In two recent interviews journalists asked me a similar question. Each wanted to know why Barry Posner and I had selected The Leadership Challenge as the title for our book. “What do you mean to suggest by the title, and what is the challenge you are writing about?” These questions took me back to the very early days of our investigation on the practices of exemplary leadership.
The Leadership Challenge began as a research project in 1982. We wanted to know what leaders did when they operated at their “personal best” – when they set their own individual leadership standard of excellence. With thirty-eight open-ended questions, we asked about the situations, the emotions, the actions, the methods, the people, and numerous other aspects of these personal best experiences. In that initial study we collected and analyzed over 1,300 written cases and conducted 42 in-depth interviews. In the last twenty-five years we’ve gathered thousands more personal best cases.
When we first analyzed the initial set of personal-best cases, we discovered that the situations people chose to discuss were about major change that had a significant impact on their organizations. This remains true today. Regardless of function, field, sector, level, or country, the leaders in our study talked about times when they turned around losing operations, started up new plants, developed new products or services, passed a groundbreaking piece of legislation, campaigned to get adolescents to join an environmental program, revolutionized a bureaucratic military program, installed untested procedures, renewed operations threatened with closing, or released the creative spirit trapped inside stifling bureaucratic systems. The personal-best leadership cases were about radical departures from the past, about doing things that had never been done before, about going to places not yet discovered. In many cases, the magnitude of results was in the hundreds of percent.
What’s significant about the emphasis on change and innovation in our leadership cases is that we didn’t ask people to tell us about change. We asked them to tell us about personal-best leadership experiences. They could discuss any leadership experience—past or present, unofficial or official, in any functional area, in any type of organization, and in any situation. Our respondents chose to talk about times of change. They told us they performed at their best when they were changing something, trying something new, or stretching themselves. Not one single person claimed to have achieved a personal best by keeping things the same.
When people think about their personal bests they automatically think about a challenge. Why? The fact is that when times are stable and secure, we’re not severely tested. We may perform well, get promoted, even achieve fame and fortune, but the evidence suggests that we don’t reach our fullest potential during ordinary times. Certainty and routine breed complacency. In contrast, personal and business hardships have a way of making us come face to face with who we really are and what we’re capable of becoming.
The study of leadership, then, is the study of how men and women guide us through adversity, uncertainty, hardship, disruption, transformation, transition, recovery, new beginnings, and other significant challenges. It’s also the study of how men and women, in times of constancy and complacency, actively seek to disturb the status quo and awaken us to new possibilities. Leadership and challenge are simply inseparable.
As we make choices about the people we select for leadership roles—whether it's a new supervisor, a new CEO, a club officer, a local official, or the President of the United States—we must ask ourselves, "Who is the person who is most likely to challenge the way we do things around here? Who is the person who's going to bring about the most lasting change, change that moves us farther along the path toward our vision of greatness?"
Change is the work of leaders. And the primary leadership challenge is getting extraordinary things done, especially when that challenge tests us to the limits of our capabilities.
Posted by Jim Kouzes