The Bregman Leadership Podcast
Episode 74

Jim Kouzes

The Leadership Challenge

What separates extraordinary leaders from those who under-perform? Over thirty years ago, Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner set out to answer that question. Their research led them to five fundamental practices that, when frequently employed, accounted for as much as 22.8 times more cohort engagement. On this week’s podcast, I spoke with Jim Kouzes about these five practices and other insights from their seminal leadership manual, The Leadership Challenge, now in its sixth edition. Discover the Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership, tips for successfully transitioning between companies, and concrete steps to develop a compelling vision for the future of your organization.


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Book: The Leadership Challenge
Bio: Jim Kouzes is a bestselling author, an award-winning speaker and, according to the Wall Street Journal, one of the twelve best executive educators in the United States.





Peter: Welcome to the Bregman Leadership Podcast. I’m Peter Bregman, your host and CEO of Bregman Partners. This podcast is part of my mission to help you get massive traction on the things that matter most.

We have with us today Jim Kouzes. He has written, with Barry Posner, the seminal book The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations. This book came out first a little bit more than 30 years ago, and it became, in a sense, an instant classic, and that’s true because 30 years later now, we have the sixth edition coming up, and it is as applicable as it was back then.

Jim, thank you for writing this book with Barry and also thank you for being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast.

Jim: Peter, it’s a delight. It’s a real pleasure to be with you, and you were speaking about technology and the use of technology in our interview, and when Barry and I wrote the first edition of The Leadership Challenge, we didn’t have this technology, actually we didn’t even have a computer or a software program that would allow us to share files, so back then you’d have to actually give somebody a physical hard copy.

Well now, of course we do much of our writing where we share it back and forth over this platform. The second edition of the book and the second book we wrote, Credibility, was actually written over the Internet using a program called Kermit before this technology existed. Kermit was a university and research center platform that allowed researchers to share files and back and forth. So technology’s played a role-

Peter: I remember that, and if I remember correctly, this was the ’80s now.

Jim: It was the ’80s, yeah. Yeah, so we’ve been using it but that’s part of the change in context now of course for leaders. Now the President of United States can send tweets on a daily basis and impact how people feel about policy or world affairs.

Peter: Which arguably is something we need to learn how to do a little bit more effectively, but we’re able to leave that for-

Jim: Absolutely.

Peter: … another conversation. Let’s jump into the book here, Jim. Briefly share the methodology that you used in coming up with the content in The Leadership Challenge.

Jim: Well, I met Barry at Santa Clara University in 1981. We started to work together that year, and I was the director of executive education and this tall guy comes and knocks on my door and introduces himself, and we have become best friends almost since that moment. In fact, Barry and his wife Jackie and my wife Tae and I do things frequently together. Just last weekend, we went to a movie together. We have dinners together. We’ve remained close friends since then.

But Barry and I found that we had a common interest in managerial values and he had written a paper, a research paper with Warren Schmidt on how values make a difference and invited me to join them in writing up one of the research papers. That began an exploration of that topic and then corporate culture. We had an opportunity to present this at Santa Clara University.

On the second day of a two-day program, the first day was done with Tom Peters and on in search of excellence, on organizational excellence. So Barry and I had the second day on managerial excellence, and we didn’t have a book like Tom, and we didn’t have necessarily a methodology yet, so in the pre-work for the seminar, we ask participants to write a personal best leadership case because we wanted to explore whether or not people were doing some things in common when they were, in this case, early on managing.

We had the assumption that you don’t have to be in excellent company to be an excellent leader. That was kind of a breakthrough moment for us, just making that assumption, that not all excellent leaders are in excellent companies, that the context doesn’t make the difference. And so-

Peter: Although I’m kind of curious whether there’s a correlation between the number of excellent leaders in the company and the excellence of that company. Ultimately leadership excellence should lead to company excellence. Have you found that?

Jim: Yes. So that is true. That is very much true. In fact, in our data, if you take a look at our data, in organizations where if you take our scale, we developed then an assessment instrument after we had done the case studies and developed the model. We developed an assessment tool. That assessment tool has a one to ten scale.

Those individuals at the bottom end of the scale who essentially get scores of one or two on the frequency with which they use leadership practices have only about a 4% level of engagement among employees, whereas those who score a nine, ten, at the high end of the scale, the top 20% having 95.8% rate of a high engagement among employees, so yes, it’s absolutely true. So the more leaders there are who engage more frequently in leadership practices, the higher the engagement, the higher the performance profitability, lower the turnover or higher the quality, et cetera.

