Personal Stories of America at Work

Leadership Guru Jim Kouzes on Soul-Draining Jobs, Leadership and the Millennial Generation

Jim Kouzes and Jamie Woolf

Jim Kouzes is coauthor of the best-selling and award-winning book, The Leadership Challenge, with over 1.8 million copies sold. The Wall Street Journal has recognized Jim as one of the twelve best executive educators in the United States. His new book The Truth About Leadership, was published in August, 2010. Jim spoke about work and leadership with Jamie Woolf of The Working Chronicles.

The Working Chronicles:  Many people today find themselves in soul-draining jobs. What advice do you have for people who are looking to make their work more fulfilling?

Jim Kouzes: In order to grow to become the best you can be, there have to be three conditions: you have to have passion for something, you have to have a purpose on which to focus that passion, and then you have to persist. This is why I don’t like the advice that says, “You are going to have five different careers in your life.” That’s BS. You’re not. You cannot become the best in five different things in your life. You can get good at five things, but you can’t become the best. It will take you five years to get good, and ten years to become world-class competitive. And then, because everything is changing–new technologies, new techniques, new methods, new challenges–you’re going to be learning all over again. So you have to look at what you have passion for, what purpose you want to serve, and how you’re going to persist.

When my son was being recruited to play college tennis, I talked with the tennis coach at Princeton, Glenn Michibata. I asked him about practice. He said, “I tell the players that they have to practice two hours a day just to stay the same. More to get better.” In a related conversation, I asked the famous Chinese pianist, Lang Lang, “How many hours a day do you practice?” He said, “When I was learning, I practiced 6-8 hours a day. Now that I’m a professional, I only practice three.”

What Glenn and Lang Lang experience is confirmed by the data. Research tells us that to become world-class at something you need to engage in 2.7 hours a day of deliberate practice, every day for ten years.  When thinking about the work that you want to do—whether it’s the piano, tennis, art, writing, or leading—ask yourself, “Can I see myself putting in three hours a day of practice for the next 10 years to become really great at this?” If you can’t see it, you’ve picked the wrong job.

TWC: Do you think it’s possible to learn persistence?

JK: Absolutely, but it depends on your mindset. Carol Dweck’s work at Stanford suggests there are two fundamental mindsets: one is the growth mindset and the other, the fixed mindset. Those with a growth mindset focus on effort and the ability to constantly learn and improve, particularly when faced with challenging situations.  Folks with a fixed mindset hold the view that you’re just naturally good at something or not, and they tend to avoid difficult challenges at which they might fail because it might alter their view of themselves.  Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania and others also talk about the fact that willingness to persist, despite mistakes–and passion for something–is much more predictive of success than IQ.

TWC: Let’s talk about your new book, The Truth About Leadership. You were particularly interested in how the Millennials’ (the generation born between 1981-2000) entry into the workforce may change what we think of as best practices. Could you summarize what you concluded from your research?

JK: We discovered from a review of our data, gathered over thirty years and spanning three generations in the workplace, that while the context of work–such as globalization and changes in technology–may change, the content—the most important behaviors of leadershipstays the same. So instead of writing a book about how leading Millennials is different, we decided to write a book that highlighted those consistent lessons (the Truths) about leadership from the past thirty years—the fundamentals that stood out for us, both from the stories and also from the data.

We have consistently found over the years that what really matters is what you do: the behaviors. Leadership doesn’t explain one hundred percent of why people are effective, but it does explain far more than any of the demographic variables.

TWC: Many leaders rise out of adversity. What has been your experience as you look back on your own life?

JK: My life has been pretty great overall. I consider myself a very lucky person. I’ve had my ups and downs—and like everyone else when I’m in the middle of a challenge it can seem tough—but I didn’t have to overcome a difficult childhood or a difficult work life. The most challenging business situation I’ve faced was with a  business partner of nearly 20 years in a company where I was the CEO. We had some conflicts, and we ended up parting company. That was tough.

However, I always like to challenge myself. I began my career in the Peace Corps in Turkey, and when I returned to the United States I worked for several years in the War on Poverty.  I moved into academia without the requisite credentials, I started two different businesses, ran a successful firm for a dozen years, and ventured out on my own in the fourth decade of my working life. I also push myself to publish a book at least every three years, and so far have produced over 30 of them.

The truth is that challenge is the crucible for greatness. In our research when we ask leaders to talk about their personal best leadership experiences, they will always tell us about a time when they did something new or different, or faced some challenge in their jobs. For example, they were given two years to turn around a division or it was going to be shut down. Or, an earthquake destroyed everything they built and they had to essentially start over. Those kinds of experiences ended up being personal best leadership experiences.

Challenge provides you with the opportunity to grow, do something different, and change. You should ask yourself everyday, “What have I changed lately? What am I doing differently today to grow and challenge myself?”

TWC: You talk a lot about exemplary practices, but you must hear a lot about those bosses that we dread having to deal with. Can you share some fundamental truths about poor leadership?

JK: If you ask someone to tell a story about a boss who made them feel powerless and ineffective, you’ll find that they describe a manager who, for example, didn’t listen, didn’t provide support, didn’t offer encouragement, took credit for other people’s work, and weren’t clear about direction.  Poor leaders focus on themselves, while the very best leaders give their power away. They make others feel strong and capable. They turn their followers into leaders.

TWC: What is the most important piece of advice you ever received?

JK: One of the people we interviewed for the first edition of The Leadership Challenge was Bill Flannigan, VP of Manufacturing for Amdahl at the time. We asked him to tell us his personal best leadership experience. He said, “I can’t.” We were stunned by his response. When we asked him why, he replied, “Because it wasn’t MY personal best. It was OUR personal best. It wasn’t me. It was us.” Similarly, when I asked Don Bennett, the first amputee to climb Mt Rainier, to tell us the most important lesson he learned in climbing that mountain, he said very simply, “You can’t do it alone.”

