What Is the Truth About Leadership? (Part 2 of 2)

Huffington Post

September 24, 2010

by Marshall Goldsmith

In my last blog, I posted excerpts of my interview with Jim Kouzes, co-author with Barry Posner of the award-winning, well-known, and classic book, The Leadership Challenge. Jim and Barry have written a new book called The Truth about Leadership, and recently I had the opportunity to ask Jim a few questions about his and Barry’s new book. Following are excerpts from our discussion.

MG: Who are some modern-day leaders who inspire you personally?

JK: The everyday leaders who step up to the leadership challenge inspire me daily. These aren’t the folks who are well known or who make the headlines or the covers of magazines. They’re the line managers, principals, coaches, community leaders, local officials, youth leaders, and others, who are taking the initiative to turn around a losing operation, or renew a decaying neighborhood, or create a winning team, or start a new business, or organize young people to plant trees. These are the leaders we mostly write about in our books, and they are the ones who give us hope and uplift our spirits. It’s these leaders who will restore our confidence and our economy. The truth is that you can make a difference.

Over the last couple of years, we’ve analyzed data from over a million people around the globe to assess the practices of leaders. The numbers reveal that the behavior of leaders explains more about why they feel engaged and positive about their workplaces than any particular individual or organizational characteristic. Factors like age, gender, ethnicity, function, position, nationality, organizational size, and the like, together account for less than one percent of the reason that people feel productive, motivated, energized, and the like in their workplaces. The leaders’ behaviors, on the other hand, explain nearly twenty-five percent of the reason. Leadership is not about who you are or where you come from. It’s about what you do.

Here’s something else to consider. For a long time now we’ve been asking people about the leader role models in their own lives. Regardless of age, when thinking back over their lives and selecting their most important leader role models, people are more likely to choose a family member than anyone else. Mom and Dad, it turns out, are the most influential leaders after all. In second place, for respondents thirty years of age and under, is a teacher or coach, and the third spot goes to the community or religious leader. For the over-thirty crowd, business leader is number two. But when we probe further, people tell us that business leader really means the person who was an immediate supervisor at work, not someone in the C-suite. In third position is teacher or coach. And in the fourth spot are community and religious leaders.

What do you notice about the top groups on the list? You should notice that they’re the people you know well and who know you well. They’re the leaders you are closest to and who are closest to you. They’re the ones with whom you have the most intimate contact. And they’re the people you meet early in your lives.

MG: Are you concerned about the decline of leadership as baby boomers prepare to retire in large numbers?

JK: I am not the least concerned about the younger generation waiting in the wings. They are much better prepared to lead than their parents were when they joined organizations as new recruits. They’re more likely to have participated in leadership development programs and been active in leadership roles. In fact, most college campuses now have very active youth leadership development and service leadership programs. Because of this, young people today are better prepared than their parents were to assume leadership roles in organizations. They are also more skilled in the use of the new social media technologies that are changing the nature of organizations. These tools have the potential to make organizations more open, more collaborative, more innovative, and more adaptable than ever before.

What does concern me is that the current economic crisis has postponed the inevitable transition from older to younger leaders. By necessity, older managers are staying in their jobs longer, and not necessarily investing in their own learning. It’s discouraging for the emerging leaders, who tend to be more impatient anyway, to see their progress slowed. I’m also concerned about those organizations that have significantly decreased investment in leadership development during this recession. The research indicates that not only are skills greater in organizations where people feel someone cares about their development, but their confidence in the economy is greater. That’s a very significant and profound discovery. Paying attention to the development of people inside the organization can actually influence their attitudes about the larger economy. Now that’s the kind of stimulus program we could all use.

MG: A significant number of young people are starting and running successful businesses, Mark Zuckerman of Facebook for example, what advice do you have for young, influential, but inexperienced executives like Mark Zuckerman?

JK: Mark Zuckerman and his entrepreneurial colleagues are extremely bright and capable people. They are changing organizations, and they are changing the world. I use Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, and other of these new technologies every day, and I am grateful that young people take the initiative to start these businesses. The world would be a whole lot smaller, and the economy would be a lot less global if they hadn’t. So, the first thing I’d say to them is “Thank you.”

And, I also recall something Florida State University professor Anders Ericsson, the leading expert on expertise, said. He once commented that “Living in a cave does not make you a geologist.” It’s a wonderfully instructive observation. You can spend years inside a business, and not necessarily become an expert at running it. I’d advise them that there are seasoned leaders out there who can help them. Every world-class athlete, for example, has a coach. Every world-class business leader should also have a coach who can give them honest feedback, the unvarnished truth about their strengths and weaknesses, and wise advice and counsel on what it’ll take to become a truly exceptional leader.

I would also tell them that the truth is you can’t do it alone. No leader ever got anything extraordinary done without the talent and support of others. You need others and they need you. You have to be sensitive to the needs of others. You have to listen, ask questions, develop others, provide support, and ask for help.

Truly inspirational leadership is not about selling a vision; it’s about showing people how the vision can directly benefit them and how their specific needs can be satisfied. What people really want to hear is not the leader’s vision. They want to hear how their dreams will come true and their hopes will be realized. They want to see themselves in the picture of the future that the leader is painting.

The vast majority of people want to walk with their leaders. They want to dream with them. They want to invent with them. They want to be involved in creating their own futures. This means that you have to stop taking the view that visions come from the top down. You have to stop seeing it as a monologue, and you have to start engaging others in a collective dialogue about the future.