James Kouzes and Barry Posner are not the only leaders who model the way things should be done. But when we spoke recently, that’s just what they did. Though I was interviewing, they asked me multiple questions, listened, and contributed rich illustrations. It was truly an Exchange, and the valuable results follow.
Kouzes and Posner teach at the Leavey School of Business at Santa Clara University. They’ve written many books, but are perhaps best known for The Leadership Challenge, which was first published 25 years ago and will be out with a fifth edition this summer. With its dramatic case studies, the influential book has sold more than 2 million copies in 22 different languages.
The duo’s work has updated with the times. Last year the franchise’s Twitter feed—@TLCTalk—was named to the Top 50 Leadership Experts to Follow on Twitter list. There’s even the TLC app.
Kouzes and Posner are recognized for guiding business, and each has a personal window on public management. Kouzes grew up in Washington, D.C., son of a civil servant. Posner, a PhD in organizational management, also earned a master’s in public administration.
I asked them about the government leadership challenge today, and how to employ their key principles of leadership: inspire a shared vision, challenge the process, and enable others to act.
As others do in this issue of The Public Manager, they called for experimentation and innovation. Posner told us “It’s exciting and exhilarating to be part of something new, especially when you can frame the experience in terms of “what did we learn” rather than “how did we fail?” They also emphasized the need to build trust and collaborate at work. “As public managers,” Kouzes said, “what we do collectively helps people to meet their own long-term hopes, dreams, and aspirations.” Posner added, “Your vision reflects not just what you think is important but what everyone thinks is important.” The following are excerpts of our interview.
Q: Jim, the spring issue is somewhat multidisciplinary and your definition of vision fits in with that. How do you describe vision in your book?
A: We define vision, Ilyse, as an ideal and unique image of the future for the common good. Each one of those words has an important meaning. It’s ideal because we want to stretch ourselves to reach for something that is significant and important and uplifting. We also talk about it as an image because people tend to remember pictures and feelings and things that they can conjure up in their minds. It has to be something they can actually see. Vision is a “see” word.
Future—obviously, we want people to be thinking five, 10 years down the road when we’re talking about vision. It’s unique and distinctive and different from others. We don’t want to wake up in the morning and go to work where there’s a sign over the door that says, “Just like every other department.” We want to go to a place that is unique. And it’s also for the common good because visions are inclusive: not just of my personal ideals but also of the team’s and the organization’s and our constituent’s—the public out there that we are serving.
Q: Barry, leaders have to make sure that what they see is also something others can see, that they convey what is that common good and what is that ideal. How do you do that?
A: Well, there’s no one answer to that question, Ilyse, but I’ll give you three answers. They’re communications, communications, and communications. Part of what makes communication important is that it’s a two-way communication, particularly around listening.
Part of what you need to do is to be able to ask some good questions of your colleagues—both inside your organization and your constituents—about the things that are important for them. And then you’ve got to listen to what they say and make sure that you’re coming up together with your vision of the future, that it reflects not just what you think is important but what everyone thinks is important.
[Audit] your own language, and be attentive to the difference between people who say, “What I think is important is…” versus those who say, “Well, here’s what we think is important.” Watch your language; leaders, particularly in the public sector, need to be talking a lot more about “we” and less about “I.”
We Create the Culture
Q: Jim, you grew up in Washington. I’m sure you were instilled with the idea that people have to speak in terms of “we,” that people have to involve citizens and build partnerships. Can you tell me why it’s almost more important to listen than it is to speak?
A: Yes, Ilyse, I did grow up in Washington, D.C. My father, when he retired, was deputy assistant secretary of labor. He started as a file clerk in the Department of the Army and then worked his way up to deputy assistant secretary of labor. So I grew up there. My mom, 94 years old, still lives there. I think very fondly of this experience. I guess I have to pause and say thank you for all the public managers for the great work that you do. I truly appreciate what it takes to serve the public. As public managers, what we do collectively helps people to meet their own long-term hopes, dreams, and aspirations. We provide the services; we provide the context. And in a sense, we create the culture in which people are able to live freely in this country. That kind of thinking, that kind of reminding ourselves on a regular basis, keeps us in touch with that noble purpose that we’re here to serve.
That is, in a sense, what Barry is talking about when he talks about leaders and thinking about “we” more. And the research supports this, Ilyse. When we listen more, when we use the word “we” more, we are viewed by others more as leaders than when we start our sentences with “I,” according to the research by James Pennebaker. Just practicing the notion of saying “we” more frequently will help you to be seen by others as a leader.
Q: In the book, you both wrote: “Only shared visions have the magnetic power to sustain commitments over time.” I think that’s part of what you’re getting at here. Obviously, it’s critical in politics and government. Barry, how do you tap people’s passion and get them to share your vision?
