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Book review: Credibility — how leaders gain and lose it

This review first ran in the Jan. 15 edition of the Hamilton Spectator.

Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose It

By  James Kouzes and Barry Posner

Jossey-Bass

$33.95

Be careful of your thoughts, for your thoughts become your words.

Be careful of your words, for your words become your deeds.

Be careful of your deeds, for your deeds become your habits.

Be careful of your habits, for your habits become your character.

Be careful of your character, for your character becomes your destiny.

And to this sage advice, authors and leadership scholars James Kouzes and Barry Posner offer one more pearl of wisdom.

Be careful of your leadership, for your leadership becomes your legacy.

“Read these six simple lines at the start of every day,” say Kouzes and Posner in their new and revised book. “They will remind you that what you do as a leader begins in your mind, gets expressed in your words, and then gets translated into your actions. Over time, those actions become who you are, determine the credibility you earn, and shape the legacy you leave.”

If you’re a leader in need of something more concrete, here’s what 75,000 people say are the top characteristics of admired leaders. Whether surveyed in 2010, 2002 or 1987, folks the world over have selected honesty, forward-looking, inspiring and competence as the four must-have leadership traits.

Drawing on more than three decades of research, Kouzes and Posner say that honesty remains the most important leadership attribute.  Honest leaders earn our respect. They do what they say and deliver on their promises and commitments. “Honesty is absolutely essential to leadership. If people are going to follow someone willingly, whether into battle or into the boardroom, they first want to assure themselves that the person is worthy of their trust.”

All of us continually ask the same question about our organizational and political leaders. Does this person deserve our trust?

“If your answer is yes, then follow,” advise Kouzes and Posner. “Even if your endeavour is unsuccessful, you will still respect yourself. If your answer is ‘I don’t know,” get more information and get it fast. But if your answer is no, find another job or find another leader.”

As for the other top traits, admired leaders are forward looking and know how to communicate a clear and compelling vision of how things could and should be.  Admired leaders are inspiring, dynamic, uplifting, enthusiastic, positive and optimistic. And admired leaders are competent. They have a winning track record with the skills and know-how to get the job done.  Nothing destroys our confidence in a leader quite like swashbuckling overconfidence combined with a frightening lack of ability.

The common theme running through these traits is credibility. “People everywhere want to believe in their leaders. They want to have faith and confidence in them as people. People want to believe that their leaders’ words can be trusted, that they have the knowledge and skills necessary to lead, and that they are personally excited and enthusiastic about the direction in which they are headed.”

Credible leaders inspire loyalty and commitment. Less than credible leaders get only compliance from disengaged followers.

“It is the credibility of the leadership that determines whether people will volunteer a little more of their time, talent, energy, experience, intelligence, creativity and support in order to achieve significant improvement levels. Managers can threaten people with the loss of jobs if they don’t get with the program, but threats, power and position do not earn commitment. They earn compliance. And compliance produces adequacy – not greatness.”

To earn and sustain credibility, Kouzes and Posner have identified six disciplines for leaders.   

1. Discover yourself. What do you believe in? What do you stand for?  Do you have the confidence to deliver? The will and skill to persist in the face of adversity and uncertainty?

2. Appreciate your constituents. “Leadership is a dialogue, not a monologue,” say XXX. We’re more likely to trust and follow a leader who has our best interests at heart.

3. Affirm shared values. Admired leaders have a gift for staking out common ground on which we can all stand and get along with one another.

4. Develop capacity. “People cannot contribute to the aims and aspirations of an organization if they do not know what to do, and they cannot contribute if they do not know how to do it.”

5. Serve a purpose. “Leadership is a service. Leaders exist to serve a purpose for the people who have made it possible for them to lead.”

6. And sustain hope. “An upbeat attitude is always essential, and it’s even more important in troubling times. People with high hope have higher aspirations and higher levels of performance.” When times are rough, we want leaders who are personally there for us.

