Are Leaders Better Today?

Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner

Q: There has been so much written about leadership. Do you think leaders are better as a result or are there still typical stumbling points or common mistakes that you see leaders make?

A: The question of whether leaders are "better" is intriguing. Our entire careers have been devoted to developing better leaders and it can be humbling to look at how we've done over the years. For example, when we compare the most recent LPI scores to the average of five years ago, we see a very slight decline. Taken at face value, the numbers suggest that leadership may have gotten worse, or at least not gotten better. But the truth is that there is greater awareness and more sophistication about leadership. Constituents are now tougher graders; they're looking for even more effective leaders. And if that's the case, we could even say that leaders have actually improved. It's not unlike what's happened in sports—tennis, golf, track, team sports, and so on. We've raised the bar higher and expect more. We're tougher. And as a result, it's more difficult to attain higher levels of performance.

And yes, there are a few common stumbling points for many striving to become the best leaders they can be. According to our data, inspiring a shared vision is an area in which leaders have the poorest performance. Of all of The Five Practices, consistently over time, that's been the most difficult for leaders to master—despite all the emphasis on how important it is for leaders to have and convey a vision. Leaders come up short in their ability to make their vision compelling to their constituents—to communicate it in such a way that other people want to join in and see that it's in their interests to further that vision. The way to enlist others is not through facts and figures. What we imagine or recall when we think about an exciting place or idea is the senses it evokes—the sights, smells, tastes, and feelings. That's what leaders need to communicate to Inspire a Shared Vision.

The second weakness that the majority of leaders share is failing to ask others for feedback. It's an area in which people consistently score the lowest, both in their own opinions and in the opinion of others. And yet the most fundamental way to improve performance is by getting feedback on how we're doing. At some level, we're all uncomfortable with feedback. As leaders, we often don't ask for it until HR mandates a 360-degree assessment. And then we cringe before we receive that written report. The best leaders are the best learners, and they invite feedback. For some people, that's scary, but absolutely essential if we hope to improve our effectiveness as leaders.

Jim Kouzes is the Dean's Executive Fellow of Leadership, Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University. Barry Posner is the Accolti Professor of Leadership at SCU's Leavey School of Business, where he served as Dean for 12 years. Together they are authors of The Leadership Challenge and over a thirty other books and workbooks on leadership and leadership development, including The Truth About Leadership and Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose It, Why People Demand It.

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