Peter: What you’ve done is you’ve reduced it to five practices right? So when you’re looking at this leadership practice as inventory, you’re assessing, as I’m understanding it, people’s demonstration of these five practices and the ones who are rated as frequently using these five, those are the ones who have a 95% highly-engaged direct report cohort, and then the ones who rarely use these five are the ones who are more in the 4% which is such a massive-

Jim: Huge.

Peter: … distinction. Such a gap.

Jim: 22.8 times.

Peter: Right.

Jim: 22.8 times.

Peter: It’s amazing.

Jim: Difference. Amazing, yeah.

Peter: You’ve administered this leadership practice as inventory to 3 million people. Am I correct in that?

Jim: We’ve administered it to 5 million, we’ve analyzed data from 3 million. Our current database is about 1.2 so we use the most current respondents but the database itself is 5 million total, 3 million have gone through some rigorous psychometric testing and this is where we get the data that I just shared with you.

Peter: So with those 3 million, The psychometric data that you have includes, in effect, 360s from their direct reports.

Jim: Yes, correct. So the Leadership Practices Inventory is the tool we use to measure effectiveness, and we both use it in research. Over 700 research studies have been done using that instrument, and we also use it as an assessment tool so leaders get the feedback from that instrument to help them develop their own goals for growth and development as leaders.

Peter: Okay, so you’ve convinced me that there’s some credibility to this model. Let’s look at the five practices. Could you give us a very quick, brief, dirty synopsis of each of the five so that people have a sense of context and certainly the book has a tremendous amount of depth and examples of it. Let’s get the big picture.

Jim: So we’ll do the four minute version.

Peter: Four minutes, perfect.

Jim: Yes. The first of those five practices is what we call “Model the Way.” So we ask people, what do you do when you’re at your best as a leader? Tell us a story about one example. People say that one of the things they do is model the way. They are clear about what they believe in. They clarify their personal values, and they strive to reach consensus on shared values within the organization. They set the example. They align their own personal leadership practices, what they do with the values that are shared by the organization.

The second thing leaders do is they inspire a shared vision. Out of this case examples and then the testing that we did, it’s clear that leaders have, they envision the future. They have ennobling and uplifting picture of what the future can be like, and then they enlist others in it, but it’s not just their vision of the future, it’s a shared vision of the future.

The third thing leaders do is they challenge the process. They search for opportunities to grow, to innovate, to improve, and then they experiment with new ideas, try them out, they don’t always work so they have to learn from those experiences.

The fourth of the practices that emerged from our studies was what we call, “Enable Others to Act.” Leaders foster collaboration by building trust in teams and then they strengthen individuals by building their competence and their confidence to do their work.

And fifth of the practices, in terms of how we talk about it, not necessarily fifth in terms of importance is what we call “Encourage the Heart.” Leaders recognize individuals for their contributions to the values, the vision, and the goals of the organization when they celebrate the values and the victories with the teams who perform the work.

Those are the five. Model, inspire, challenge, enable, and encourage.

Peter: If you step out from a 30,000 foot view , it makes a lot of sense: “They have to have a foundation of strength in themselves. They need to see where they’re going. They need to challenge everything that’s getting in the way. They need to help other people rise to the occasion to support them, and they have to recognize in a human way those people who are doing it.” It’s a satisfying and clear picture of how we have to show up.

Jim: Thank you, that is a great summary.

Peter: How come so many of us fall short?

Jim: Let me just say that it is a lot easier to write about it than it is to practice it.

Peter: Thank you for your honesty on that because I struggle with it myself too.

Jim: I think leadership is an aspiration and that’s something for all leaders to keep in mind. We are never doing everything as well as we should be doing it, and so we always must aspire. It’s like any athlete who … You watch the … We Love basketball here in the Golden State with the Golden State Warriors, and so we’re watching basketball all the time. They interview the players afterwards and they may have won the game, but they say, “But we have to do better at the not turning the ball over,” or “I wasn’t as good as making shots.” They’re never satisfied with how well they’re doing. The same for exceptional leaders.

To answer your question, if you ask people … In fact, the most frequently asked question we get is, “Are leaders born or made?”

Peter: Oh, that’s interesting.

Jim: Well, yes and then as you know, we have an answer to that question after being asked it so often, and that is we’ve never met a leader who was not born. All leaders are born, so all people are born whether you’re an accountant, an engineer, or a leader, it doesn’t matter. We’re all born. So the real question is what do you do with what capabilities you have before you die?

Peter: Jim, I wrote a quote down that I’m just going to read back to you. It’s from page 302, “Here’s the rub. Leadership can be learned; however, not everybody wants to learn it.”

