The Truth About Leadership | Notes & Review

Posted on June 7, 2011


James Kouzes and Barry Posner. The Truth About Leadership. Jossey-Bass, 2010. (197 pages)

Introduction: What Everyone Wants to Know About Leadership

Age made no difference. (xvi)

In the middle of responding to an audience question one of us was saying, “I don’t know what you call something that’s been the same for twenty-five years, but…,” and Ken [Blanchard] interrupted, exclaiming, “I’d call it the truth.” (xviii)

The first truth is that You Make a Difference. (xxi) The second truth is that Credibility Is the Foundation of Leadership. If people don’t believe in you, they won’t willingly follow you. (xxii) The third truth is that Values Drive Commitment. People want to know what you stand for and believe in. (xxii) The fourth truth is that Focusing on the Future Sets Leaders Apart. The capacity to imagine and articulate exciting future possibilities is a defining competence of leaders. You have to take the long-term perspective. (xxii) You Can’t Do It Alone is the fifth truth. Leadership is a team sport… What strengthens and sustains the relationship between leader and constituent is that leaders are obsessed with what is best for others, not what is best for themselves. (xxiii) Trust Rules is the sixth truth. Trust is the social glue that holds individuals and groups together. And the level of trust others have in you will determine the amount of influence you have. You have to earn your constituents’ trust before they’ll be willing to trust you. That means you have to give trust before you can get trust. (xxiii) The seventh truth is that Challenge Is the Crucible for Greatness. Great achievements don’t happen when you keep things the same. change invariably involves challenge, and challenge tests you. (xxiii) Truth number eight reminds you that You Either Lead by Example or You Don’t Lead at All. Leaders have to keep their promises and become role models for the values and actions they espouse. (xxiii) Truth number nine is that The Best Leaders Are the Best Learners. Leaders are constant improvement fanatics, and learning is the master skill of leadership. (xxiv) The tenth truth is that Leadership Is an Affair of the Heart. it could also be the first truth. Leaders are in love with their constituents, their customers and clients, and the mission that they are serving. Leaders make others feel important and are gracious in showing their appreciation. Love is the motivation that energizes leaders to give so much for others. You just won’t work hard enough to become great if you aren’t doing what you love. (xxiv)



It is not a question of “Will I make a difference?” Rather, it’s “What difference will I make?” (1)

Leadership is much more broadly distributed in the population, and it’s accessible to anyone who has passion and purpose to change the way things are. (5)

For a long time now we’ve been asking people about the leader role models in their own lives. … We’ve asked them to identify the person they’d select as their most important role model for leadership, and then we’ve given them a list of eight possible categories from which these leaders might come. …Take a look at the results.

Data on Leader Role Models

Role Model Category

Respondent Age Category

18 to 30 Over 30
Family member 40% 46%
Teacher or coach 26% 14%
Community or religious 11% 8%
Business leader 7% 23%
Political leader 4% 4%
Professional athlete 3% 0%
Entertainer 2% 0%
None/not sure/other 7% 4%

Regardless of whether one is under or over thirty years of age, when thinking back over their lives and selecting their most important leader role models, people are more likely to choose a family member than anyone else. Mom and Dad, it turns out, are the most influential leaders after all. In second place, for respondents thirty years of age and under, is a teacher or coach, and the third spot goes to a community or religious leader. (9)

Someone is looking to you right now for leadership. …Leader role models are local. you find them close to where you live and work. (10)


…the more you engage in the practices of exemplary leadership, the more likely it is that you’ll have a positive influence on others in the organization. (12)

No matter what your position is, you have to take responsibility for the quality of leadership people experience. (13)

After all, if you aren’t willing to follow yourself, why would anyone else want to? (14)


It turns out that the believability of the leader determines whether people will willingly give more of their time, talent, energy, experience, intelligence, creativity, and support. Only credible leaders can earn commitment, and only commitment builds and regenerates great organizations and communities. (16)

