(408) 220-4680

When I think about the greatest leaders I’ve ever worked with, they’ve always been people who were interested in me, took a chance on me, gave me advice when I needed it, and reached out a hand to help pull me up. In essence, they were people who were about others more than they were about themselves. If you run a company and you’re serious about being a talent powerhouse, you need those kinds of leaders. You want people who see leadership as a journey, not as an item on their resume.

Great leaders spend time building relationships with the people who work for them, and in the process, they create exciting cultures that employees really want to be part of.

Jim Kouzes, the best-selling author and speaker on leadership development, was an important role model of mine. I studied Jim’s book The Leadership Challenge in graduate school, and during my interview for the position of head of leadership development at GE Capital, I mentioned my admiration for his ideas. I got the job — and I’ve always felt I had Jim to thank for some of that!

Since then, I’ve used Jim’s research and writings in just about every leadership program I conduct. I recently had the honor of interviewing Jim on my radio show, iLead: The Leadership Connection.

Here are some of the ideas we talked about.

The power of the positive. In their groundbreaking book In Search of Excellence, Tom Peters and Robert H. Waterman Jr. examined 43 of the best-run American companies to find out what they did that made them so successful. “People were holding up Japanese-style management as the ideal at the time,” Jim said. “Tom and Bob showed us the power of the positive. Let’s focus on what people are doing right.”

Peters and Waterman also demonstrated how effective leaders tell stories to get their messages across. They frame their message in terms of what people understand about their everyday lives.

The five practices of exemplary leadership. In The Leadership Challenge, Jim and co-author Barry Posner outline five universal practices leaders engage in when doing their best:

  • Modeling the way – Clarify values and set an example.
  • Inspiring a shared vision – Envision the future. Enlist others to do the same.
  • Challenging the process – Don’t be afraid to take risks and seize opportunities.
  • Enabling others to act – Foster collaboration and strengthen others.
  • Encouraging the heart – Recognize people’s contributions. Celebrate the values and victories of the team.

Encouraging the heart. Another of Jim’s influential books is called Encouraging the Heart: A Leader’s Guide to Rewarding and Recognizing Others. When the book first came out, Jim recalled, this concept was considered by some in the HR world to be a little “soft.” “One very large American corporation said to us, ‘Would you change the name of that practice? Because we don’t talk about heart around here.’ ”

“All of our books grew out of an initial question: what do leaders do when they’re operating at their best?” Jim said. “Not when they were facing problems or adversity, but what were they doing when they were at their best?”

Great leaders don’t have to come from great companies. “If you look at the arc of history, some of the best leaders in the world held no position,” Jim said. “They were from the community. … They didn’t necessarily come from the best families, but they made extraordinary things happen. We took the same notion. You don’t have to come from the best companies to engage in the best practices of exemplary leaders.”

He added, “Leadership is not about rank, it’s not about tenure, it’s not about position, it’s not a birthright. It’s not about the family you were born into. It’s about your behavior and what you do. You can get extraordinary things done from anywhere in the organization.”

Good leadership is valued by employees even more than pay. Studies have shown that the more leaders engage in best practices, the higher the markers of employee engagement: pride in the company, commitment to the organization, a strong work ethic, and clear expectations. According to research, leadership has even more of an influence on engagement than does the rate of pay, the type of organization, or any demographic variable. “The question isn’t, ‘Do leaders make a difference?’ ” Jim said. “The real question is, ‘How do leaders make a positive difference?’”

The biggest leadership challenges faced by companies today. Cultivating the leaders of the future is the most important concern. “Millennials are 25 percent of the workforce today, but they’ll be 75 percent in ten years,” Jim said. “Are these individuals prepared to take over the leaderships roles from the generation that is leaving the organization? The answer to that question is no, and we need to be focused on leadership development.” Other critical considerations, in his view: workforce diversity and the public’s lack of trust in business and government leaders in general.

Three ways leaders can cultivate trust. “First and foremost, credibility is the foundation of leadership,” Jim said. “If you don’t believe in the messenger, you won’t believe the message.” Secondly, leaders need to understand trends: “the trajectory of the future,” Jim calls it. “What are the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of our constituents and our customers? What do we see as the kind of future we’d all like to envision?” And lastly, leadership is not a solo act. “It’s about a relationship with other people. We can’t talk about leadership unless we talk about that relationship.”

Creating conditions for people to improve. “We have to establish an environment in which people believe they can become leaders,” Jim said. “If you communicate a message to people that they can’t change, that they can’t become better than they are, then they won’t even try. In academic terms, it’s called a growth mindset.” It’s critical that leaders challenge people to excel, provide them with good role models at work, and offer support for their growth. “People need to know they matter,” Jim said.

Be in love with what you do. Jim regularly asks the business leaders he works with for their advice on how people can improve their leadership skills. “Major General John Stanford [a U.S. Army officer who later became superintendent of the Seattle public schools] said in response to that question, ‘The secret to success is to stay in love.’ … That’s the essence,” Jim said. “You have to stay in love with what you do, with the people you lead, and with the purpose you’re serving. When you’re in love with all those things, you can get extraordinary things done on a daily basis.”

In the coming weeks, I’ll be talking with other experts about the influence of relationships, emotional intelligence, and neuroscience on leadership practices. Please feel free to join us and to share your own insights.