constantly generating small wins and learning from experience. One should challenge the process not as a naysayer but in pursuit of living the values and striving toward shared aspirations. When the way you’ve always done it doesn’t square with who you are and where you want to go, you want to be free to ask questions and resolve misalignment. It may require a small yet significant change to an existing process or entirely reimagining the situation. As Oren Harari once said, “The electric light did not come from the improvement of candles.” In either case, employ an iterative process, learn as you go, and celebrate small wins.
Peernovation’s Five Factor framework includes having a psychologically safe environment and employees willing to leverage that environment by asking questions, contributing ideas, and challenging the process in the positive pursuit of something larger than themselves. It also requires a commitment to an iterative process, as illustrated in Peernovation’s Learning-Achieving Cycle. As a result of connecting my work with the findings from The Leadership Challenge, it moved me to improve The Learning-Achieving Cycle by adding the word “Celebrating.” Celebrating small wins is essential and deserves to be called out specifically in the model.
Enabling Others to Act speaks to building trust, facilitating relationships among team members, increasing self-determination, and developing competence. Doing so requires a certain level of intentionality by all involved. Peernovation’s Five Factor Framework is ideal for guiding conversations that create clarity, build unity, and promote empowerment.
Encouraging the Heart involves expressing appreciation for individual excellence and celebrating values and victories by creating a spirit of community. During my sessions with the wardens and their team members, I asked them to name and describe the best leader they’ve ever had during their careers. In every case, their descriptions always included an element of how that leader encouraged their heart. They waxed poetic about leaders (past and present) because of how they made them feel. All three Peernovation models shown here play a role in promoting how we encourage everyone’s heart.
Yes, I am writing this piece on a Thursday, but Thankful Thursday was a practice among many offered by the wardens and their teams to encourage the heart. It’s a day when everyone writes handwritten notes to one another about something they appreciated in a co-worker during the previous week. Everybody looks forward to it, and best of all, it inspires a spirit of kindness on the other six days, both at work and home.
I am thankful for the time I spent with the Warden Exchange over the past two weeks. I am also grateful for accepting a challenge that helped me reconnect more deeply with The Leadership Challenge and inspired me to (as Adam Grant would say) “Think Again” about Peernovation’s Learning-Achieving Cycle. Learning is an iterative process indeed.
Thank you all.
Written by Leo Bottary.
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