In every relationship people have expectations of each other. (16)

Characteristics of Admired Leaders

Percentage of Respondents Selecting Each Characteristic

Characteristic Percentage Selecting
Honest 85
Forward-Looking 70
Inspiring 69
Competent 64
Intelligent 42
Broad-Minded 40
Dependable 37
Supportive 31
Determined 28
Cooperative 26
Ambitious 26
Courageous 21
Caring 20
Loyal 18
Imaginative 18
Mature 16
Self-Controlled 11
Independent 6
*Note: We asked each respondent to select seven characteristics out of twenty, so the total percentage adds up to more than 100 percent. These percentages represent respondents from six continents: Africa, North America, South America, Asia, Europe, and Australia. The majority of respondents are from the United States.

…only four qualities have continuously received an average of over 60 percent of the votes.

Being honest means telling the truth and having ethical principles and clear standards by which you live. (19)

Being forward-looking means having a sense of direction and a concern for the future of the organization. (19) But it’s not just your vision that others care to know. they also expect that you’ll be able to connect your image of the future to their hopes, dreams, and aspirations. People won’t willingly follow you until they can see how they share in the future you envision. (20)

Being inspiring means sharing the genuine enthusiasm, excitement, and energy you have about the exciting possibilities ahead. (20)

Being competent refers to your track record and your ability to get things done. (20) Competence inspires confidence… (21)

Three of these four key characteristics make up what communications experts refer to as “source credibility.” …perceived trustworthiness, expertise, and dynamism. (22)

If you don’t believe in the messenger, you won’t believe the message. (24)

CREDIBILITY MATTERS. In these studies we find that when people say their immediate manager exhibits high credibility, they’re significantly more likely to: be proud to tell others they’re part of the organization, feel a strong sense of team spirit, see their own personal values as consistent with those of the organization, feel attached and committed to the organization, and have a sense of ownership of the organization. (25)

People are just more likely to stick with you when they know they are dealing with a credible person and a credible institution. In business, and in life, if people don’t believe in you, they won’t stand by you. (27)


Leadership means being absolutely honest and helping others to do as I do, not simply to do what I say. – Arthur Taute

…it comes from aligning your actions and your words. (27) A judgment of “credible” is handed down when words and deeds are consonant. (27)

DWYSYWD, or Do What You Say You Will Do. (28)


…by far the most frequently asked

is: “Who are you?” (29)

In order for me to become a leader and become an even better leader, it’s important that I first define my values and principles. – Olivia Lai

To act with integrity, you must first see clearly. (35)

Essentially, clarity about personal values has the most significant impact on employees’ feelings about their work and what they’re doing in the workplace. (37)

…however…people cannot commit fully to anything unless it fits with their own beliefs. (38)

IT’S NOT JUST YOUR VALUES. Conformity produces compliance, not commitment. Unity is essential, and unity is forged, not forced. (42)

There seems to be this myth about leadership that what you are supposed to do is ascend the mountain, gain enlightenment, descend with the tablets, and then proclaim the truth to your followers. Nothing could be more damaging to the work of a leader. Leadership is more often about listening then telling. Your task is to gain consensus on a common cause and a common set of principles. You need to build and affirm a community of shared values. (42-43)

Leadership is a relationship, and relationships are built on mutual understanding. (43)


The second-most-common question people want an answer to is: “What’s your vision?” (46)

No other quality we’ve studied showed such a dramatic difference between leader and colleague. (47)

Moreover, we found…that the importance of being forward-looking increased with age, work experience, and level in the organizational hierarchy. (47)

YOU HAVE TO SPEND MORE TIME IN THE FUTURE. Front-line leaders are expected to anticipate events only about three months down the road. Due to the timelines of their more complex projects, middle-level managers often need to look three to five years into the future. Those in the executive suite must focus on a horizon that’s ten or more years away. (50)