Follow these six disciplines of credibility and Kouzes and Posner say you’ll join the ranks of admired leaders. You’ll earn our trust. Gain our respect. Win our support. And we’ll help you do something amazing that leaves a remarkable legacy. 

Book review: Why People Fail – The 16 Obstacles to Success and How You Can Overcome Them

This review first ran in the Jan. 3 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.

Why People Fail: The 16 Obstacles to Success and How You Can Overcome Them

By Siimon Reynolds

Jossey-Bass

$29.99

It’s been 15 years since I talked with my dad and I’d give anything for a do-over.

My dad was 50 and going through the worst and last week of his life. On a Monday morning in late October he went to the nearest emergency department. By Monday afternoon, his bloodwork came back and he was immediately admitted to hospital.  On Tuesday came the diagnosis of leukemia and pneumonia. On Wednesday, my dad signed off on the Hail Mary pass of a clinical trial offered only to patients with no shot at a full recovery. On Thursday, my dad asked to meet with each of his kids.

I sat on the edge of the hospital bed and talked about plans to spend more time together. In between rounds of chemo, we’d go to ball games, take road trips and rent summer cottages.

But my dad didn’t want to talk about the future. He wanted to say goodbye. Unlike the rest of us, he knew the game was over and the battle was lost before it had even started. In less than 48 hours, he was taken off life support in the intensive care unit.

If I could somehow get another half hour with my dad, I’d skip the plans and tell him I was proud of what he’d achieved from a lousy start in life and grateful for the sacrifices he’d made to give his family a far better life. I’d show him the photos of his grandkids and then I’d ask a question.

Suppose you were told at my age that there were only seven years left on the clock. How would you have spent your days? What would you have found the courage to say and do? What bonds would you have strengthened and which connections would you have cut? What dreams would you have chased? Would you have re-examined and re-ordered your priorities? What would have mattered most and least?

These are questions that some of us never ponder until we too are on our deathbed. And for that, we pay a very steep price. We muddle through life, float along in our careers and leave a lot of our promise and potential unfulfilled.

Not asking the right questions is one of 16 obstacles to success identified by author and coach Siimon Reynolds. “If you want a premium-quality life, you need to ingrain in your mind a series of high-quality questions that you regularly ask yourself – questions that support you in your attempt to create the very best life possible for you and the people you most care for. These habitual questions will help you stay on the right track, be more optimistic and take the best daily actions to help you reach the life of your dreams.”

Here’s one of the big questions. When you die, what kind of life would you like to have lived? “Most people hate thinking about death,” says Reynolds.  “But keeping death regularly in mind is one of the very best ways to ensure a wonderful life. The thought of death is the world’s greatest wake-up call.” Reynolds says research shows most people on their deathbeds wished they have taken more risks, had more fun, loved more and spent more time with friends.

Along with failing to ask the right questions, other common obstacles to success include having an unclear purpose, destructive thinking, low productivity, a fixed rather than a growth mindset, weak energy, poor presentation skills, poor-image, mistaking IQ for emotional intelligence, not enough thinking, no daily rituals, few relationships, lack of persistence, money obsession and not focusing on strengths.

“Look at anyone you know who is not succeeding and you will find not just one but several of these failure signs occurring in their life,” says Reynolds. These obstacles aren’t insurmountable or permanent. Reynolds says we need to identify the obstacles that apply to us. Tackle each obstacle one at a time. Design a ritual to overcome them. And do something every day, no matter how small, that gets us closer to victory.

“If someone has achieved more than you, it’s not usually because they are better than you or smarter than you. It’s because they have discovered a better strategy for success. What they have learned, you can learn. What they have succeeded with, so too can you if you learn the formulas for success. Some of these formulas are mental and others are practical and action oriented but all of them can be mastered by those dedicated to the task.”

Despite Reynolds’ enthusiasm for negative ion generators, baroque music, green vegetable powdered drinks, inspiration walls and daily self-affirmations, this is a good primer if you’re looking to make a change for the better in 2012 and make the most of whatever time you have left on the clock.