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A History Lesson in Leadership

May 19, 2017

With the sheer level of technical disruption occurring in Australia and abroad in the VET industry, it’s essential that RTOs maintain a focus on developing their trainers and executives to be robust leaders. Strong leadership — and optimised workplace practices and culture — will define more than ever before one training organisation from another.

But how exactly does one cultivate a culture of leadership within an organisation? A good place to start is by immersing yourself in The Leadership Challenge.

In 1987, academics James Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner undertook an examination of corporate leadership which fundamentally changed how organisations identified their business strategy. Thirty years and two million copies later, even with the massive technological disruptions of the Internet, Kouzes and Posner’s succinct book is still essential reading for business people trying to get an edge over their competition and achieve challenging goals.

Kouzes and Posner identified the five key leadership practices demonstrated by exemplary leaders:

1. Challenging the Process

2. Inspiring a Shared Vision

3. Enabling Others to Act

4. Modelling the Way

5. Encouraging the Heart

Kouzes said in 2012 that the inspiration for The Leadership Challenge came from examining the concept of the challenges that must be overcome to “make extraordinary things happen”. The book is drawn from intensive surveys and case studies conducted by Kouzes and Posner, with a focus on individual leadership skills. The essential question was: “What do you do as a leader when you’re performing at your personal best?” Fundamentally, they argue that leadership is learned, not innate — meaning that no one is off the hook (nurture, not nature!). This goes for both introverted and extroverted business people. The important practice for leaders is to determine what kind of leader they want to be.

The lessons in The Leadership Challenge were so powerful that throughout the 80s and 90s, tens of thousands of business people undertook the Leadership Practices Inventory, a print and online assessment that surveyed staff about specific leaders in their organisation. The Inventory was one of the pioneering developments in self-assessment, providing tools for leaders to learn about their own behavioural tendencies while discovering their own internal obstacles to effective leadership. It was so influential that it became an essential method of delivering leadership change to the US Treasury, as well as many other organisations.

The results of the inventory over the last 30 years have demonstrated that the most challenging leadership practice for aspiring organisations is ‘Inspiring a Shared Vision’. Studies showed that many people’s long-term planning was affected by short-term thinking. Shared vision — think Google’s ‘Don’t Be Evil’ as the broadest possible example — can be hard to sustain for companies preoccupied with their bottom line. And many simply don’t make the time. Symbolic language, metaphors, and storytelling can all play an important role in cultivating shared corporate vision among staff. Positivity is also hugely important, but should never be fabricated at the expense of honesty and employee trust.

Elon Musk once tweeted,

“People work better when they know what the goal is and why.”

According to Kouzes and Posner, the key to providing and facilitating this kind of direction is discipline and good communication skills. Discipline — not directed at others but applied to one’s self — allows the creativity within to flow unimpeded by preoccupation, procrastination, and short-term thinking. Communication becomes the way in which an individual’s gains in self-development are disseminated across the body corporate.