Jim: Yes. And I think that is the first two steps in this process of learning leadership are you have to believe you can, first of all. The question of, are leaders born or made implies that there’s some element of it, people still have some sense of “maybe I don’t have what it takes to be a leader.”

In our research, we found that the number of people at the low end who score at that lowest possible score is .00013%.

Peter: There’s very few people who have only 4% of their direct reports engaged.

Jim: Yes, that’s right. Those are the people at the low end. So if you combine the score of one and two, it’d be a little bit more than that but the point of that number is to communicate to people that you do have the capability. In fact, you’re already doing it.

Peter: Right.

Jim: It’s just not doing it frequently enough, and that’s an important message for people to start out with. You have to believe you can. A lot of people who don’t believe that they can. That’s a hurdle for them to have to get over.

But once you believe that, then the second thing is that you need to do for yourself is have aspirational goals for your leadership development, not just for your team, not just a vision of the future for the organization, but for yourself. Where do you see yourself five years from now, ten years from now as a leader? Not in terms of a position or a role but competence. And do you see yourself performing at a higher level in the future than you do right now? What is your ideal picture of yourself. That’s an important stretch goal for all leaders to have in mind, so-

Peter: And you just alluded to one of the points you make in the book which is leadership isn’t just a role, or it’s better not to think of it particularly as a role, but to think of yourself as a leader and that you take these five characteristics and you can bring them to any level of the organization in any role that you’re in, in any task, and developing yourself as a leader is a job that, in your view, obviously requires context for implementation because you have to lead somewhere in some way in a particular culture with a particular group of people, but your ability to demonstrate those behaviors is agnostic of your role.

Jim: Absolutely. That’s a great word to use. In fact, that’s why we include in our books cases of high school students or college students or even eight year olds to say it’s not about your age. It’s not about your gender. It’s not about your position. It’s not about whether you have an MBA or not or a PhD or a bachelor’s degree or no degree. It’s not about whether you’re a male or female. It’s not about whether you’re from one country or another country. Those are all contextual elements that have to be considered when you are leading, but importance is your behavior. Context only accounts for approximately .3% of why people are engaged.

Peter: I know leaders, you know leaders who are incredibly successful in one context, and I’ve seen this happen with someone who moves from one bank to another bank. From one top three investment bank in New York on Wall Street to another top three investment bank in Wall Street, and in one of them, they’re a great success and in one of them, they fail. It’s the same person. It’s the same leadership characteristics. They only thing they’ve changed culture and context. How do you explain that?

Jim: Just to broaden that context a bit, let’s say I’m tasked to go to Turkey and run an operation for the American company. I go to Turkey, and I immediately assume that everything in Turkey is just like it is in United States, and all I have to do is replicate what I did here and do it over there. I’m likely to fail because the culture’s different, the people are different. I’m imposing on them some assumptions about what works where I come from should work here. When in fact-
Peter: Tell me if I’m thinking about this correctly. Great leaders whether they’re in Turkey or in New York or Goldman, Morgan, Citi, Merrill, wherever it is.They need to define and articulate the vision. They need to address the challenges. They need to be clear on their own values. They need to get the most out of people and enable them and empower them, and they need to celebrate them.

Everybody needs to do that everywhere. How you do it differs in Turkey than in the US or at Morgan, Goldman, Merrill Citi. How you approach it, the words you use, the way you celebrate successes, the manner in which you empower someone to act could be very, very different based on your context and your culture, but if you can understand and work with the context or culture, those are the underlying five foundational competencies or skills or characteristics that you see everybody, no matter the context, doing. Am I thinking about this correctly?

Jim: Yes. The data that I described that we’ve been talking about, talked about earlier is 4% to 95%. If I do an analysis just of one country or even one organization in an industry and then compare that data about the frequency of behavior in another like company or like country, I will find that the performance is the same. At the low end, you get low engagement. At the high end, you get higher engagement. This is universal.

We’ve collected data from 72 different countries, and the pattern is exactly the same in all countries. However, when you ask for specific examples of how do you do this in your country, the examples can be very different and distinguishable from the other. So we have to be sensitive to cultural context, and that’s particularly true when you’re talking about things like religion.

If I’m working in a Muslim country or a country where people are Hindu or Buddhist, I have to be sensitive to their context, in their cultural context. If I’m working in a country where there’s a difference sense about how you treat elders, I have to be sensitive to those issues, but I still need to make sure that I’m clear about what we believe in. I need to make sure I, as a leader, set a good example and a role model of other people that we’re clear about where we’re headed and that other people already listed in that, that we are working together as a team and we trust each other, that we work to develop skills and competence and help people to be in control of their own lives, and that we encourage people, we recognize them.

