Top Management as Human Beings

Jim Kouzes

Q: I consider The Leadership Challenge the most important and concise book ever written about leadership. In fact, it's my 'Leadership Bible'. I've sensed increasing difficulties among my executive coachees regarding the "loneliness of power" aspects of the leadership role. Obviously the coaching process has proven quite helpful to these executives. And although the issue has been touched on by Kouzes and Posner in the 4th edition (on pages 319 and 328), I'm still investigating how to address the burdens of leadership issue and support my coaching clients more effectively. Top management leaders are human beings, but they frequently feel as if they are expected to act as "super-humans" without flaws. I'd duly appreciate some thoughts from the authors on this issue and suggested resources for further investigation.

A: Thank you for the question. You remind me of a comment made by Professor Ichak Adizes in a keynote he delivered to the Central and East European Management Development Association last year in Istanbul, Turkey. In commenting on the culture of individualism that permeates much of business, he said, "Individualism fosters loneliness-and not only at the top. It permeates, by and large, all the managerial ranks." What I take away from Ichak's comment is that the feeling of "loneliness at the top" is rooted in the notion that leaders are somehow separate and apart from others. That they must-because they are the leaders-act alone. They must climb to the top of the mountain, become inspired by some divine inspiration, and then descend from the heights to deliver the Word to the people. There's an assumption that leadership is a solo act, so leaders begin to believe that they must think alone, decide alone, and act alone.

But nothing is further from the truth. Leadership is a relationship. Exemplary leadership requires an extraordinary level of trust and a high level of collaboration. This attitude is best represented by Don Bennett, the first amputee to climb Mt. Ranier. That's 14,410 feet on one leg! When I asked Don the question, "What is the most important lesson you learned in climbing Mt. Ranier?" he responded, "You can't do it alone." Here was a guy who had just done something no one else had accomplished, and yet he believed the key to success was teamwork. It seems to me that the place to start with your clients is to coach them in the importance of building trusting relationships and the criticality of learning to collaborate, even on those decisions they think they have to make on their own. Having at least one trusted advisor, such as you, is a great start.

As to the expectation to be "super-humans," perhaps what is most needed is the courage to be simply human. As Barry Posner and I wrote in our book, A Leader's Legacy, anyone who's ever been in a leadership role quickly learns that you're squeezed between other's lofty expectations and your own personal limitations. You realize that while others want you to be of impeccable character, you're not always without fault. You learn that you can't see around every corner, and even if you know your way forward everyone may not end up at the same destination, let alone be on time. You discover that despite your best efforts to introduce brilliant innovations, most of them don't succeed. You find that you sometimes get angry and short, and that you don't always listen carefully to what others have to say. You're reminded that you don't always treat everyone with dignity and respect. You recognize that others deserve more credit than they get, and that you've failed to say "thank you." You know that sometimes you get, and take, more credit than you deserve.

In other words, you realize that you're human.

The courage to be human is the courage to be humble. It takes a lot of courage to admit that you aren't always right, that you can't always anticipate every possibility, that you can't envision every future, that you can't solve every problem, that you can't control every variable, that you aren't always congenial, that you make mistakes, and that you are, well, human. It takes courage to admit all these things to others, but it may take even more courage to admit them to ourselves. If you can find the humility to do that, however, you invite others into a courageous conversation. When you let down your guard and open yourself up to others, you invite them to join you in creating something that you alone could not create. When you become more modest and unpretentious, others have the chance themselves to become visible and noticed.

Jim Kouzes is the co-author of the best-selling, The Leadership Challenge, and A Leader's Legacy.

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