A: You have to have a vision in the first place, but you can’t be so arrogant as to assume that your vision is the only vision or even is the right vision. You articulate how the vision reflects what we’re all about, and particularly, demonstrate that you put it into practice.
Leaders in the public sector, or the private sector for that matter, need to really be future oriented, and maybe that’s a good way to differentiate between managers and leaders. Managers are worried about how [to] get things done today, mostly by responding to what happened yesterday. Leaders train themselves to understand, “How do I get done today something that will get me and others someplace where we’d like to be in the future?” They let the future pull them rather than the past push them.
Q: Jim, why is trust so key to innovation and collaboration?
A: Ilyse, I don’t know if you’ve ever done something called a trust fall. Have you ever done that?
Q: I haven’t. Tell me about it.
A: The trust fall is an exercise where people climb up on a ladder, or they climb up on a stump or a bench, and they turn their back to the group. The group lines up in two rows on either side of the person, about five people deep on each side. The person on the ladder falls over backwards, and the group puts their arms up [to catch the person.]
Can you imagine [this scenario?] Now, imagine being the third person in line, right? So you’re the third person. The first person goes up to the top of the ladder, falls over backwards, the group puts their arms up, catches that person, and everybody applauds. That’s great teamwork; perfect, we can trust each other. Second person goes up to the top of the ladder, falls over backwards, but the group forgets to put its arms up, drops that person down on the ground, and that person is hauled off to the hospital. And you’re next. How are you feeling at this moment?
Q: Not like I’m going to trust these people.
A: Exactly. That’s a perfect illustration of why there’s a positive correlation between risk and trust. I’m more likely to risk when I trust. I’m less likely to risk when I don’t trust. Innovation requires risk-taking. Innovation means maybe we’ll make a mistake when we try something new.
So we have to first build trust in each other before people are going to be more willing to take a risk. Trust in the form of interpersonal trust: I know you have my back, and I’ve got yours; I know I can count on you to follow through; I know you have the competence and skills and abilities to do the job.
Whenever we’re going to innovate and we do something new, we have to trust each other—more, in fact, than when times are good. Trust is an important ingredient at all times, but particularly when we’re going to take risks and try something new.
Q: Barry, it’s really tough for public managers right now because distrust and skepticism of them—of “bureaucrats,” as they say on the campaign trail—is rampant. How do the public managers and the public leaders on their podiums fix that?
A: The reason for distrust comes because there’s [too much] disconnect between what people say and what people do. Trust is when there’s congruence between what you say and what you do. To reestablish trust with another person or an organization, you have to build it all over again. You build it one step at a time by making sure that your words and your promises in fact match your actions and your deeds.
[In another book, Credibility] we talk about the fact that there are six A’s of leadership accountability, things that you can do when there’s been
a disconnect between what you say and what you do. So what do you do about that? First of all, you have to accept that a mistake was made, that there has been this disconnect. And you have to admit responsibility for it. Take responsibility for saying yes, we did not do what we said we would do. We, the public, get really mad at others when they deny somehow that there’s been this disconnect.
So you accept responsibility, you admit that there’s been a mistake, you apologize for the mistake, and then you take an action that in fact is what you said you were going to do. It begins to rectify the situation. Along the way, you also have to make some kind of amends. You have to go out of your way. It’s why public officials personally fly into crisis situations—to be able to be there on the ground, and be there personally.
And then you need to, what we call, “attend”; you need to make sure that there’s a follow up. You need to make sure that, in fact, what you said you were going to do to fix this problem did indeed fix this problem, rather than just moving on to some other situation.
Importing Better Ideas
Q: Barry, when I was reading The Leadership Challenge, I was struck by your guidance to managers to challenge the process. This can be really hard in the public sector. What is the best way for public leaders to take that risk?
A: We prefer to think less about [taking] risks and more about experimentation. How do you try new things? You start small, with demonstration and pilot projects. You ask for volunteers—be they your employees or be they your clients or constituents—to help you learn and, presumably for all of us, to get better.
Q: Jim, sometimes in these austere times it appears reckless to take risks with the taxpayer’s money. How do you innovate when you’re under time or resource pressure?
A: One of the key words in our description of “challenge the process” (our practice for experimentation and risk taking and searching for opportunities) is outsight. It’s the cousin of insight.
Public managers and private-sector managers need to be able to look outside of the constraints of their immediate organization—be it a small group or a department—and think about external forces [or ideas] that are putting pressure on them to make a change. [Try] importing ideas—and thinking outside of the boundaries of one’s own personal experiences.
+ Hear the new podcast at www.thepublicmanager.org and harken back to Charlene Li’s summer 2011 Exchange.
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