The Leadership Challenge – Happy Birthday!

Happy Anniversary to the most important book on leadership on my shelf.  Not only is it compelling, research-based, comprehensive, elegant, immediately applicable, and timeless; it changed my life.

Research ought to be relevant, right? So, when it was time to pick a topic for my Master’s degree paper, it was easy.  I was a band teacher at the time, in the mid-nineties, and there was a problem with my students.  They didn’t get me.  And they were disengaged, to the point of dropping the program; I was averaging a loss of 25% of students per year.  What was wrong with them?

Thankfully, My research topic was approved, and I set out to solve the problem.   Their problem.

You know where this is going, right? The best peer-review research on this topic points back to the teacher- the leader.  That was my “oh, duh” moment.  Luckily (most teachers will know there is a touch of sarcasm in that word), I was assigned to supervise a study hall for 45 minutes per day, and I started to use that time to voraciously study leadership. The first book I read was The Leadership Challenge.  Good thing.

It’s gripping.  The research is deep, and broad, and unparalleled in the study of leadership. But it’s presented and distilled in a way that allows for immediate introspection and application, without being watered down.  And so I worked…

For example, I had a reputation for being very sparse with my compliments. Though over 15 years ago, I clearly remember Val saying “Oooo, you got a compliment from Mr Feirer!  Seriously, that’s pretty cool; he hardly ever does that.” You only got compliments from me when you really earned them; leaders have high expectations, doggone it.

But that’s only a part of best practices in leadership; the best leaders also know to “encourage the heart” by linking appropriate positive feedback to the efforts related to those high standards. You probably already know that, but I was pretty clueless at the time.

There are dozens of other examples of the ways my practices were in conflict with the best practices in effective leadership (I know some former students who could tell lots of cringe-worthy stories), and The Leadership Challenge has helped thousands of leaders come to grips with reality.

Like data?  This isn’t precise, but it’s close: in my first 7 years of teaching, I lost about 20% of my students each year.  After reading- and applying- The Leadership Challenge, that number remained at or below 5% for the next 12 years.  I guess I finally figured out “what was wrong with those students.”

I read more books during that study hall time, to be sure (see suggested reading), and most were very good, but nothing gave me the “aha” and changed my behavior like The Leadership Challenge.

Throughout the rest of my teaching career, I would occasionally do a “checkup” by doing an informal 360 using the practices in the book with the folks around me.  As I evolved from a teacher to a leadership trainer and consultant, the curriculum I developed was very heavily drawn from The Leadership Challenge, and that remains true to this day.

It’s always important to say thank you, so I was excited this past week when I got to thank co-author Jim Kouzes in person.  He and co-author Barry Posner created something special, and rigorous, and relevant 25 years ago, and they deserve the thanks of leaders everywhere during this anniversary year.

All serious professionals who consider themselves leaders need to read this book, keep it on their shelf, and pull it out regularly.  Those you serve deserve it.

PS – (and this is even more personal, so skip it if you’re tired of autobiography) – I’ve been affiliated with Inscape Publishing for a while; they provide astoundingly well-researched assessments, including the most rigorously developed DiSC profiles, as well as facilitation and follow up tools.  Earlier this year, they were acquired by Wiley and Sons, which puts us under the same banner as Pfeiffer, and Jossey-Bass– publisher of The Leadership Challenge. It’s pretty exciting, 15 years after this journey began in the Sumner Junior High study hall, to be on the same team!

Okay- thanks for the indulgence, loyal readers.  Next week I promise to be more actionable, less personal, and more concise.

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