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Learning Leadership

By James Kouzes and Barry Posner

(Wiley, 248 pages, $30)

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Many leaders consciously or unconsciously are seeking a formula for managerial success. Academics James Kouzes and Barry Posner have one they readily share.

"There is a common set of leadership practices – actions and behaviours – associated with leadership that is within the capacity of everyone to use. The challenge is how to increase the frequency with which you engage in these leadership practices, learning about what they mean and becoming more comfortable and confident in their use," they write in Learning Leadership.

The two professors at the Leavey School of Business in California are renowned for their 1987 book The Leadership Challenge and the formula it conveyed, which they call the five practices of exemplary leadership: model the way, inspire a shared vision, challenge the process, enable others to act and encourage the heart. Since then, they have continued to research and offer advice, all revolving around that formula, and in their latest book they address learning how to lead, stressing that learning is "the master skill."

Many people, of course, don't believe leadership can be learned. It supposedly comes naturally. But rather than getting tied up in the age-old "are leaders born or made?" debate, the academics feel the more useful question is: "'Can you, and those you work with, become better leaders than you are today?' The answer to that question is a resounding yes."

Leadership is not a talent but an observable, learnable set of skills. Leading is about the actions you take – how you use those skills – not the position you hold. So to be a better leader, you have to believe you can be a better leader, improving your skills.

You also have to challenge yourself. Lately, we've heard about focusing on our strengths and not fussing about weaknesses. But to become a better leader, you should address those weaknesses, developing new skills. And in doing that, you should engage the support of others, as an athlete seeks coaching. "No one ever made anything extraordinary happen alone," they write. "Leadership is a team sport and not a solo performance."

Finally, you must practise, deliberately. "What actually differentiates the expert performers from the good performers is their dedication to doing something every day to improve," they insist.

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That gives birth to the five fundamentals for learning leadership:

1. Believe you can

The best leaders believe they are capable of learning and developing throughout their lives. They understand that learning is a master skill and that leadership emerges from within. "Which comes first, learning or leading?" they ask. "Learning comes first." It's vital that you be curious and want to learn something new. You are never done learning.

2. Aspire to excel

You need to be clear about the core values that guide your decisions and actions. A place to start is by thinking about what kind of leader you would like to be – what is important to you. At the same time, it's important to recognize that who you are isn't who you will be – changes will occur – and for all the thinking about self, leadership is not just about you. It's about helping others to achieve their values and vision. "Exemplary leaders and their constituents are in service of a larger purpose – a purpose beyond the self. Your success as a leader is inextricably linked to how successful you can make others," they write.

3. Challenge yourself

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To develop as a leader, you will need to step outside your comfort zone. "You have to seek new experiences, test yourself, make some mistakes and keep climbing back up that learning curve," they write. They stress leadership is a marathon, not a sprint, and requires grit – persisting in the face of difficulties and finishing what you start. Courage is essential. It will give you the strength to grow. It's not the courage of war heroes but a mundane, everyday determination as you make important, risky choices.

4. Seek support

You can't learn to become the best leader by yourself. You need to get connected, seeking support and feedback. "The top performers in every endeavour, including leaders, all seek out support, advice and the counsel of others. That has a lot to do with why they turn out to be the most successful," they observe.

5. Practise deliberately

You need to take a step every day to improve, picking areas in which you could be better. They note that you might set a goal of always clarifying your understanding of what others are saying before you respond to them. That requires selecting a method for improvement – a process – and then taking steps, repeatedly, deliberately, in that direction.

Their advice is sound. But it is not surprising in any way, and the book, therefore, feels like a litany of things we have heard before (but probably don't do). If you want to push yourself to act, this might be helpful for you.

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POSTSCRIPT

Joshua Gans, professor of strategic management at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, tackles the issue of disruption in The Disruption Dilemma (MIT Press, 166 pages, $32.50).

Ivey Business School professors Mary Crossan, Gerard Seijts, and Jeffrey Gandz look at 11 components of character in Developing Leadership Character (Routledge, 196 pages, $64.75).

Chris Guillebeau, author of the bestselling book The $100 Startup, shows how to find the work you were meant to do in Born for This (Crown Business, 313 pages, $35).

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