INSIGHT: EXPLORE YOUR PAST EXPERIENCE. You may not have ever explored your past for a persistent and repeating ideal, but if you were to examine the recurring theme in your life, what might you find? (53)

Search your past to find that theme. (54)

You can gain a greater appreciation for how long it can take to fulfill your aspirations. (54)

“I’m my organization’s futures department.” (55)

FORESIGHT: BE OPTIMISTIC. This means that your outlook on the future, and on life in general, strongly influences you and your group’s success. (58)

A positive difference can only be made by a positive leader. (59)


Leadership is at team sport. …Look at it this way. How do you know someone is a leader? …the simplest way to know is just to look to see whether that person has followers. If you think you’re a leader and you turn around and no one is following you, then you’re simply out for a walk. (62)

YOU HAVE TO HEAR WHAT PEOPLE ARE SAYING. So often leadership is associated with inspirational speaking, but people often miss the fact that making the human connection requires exceptional listening. (64)

It’s about intimacy. It’s about familiarity. It’s about empathy. (65)

When leaders are in tune with emotions of others, they create resonance between leader and constituent… (65)

UNITE PEOPLE AROUND A SHARED VISION. One of the most powerful internal motivators on the planet is a sense of meaning and purpose. Throughout human history people have risked life, security, and wealth for something that is greater than themselves. People want a chance to take part in something meaningful and important. There is a deep human yearning to make a difference. People want to know that there is a purpose to their existence. They want to know that their lives mean something. A significant part of the leader’s job is uncovering and reflecting back the meaning that others seek. (66)

Truly inspirational leadership is not about selling a vision; it’s about showing people how the vision can directly benefit them and how their specific needs can be satisfied. Leaders must be able to sense the purpose in others. What people really want to hear is not the leader’s vision. They want to hear about how their own aspirations will be met. They want to hear how their dreams will come true and their hopes will be realized. They want to see themselves in the picture of the future that the leader is painting. The very best leaders understand that it’s about inspiring a shared vision, not about selling their own idiosyncratic views of the world. (68)

The vast majority of people want to walk with their leaders. They want to dream with them. They want to invent with them. they want to be involved in creating their own futures. This means that you have to stop taking the view that visions come from the top down. You have to stop seeing it as a monologue, and you have to start engaging others in a collective dialogue about the future. (68)

MAKE OTHERS FEEL STRONG AND CAPABLE. [People] tell us that when they are with this leader they feel empowered, listened to, understood, capable, important, like they mattered, challenged to do more, and other similar descriptors. (69)

One of the reasons people want to follow a leader is because they know that they will be better off as a result of being in that relationship than they would be otherwise. (69)

Getting people to feel capable and confident, and to act like leaders themselves, requires making an investment in their personal development… (71)

Often, people just lack a little courage and confidence. They blossom when they have a leader who believes in them and gives them support an encouragement. (71)

BRING IT OUT OF OTHERS. Rather than thinking that you have all the answers, you need to be able to ask great questions. (72)

It’s your job as a leader to increase people’s sense of self-determination, self-confidence, and personal effectiveness. … It’s your job to interact with others in ways that promote connection, collaboration, confidence, and competence. When you do, you’ll see learning, innovation, and performance soar. (73)


There is a positive relationship between risk and trust. The more people trust, the more they’ll risk. (78)

Building that structure of trust begins when one person takes a risk and opens up to another. If you’re the leader in the relationship, that person needs to be you. you need to ante up first. (79)

…you need to demonstrate that you have the competence, the system, and the processes to make people feel safe and trusting. (82)

How can you facilitate trust?

  • Behave predictably and consistently.
  • Communicate clearly. When you make statements about your intentions–however tentative they may be in your own mind–you need to be aware that to others these same statements are viewed as promises.
  • Treat promises seriously.
  • Be forthright and candid.

