09/07/2010 10:59 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

What Is the Truth About Leadership? (Part 1 of 2)

My good friends Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, best known for the classic, award-winning book, The Leadership Challenge, have written a new book called The Truth About Leadership. Recently I had the opportunity to catch up with Jim about his and Barry's new book. Following is part one of the fascinating discussion I had with Jim recently during a conference he was giving in San Diego.

MG: What will fans of The Leadership Challenge find in The Truth about Leadership that may surprise them?

JK: We've been traveling the world for three decades now, constantly researching the practices of exemplary leadership and the qualities people look for and admire in the leaders they would willingly follow. During and after our seminars and presentations, people ask us a lot of different questions, but there's always one thing that they all want to know: "What's new?" They want to know how things are different now compared to how they were five, ten, twenty, or thirty years ago. So we tell them.

We tell them how the context of leadership has changed dramatically since we first asked people in the early 1980s to tell us about their personal best leadership experiences and about their most admired leaders. For example, we talk about how global terrorism has heightened uncertainty as political landscapes have changed. How global warming and scarcity of natural resources have made regions of the world unstable and created the need for more sustainable products and lifestyles. How the global economy has increased marketplace competition in the neighborhood and around the world and how financial institutions have exploded, imploded, and risen like Phoenixes from the ashes. How the always-on, 24/7, click-away new technologies have both connected and isolated people, as their capacity for speed cranks up the world's pace.

But we also tell our audiences something else, which usually surprises at least a few people. We tell them that as much as the context of leadership has changed, the content of leadership has not changed much at all. The fundamental behaviors, actions, and practices of leaders have remained essentially the same since we first began researching and writing about leadership over three decades ago. Much has changed, but there's a whole lot more that's stayed the same. We thought it was as important in these changing times to remind people of what endures as it was to talk about what has been disrupted.

This is not idle theorizing on our part. We wanted to make certain that the lessons we included in The Truth about Leadership not only withstood the test of time but also withstood the scrutiny of statistics. So we sifted through the reams of data that had piled up over three decades and isolated those nuggets that were soundly supported by the numbers. This is a collection of the real thing--no fads, no myths, and no trendy responses--just truths that endure.

MG: Do you still believe that effective leadership can be taught?

JK: Let's get something straight. Leadership is not preordained. It is not a gene, and it is not a trait. There is no hard evidence to support any assertion that leadership is imprinted in the DNA of only some individuals and that the rest of us missed out and are doomed to be clueless.
The truth is that the best leaders are the best learners. Leadership can be learned. It is an observable pattern of practices and behaviors, and a definable set of skills and abilities. Skills can be learned, and when we track the progress of people who participate in leadership development programs, we observe that they improve over time. They learn to be better leaders as long as they engage in activities that help them learn how. Learning is the master skill of leadership, and our studies demonstrate that the more leaders engage in learning the better they become at leading.

But here's the rub. While leadership can be learned, not everyone learns it, and not all those who learn leadership master it. Why? Because to master leadership you have to have a strong desire to excel, you have to believe strongly that you can learn new skills and abilities, and you have to be willing to devote yourself to continuous learning and deliberate practice. No matter how good you are you can always get better.

You have to have a passion for learning in order to become the best leader you can be. You have to be willing to put in the hours of daily practice over a period of years--the rest of your life, really. You have to be open to new experiences and open to honestly examining how you and others perform, especially under conditions of uncertainty. You have to be willing to quickly learn from your failures as well as your successes and to find ways to try out new behaviors without hesitation. You won't always do things perfectly, but you will get the chance to grow.

MG: Which of the ten time-tested truths do you personally think is the hardest to follow?

JK: The hardest leadership practice to master is also the one that differentiates leaders from individual contributors. The truth is that focusing on the future sets leaders apart. The capacity to imagine and articulate exciting future possibilities is the defining competence of leaders. And, our data tells us that this is the most difficult set of skills to learn.
Developing the capacity to envision the future requires you to spend more time in the future--meaning more time reflecting on the future, more time reading about the future, and more time talking to others about the future. It's not an easy assignment, but it is an absolutely necessary one. It also requires you to reflect back on your past to discover the themes that really engage you and excite you. And it means thinking about the kind of legacy you want to leave and the contributions you want to make.

None of this can be done by a pessimist. You must remain optimistic and hopeful about what is yet to come. You must truly believe that the future will be brighter and be confident that we'll all get there together. A positive difference can only be made by a positive leader.

MG: Explain the role of character in leadership?

JK: The truth is that credibility is the foundation of leadership. This is the inescapable conclusion we've come to after thirty years of asking people around the world what they look for and admire in a leader, someone whose direction they would willingly follow. The key word here is "willingly." It's one thing to follow someone because you think you have to "or else," and it's another when you follow a leader because you want to. What does it take to be the kind of person, the kind of leader, whom others want to follow, doing so enthusiastically and voluntarily? It turns out that the believability of the leader determines whether people will willingly give more of their time, talent, energy, experience, intelligence, creativity, and support. Only credible leaders earn commitment, and only commitment builds and regenerates great organizations and communities.

A leader's credibility makes the difference between being an effective leader and being an ineffective one. Credibility determines whether others want to follow you or not. It determines how loyal they will be, how committed they will be, how much energy they will put into the cause, and how productive they will be. And the effect of personal integrity of leaders goes far beyond employee attitudes. It also influences customer and investor loyalty. People are just more likely to stick with you when they know they are dealing with a credible person and a credible institution. In business, and in life, if people don't believe in you, they won't stand by you.