So the practices are the same but how, as you said, we do it can be very different.
Peter: You’ve just given this beautiful scaffolding or process for moving from one company to another, one culture another, which is that you leave your one context and you go into another context, and the first thing you do is your clarify yourself. What are my values? What is my vision? What are the challenges? How do I empower people? In what way do I need people to be empowered? And ultimately, celebrate them?

The next question you ask is, “How are those five things done in this culture?” If you go from “I’m going to do these things” to answering the question, “how are these things done?” How is it that people are celebrated here? Do you yell from the rooftops and copy everybody or do you take them aside and say, “Hey, I just want you to know, I noticed how you spoke in that meeting and it was tremendous, and I want you to know that I was impacted by it. I noticed it. Just keep doing that.” How is it done in this culture … And then you can just take those five that you’ve honed and apply them to the particular context that you’re in.

Jim: Yes. Absolutely.

Peter: That’s great. Let’s do a very, very quick case study. I have a client and we were talking about vision, and he said, “Yeah, that’s my problem. I don’t do the vision thing. I’m really terrible at vision. I’m never been good at vision. I can’t do the vision thing.” And I know how I approached it, but I’m curious to get your perspective because it seems to me that “vision” is the hardest to learn in some ways because it’s not just about digging deep and asking “what are my values?” it’s about seeing a future that some people may have a hard time seeing. How do you help people to develop that?

Jim: Well, you are correct. In our data, that is true, that the practice which scores lower compared to others consistently and over time is inspire a shared vision. It is the most challenging for people to learn and to master, and so it requires more attention, and that’s the first issue. You can’t learn to do it better if you initially say, “It’s not my thing. I don’t do it very well, and so I’m not going to really try.” You have to try.

The average senior executive spends only about 3% of their work time on that question, issue. “Where are we headed? Where are we going?” Yet at the very senior levels, you should be spending about 25% of your time. That’s a big gap. That’s one of the reasons why it’s so challenging for people is one, we don’t spend time on it.

We also don’t have the sense … We have this daily barrage of emails that come in and we tend to be in the present all the time. Now, it’s one thing to be mindful and pay attention to how you’re feeling and behaving at a particular moment in time, but leaders have to have outsight. They have to not just have insight into themselves, but outsight, the ability to look beyond what’s currently going on, and we’re not spending enough time thinking about five years from now, ten years from now because of all of the demands on the present. That just sucks us into not paying attention to the future.

It’s important the first step is to spend more time. The second is don’t rely just on yourself. We tell people leaders have to have a vision of the future. That is true. But your vision, it doesn’t have to come just from you. So the second thing you need to do as a leader is not only spend time but talk to others about their hopes, dreams, and aspirations for the future.

A technique which was borrowed initially from the insurance industry many years ago asked teams of people … So if you’re a manager in an organization and you want to improve your capacity to inspire a shared vision, have a process in which you assign everyone on your team to read different magazines or different newspapers or watch different programs and once a month, come together with one little snippet of news about where your industry is headed or where society is headed or what’s happening in education or what’s happening in the arts, and talk about that and then share what do you think the implication of this is, of this technological change for our business.

So we’re going to have self-driving cars in the future. What’s the implication for the business that we’re in? And if you have your team do that on a regular basis and talk about that, over time, you will start to envision a different future. So it’s not only about yourself, you have to spend more time, but also engage your team in a conversation about where things are headed that impact your business.

Peter: Jim, you remind me of why I love to do podcasts because there’s so much that I get from the book and then the richness of having the conversation helps me to see things in a different way. I so appreciate you coming onto the podcast.

The book is The Leadership Challenge by Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner. It’s the sixth edition of this book originally published in the ’80s, How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations, and it’s clearly just as pertinent to our work and leadership today as it was 30 years ago.

Jim, thank you so much for being on the Bregman Leadership Podcast and for writing the book.
Jim: Well, Peter, thank you very much for having me, and it’s been a delight talking with you, and you remind me of why I love to do podcasts because I learn so much from you too. So thanks a million for this opportunity.

Peter: Thank you.

If you enjoyed this episode of the Bregman Leadership Podcast please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes. For more information about the Bregman Leadership Intensive, as well as access to my articles, videos, and podcasts, visit

Thank you to Clare Marshall for producing this episode and to Brian Wood, who created our music. Thanks for listening and stay tuned for the next great conversation.

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