If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything. – Mark Twain

Building trust goes way beyond telling the truth. You have to communicate on a timely basis and in a readily accessible and easily understood manner. When information is not forthcoming, is late, or is perceived to have been withheld, distrust begins to build. When full information is not forthcoming, interpretations generated almost always become more negative and cynical than they would have been had the truth been presented up front. (87-88)

There’s nothing more destructive to trust than deceit, an nothing more constructive than candor. (89)


The historical leaders whom people admire most always faced and led others through major challenges. (91)

Not one single person claimed to have achieved a personal best by keeping things the same. (93)

The study of leadership is the study of how men and women guide people through 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, awaken new possibilities, and pursue opportunities. (93)

What we have before us are some breathtaking opportunities disguised as insoluble problems. – John Gardner

Whether ont he front lines or in the executive suites, whether at the global or local levels, leaders see open doors while others see brick walls. Leaders seize the opportunities that hide inside adversities. They take the initiative to move things forward. (97)

…confronting challenges and making changes can be stressful. And too much stress can threaten the immune system and make us sick. That’s why successfully leading change requires resilience. (97)

Resilience is not a trait that you either have or don’t have; it’s not something that’s genetically determined. These behaviors, thoughts, and actions can be learned and developed. …It’s called grit. (99)

…people with more grit are more likely to achieve positive outcomes. (100)

…engage in some positive self-talk. (101)

FAILING IS LEARNING. …you have to accept failure as part of the process. (103)

…it’s often your failures and your mistakes that are your best teachers–if, of course, you are willing to accept the feedback, figure out what you can do better, and put that learning into practice the next time around. (104)


In the final analysis, leadership is about playing that instrument called “you.” (105)

In the final analysis, people believe what you do over what you say. (105

Leaders have only two tools at their disposal: what they say and how they act. What they say might be interesting, but how they act is always crucial. – Alan Deutschman in “Walk the Talk”

…you’d best be more concerned about being believable before you work on being interesting. (107)

Quite often the greatest distance that leaders have to travel is the distance from their mouths to their feet. (107)

Tony Simons calls this “behavioral integrity.”

People become cynical, disenchanted, and downright weary when leaders back away from or don’t do what they are asking of others. (112)

Want to be the best leader your organization has ever had? Be true to your word. (113)

ADMIT YOUR MISTAKES. …the “Achiles’ heel” of leaders: Believing that they know it all and, accordingly, believing that they will never fail. (114)

An apology lets others know that you are concerned about the impact of your behavior on them. (116)


The potential to lead exists in you. If you apply your head, your heart, and your courage, you can learn to lead. (119)

Leadership is not preordained. It is not a gene, and it is not a trait. there is no hard evidence to support the assertion that leadership is imprinted in the DNA of only some individuals and that the rest of us missed out and are doomed to be clueless. … Leadership can be learned. It is an observable pattern of practices and behaviors, and a definable set of skills and abilities. (120)

…to master leadership you have to have  strong desire to excel, you have to believe strongly that you can learn new skills and abilities, and you have to be willing to devote yourself to continuous learning and deliberate practices. No matter how good you are, you can always get better. (121)

It’s not the absence of leadership ability or potential that inhibits the development of more leaders; it’s the persistence of the myth that leadership can’t be learned. (121)

Which comes first, learning or leading? Learning comes first. (122)

Learning agility is the ability to reflect on experience and then engage in new behaviors based on those reflections. – Bob Eichinger, Mike Lombardo, and Dave Ulrich

Not only do you have to be able to learn, but you have to learn how to learn, constantly absorbing and teaching yourself new ways of doing old things and new ways of doing new things. (123)

In study after study, …those individuals with fixed mindsets gave up more quickly and performed more poorly than those with growth mindsets. (125)

Talent is not the key that unlocks excellence. (127)

If you want a rough metric of what it takes to achieve the highest level of expertise, the estimate is about 10,000 hours of practices over a period of ten years. That’s about 2.7 hours a day, every day, for ten years! (127)

You won’t find a fast track to excellence. There’s no such thing as instant expertise.

