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Book Review: The leadership challenge – How to make extraordinary things happen in organisations


This is the fifth edition of a 25-year old book, which has sold more than two million copies in over 20 languages to become a globally trusted source of leadership material – some have even called it the ‘leadership bible’.

The authors, Jim Kouzes, executive fellow of leadership at Santa Clara University and chairman and chief executive of TPG Learning Systems, and Barry Posner, former dean and professor of leadership at Santa Clara University, are frequent keynote speakers at leadership conferences and also run a series of leadership development programmes.
This edition of the work has been updated to reflect changes in the modern workplace and contains over 100 new case studies and anecdotes as well as more international and business examples than the original.
The book follows the tried and tested format of including leadership models, case research, anecdotal comments from key players and relevant additional models and research.
However, it skillfully avoids simply becoming another academic tome full of weighty references. In fact, I found that the case stories were surprisingly engaging and noted down several quotes for further reference.
The work is organised around five exemplary leadership practices, which are described as “common to successful leaders”, and it also includes ten “behavioral commitments” that serve as the basis for leading.
These five practices are:
  1. Model the way: Leaders clarify organisational values by finding their voice and affirming those values that are shared. They also set an example by aligning their actions with those shared values
  2. Inspire a shared vision: Leaders envision the future by imagining exciting possibilities that will empower others and offer them a common vision based on shared aspirations
  3. Challenge the process: Leaders go after opportunities by seizing the initiative and looking outwards for innovative ways to improve. They experiment and take risks by constantly generating small wins and learning from experience
  4. Enable others to act: Leaders foster collaboration by building trust and facilitating relationships with others. They strengthen their performance by helping to enhance their self-determination and develop their competencies
  5. Encourage the heart: Leaders recognise the contributions of others by showing that they appreciate individual excellence. They celebrate values and victories by creating a spirit of community.
The central theme of the book is that the best leaders participate at a heart level in each of the five key areas. Each chapter deals with a different principle on a philosophical level, before providing practical suggestions on how to implement them.
The authors provide a blueprint to help people become good and participative leaders, but make it plain that leadership is not for the faint hearted. Bravery and courage, based on a solid understanding of your core values, as well as a compelling vision are required. Several of the chapters are intended to help you identify and refine yours.
Leadership is defined at the outset as “the art of mobilising others to want to struggle for shared aspirations.” The idea is that leaders don’t follow the status quo or seek compliance – they are continually dissatisfied with the present and focus on the future.
This idea is captured in a quote within the ‘Model the way’ practice, when a leader says: “I just can’t live on the present – I’ve always got to be thinking about the next thing we should be working on, and where we’re headed”.
Reviewer’s rating
For me, by far the most interesting aspects of this book were the numerous quotes and anecdotes from named individual leaders and their organisations. I especially liked “Titles don’t make you a leader, it’s how you behave that makes a difference”.
In this age of cynicism towards corporate leaders and politicians, it would be wonderful if they could all start living by decent values, setting a positive example to others, fostering collaboration, finding common purpose and celebrating community victories rather than just thinking about their own bonuses.
While this may not be a life-changing read, absolutely every leader (and aspiring leader) would have something to learn from the principles cited by the authors.
But there does seem to be an endless recycling of the source material (spin-off volumes, workbooks, posters, `values cards’, e-learning modules, videos, mobile apps and the like), proving that a little can indeed go a very long way.
The Leadership Challenge illustrates through inspiring stories what research continues to reveal: that when people understand that leadership is a relationship and engage in the five practices described above, they are significantly more able to achieve their own personal best and turn followers into leaders.
All in all, the work is a good addition to the bookshelf of existing and aspiring leaders. It provides many practical frameworks and models to help you plan and implement the key steps required to become the leader that you could be.
This book will appeal particularly to champions of leadership development who wish to take the organisation forward as part of an overall people development strategy. Value for money? I’d say “yes”.
  • Our reviewer this time was Peter Welch, director of Peter Welch Coaching.
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