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Taking the Leadership Challenge…Seriously


Jeff Hopfenbeck

During an oh-too-long layover in Chicago O’hare on my way back to Colorado over President’s Day weekend, I worked on a speech I will likely never deliver. That sounds funny and, believe me, it felt a little odd. But this was a literal part of the leadership challenge presented by Kouzes and Posner in their widely-read book, The Leadership Challenge. Despite my initial skepticism, I was surprised by the amount I was able to gain from the exercise.

First published nearly twenty-five years ago, The Leadership Challenge has emerged as one of the most read texts in the study and practice of leadership. It serves as the base for the leadership development portion of our El Pomar Fellowship curriculum. Based on nearly thirty years of research, Kouzes and Posner have worked to boil down leadership into five seemingly simple but exemplary practices:

Model the Way
Inspire a Shared Vision
Challenge the Process
Enable Others to Act
Encourage the Heart

As a part of the book’s discussion on modeling the way, Kouzes and Posner ask the reader to work on clarifying their own values.

People expect their leaders to speak out on matters of values and conscience. But to speak out, you have to know what to speak about. To stand up for your beliefs, you have to know what you stand for. To walk the talk, you have to talk the walk. To do what you say, you have to know what you want to say. To earn and sustain personal credibility, you must first be able to clearly articulate deeply held beliefs. (47)

At the end of the chapter, the authors encourage readers to write a tribute to themselves. The exercise involves imagining the following scenario: Tonight you’ll be honored as Leader of the Year. Members of your community will gather to honor your contributions to your family, your organization, your colleagues, and your society. Kouzes and Posner ask you to reflect on what words or phrases you would most like others to say about you. What would make you feel the proudest?

What I learned was this: In order to be the kind of leader that inspires others and enables the creation of shared values and a shared vision, it is important that you as the individual have a pretty good idea of what you stand for.

During the layover I did find a few key themes that seemed to bind my experiences and passions together: compassion, kindness, humility, and a belief in the power of communities and people to make a difference in the world. Is my list complete? Heck no. Determining what exactly it is that you stand for is a rather difficult challenge in itself— one that cannot be accomplished during an airport layover, no matter how long.

Though I have always considered myself a fairly confident and rooted young person, the exercise pushed me to think deeper about the themes, motives, and passions that underlie my actions as an individual and a leader. It is this self-exploration and development that ultimately determines the power of Kouzes and Posner’s message. Whether it is modeling the way, inspiring a shared vision, or encouraging the heart, it is important to dive into those deep (and sometimes dark) corners of yourself in order to lead others.