We talk about leadership, and about being the boss, as if it’s a solo act and you’re in charge. Nothing could be further from the truth. The truth is that you can’t do it alone. You are working with a group of people. It’s about a relationship between you and those people. Unless you can build the kind of relationship that allows people to do their best, and for you to do your best, you’ll fail as a leader.

I would add, however, that there is one very important attribute that sets leaders apart. For over thirty years now we’ve asked people to select the characteristics that they most admire in a leader, someone whose direction they would willingly follow. Focusing on the future, or being forward-looking, is the quality that most differentiates leaders from other credible people. We’ve also found that young people typically don’t value being forward-looking as much as people with more work experience, especially those in more senior positions. The gap between young and old is significant: 40 percentage points. When I talk to young people, I tell them that becoming more forward-looking will be a growth area for them. They need to look beyond the weekend, and start looking 2, 3, 5, 10 and eventually 25 years out. We know that those people who start focusing on the future earlier are more likely to be successful.

TWC: What do you see as the biggest pain in the workplace right now, and how do you see this playing out in the next few years?

JK: The biggest pain is the economy, and, especially for young people, how difficult it is to get a job. And particularly how difficult it is to get a job that fits with the skills that you are trained for, or went to college for.

Of course, it’s not just young people who are finding it tough. I met a limo driver in Flint, Michigan, who told me that he used to work on an assembly line and made a really good middle class income. He hasn’t been able to find another job like that in three years, and he’s quite discouraged about the future. This is not a temporary change; this is a fundamental shift. Manufacturing jobs will not come back to the US in the numbers we saw in the ’60s, ’70s and even ’80s. At least not any time soon. We are going to have to make some fundamental changes in the kind of work that we prepare ourselves for. It will be more value-added work in technology and in service. That’s just one big pain point.

Additionally, a few years ago people felt more mobile. If they didn’t like their jobs they could move to another one. Now they feel stuck. They don’t feel that there’s opportunity for movement, for growth, and for promotion. There’s been an increase in underemployment. People are less engaged and productive because they aren’t in jobs that fully utilize their skills.

Another pain point that’s coming is that Boomers will retire. The oldest Boomers are now 65—the age that people traditionally start retiring—and while they may be delaying retirement due to the economy, eventually they will retire. They’ll be leaving senior-level jobs and mid-level positions. That will require organizations to move people into those roles, people who have not yet had the opportunity to prepare for them.

There will be tensions felt between the generations, not so much around values, but around opportunities.

TWC: How did you get into leadership work in the first place? Who were your early influences?

JK: I got into it quite by accident. I was greatly influenced by the environment I grew up in. My dad was a career civil servant. (When he retired he was deputy assistant secretary of labor.) My mom was involved in the United Nations Association, and we had a foreign student living with us when I was in high school. So, when I went to university, it was my intention to go into the US foreign service. That was around the time of the Vietnam War, the beginning of the Peace Corps, and the days of the War on Poverty. The civil rights movement was also very active. There was a lot of social change, and living in the Washington, DC area we were in the center of all this political activity. A lot of the protests took place there. I wanted to be part of it.

I went into the Peace Corps after college, to Turkey. While I was there, I was teaching and I realized that I had more interest in teaching than I did in international relations. So when I came back to the US, I looked for a job in teaching. They wouldn’t let people without a teaching credential teach high school, but they would let us teach adults. I got involved in adult education through the Community Action Agency, a kind of a domestic Peace Corps in some respects, providing services to the poorest Americans. I was part of a team of people that trained local Community Action Agency staff in management, teamwork, and interpersonal communication skills.

I found that I had an interest in, and an affinity for, both applied behavioral science and organizational dynamics. I really enjoyed being in a classroom facilitating the learning of others. Human development engaged me then, and forty years later it still does. My career began quite by accident, but I quickly found that I had a passion for it.

TWC: Were your mom and dad leaders in your eyes?

JK: My father was the first real leader in my life. My father was the oldest of ten kids, and the male role model in the family. He worked in the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression. He worked his way through college, doing all his classwork at night after work, ultimately getting his bachelors, masters and doctorate degrees. And, as I mentioned, he held an influential position in the government. He also had books on his shelf by people like Peter Drucker. I didn’t know it when I was a kid, but those same books would end up on my shelf as well.  My dad was definitely a model to me of someone dedicated to learning and serving.

TWC: What were the best and worst jobs you’ve ever had?

JK: My best job is always the current one I have. I have never had a bad job. My first job was a paper route and then washing dishes at the Howard Johnsons. While I was working there the director of the YMCA, who knew me from when I took swimming lessons, came in to eat and saw me bussing tables. He asked if I wanted to be a lifeguard instead. I turned in my apron that day, and I was a lifeguard for the next three summers. Every job has always allowed me to learn and grow and then move on to something better.

TWC: You have really left your mark on the field of leadership. Is there something you have yet to accomplish?

JK: I had three goals originally. One was to write a book. Now my co-author and I have written over thirty. Another was to produce a movie related to the theme of leadership, and, while I haven’t done a feature length film, I’ve been involved in numerous leadership training videos. The feature-length movie is still something I hope to be part of. Also, I’ve become increasingly involved in bringing more leadership development into high schools and colleges. That’s where our future leaders are, and I very much want to see them develop the skills they’ll need to tackle the extraordinary challenges they face. I strongly believe an important part of our legacy is leaving this planet better than we found it, and I can’t think of a better place to devote more time and energy than in developing young people.

| March 08, 2011 | Education, Innovation, Leadership | 0

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