…deliberate practice has five elements.

  • First, it is designed specifically to improve performance, which means there is a methodology and there is a very clear goal.
  • Secondly, it has to be repeated a lot.
  • The third element of deliberate practice is that feedback on results must be continuously available.
  • The fourth element of deliberate practice is that it is highly demanding mentally.
  • The final element of deliberate practice you must appreciate, sorry to say, is that it isn’t all that much fun.


Research indicates that the highest performing managers and leaders are the most open and caring. The best leaders demonstrate more affection toward others and want others to be more open with them. They are more positive and passionate, more loving and compassionate, and more grateful and encouraging than their lower performing counterparts. (136)

The power of authentic leadership…is found not in external arrangements but in the human heart. Authentic leaders in every setting–from families to nation-states–aim at liberating the heart, their own and others’, so that its power can liberate the world. – Parker Palmer


You don’t love someone because of who they are; you love them because of the way they make you feel. This axiom applies equally in a company setting. it may seem inappropriate to use words such as love and affection in relation to business. Conventional wisdom has it that management is not a popularity contest… I contend, however, that all things being equal, we will work harder and more effectively for people we like. And we like them in direct proportion to how they make us feel. – Irwin Federman

Love is the soul of leadership. (137)

Really believe in your heart of hearts that your fundamental purpose, the reason for being, is to enlarge the lives of others. Your life will be enlarged also. And all the other things we have been taught to concentrate on will take care of themselves. – Pete Thigpen

Love enlarges lives. …leaders transform their followers into leaders. (139)

I constantly remind myself that my name is not on the organization. I think all leaders, including myself, need to be reminded of that and that we are just in our positions as stewards of our people and organizations which have been entrusted to us. – Gary Strack

SHOW THEM THAT YOU CARE. The primary way that you show that you care for someone is by paying attention to them. (140)

…much about the culture of a company can be learned as a result of listening to and understanding the stories told about it (142)

FALL IN LOVE WITH WHAT YOU DO. To become the best leader you can be, you have to fall in love with the work you are doing and with the reason you are doing it. (145)

PROMOTE THE POSITIVE. People feed off of their leaders’ moods and their leaders’ views of the world. …This isn’t conjecture. This is fact. (148)

People who enjoy more positivity are better able to cope with adversities and are more resilient during times of high stress. They are also more likely to see the commonalities between themselves and others. (149)

Ad people become negative even faster when they see it in their leaders. (151)

Leaders put their hearts in their businesses and their business in their hearts. (152)


YOU ARE RESPONSIBLE. Are you familiar with the riddle of the twelve frogs? It goes like this: Twelve frogs are sitting on a log. Twelve frogs decide to jump into the pond. How many frogs remain on the log? The answer? Twelve. Twelve frogs remain on the log because their is a clear difference between deciding to jump and jumping. (163)

Amazon Exclusive: Q&A with Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner

Q: What is a leadership truth?
A: Shortly before we began writing this book, we had the chance to share the platform at an association meeting with renowned author and leadership educator Ken Blanchard. In responding to an audience question, one of us was saying, “I don’t know what you call something that’s been the same for twenty-five years, but. . .,” and Ken interrupted with, “I’d call it the truth!” It was a moment of clarity. It reinforced our sense that some things about leadership just don’t change that much over time, if at all, and that those things need to be understood for what they are—the truth. We wanted to record those enduring leadership truths that we learned over the years. We also wanted to make certain that the lessons we included in The Truth About Leadership withstood not only the test of time but also the scrutiny of statistics. So we sifted through the reams of data that had piled up over three decades and isolated those nuggets that were soundly supported by the numbers. This is a collection of the real thing—no fads, no myths, no trendy responses—just truths that endure.

Q: What one piece of advice would you give a new leader, or a young person entering the workforce?
A: Dream. Imagine. Think big. We need your creativity, enthusiasm, and idealism. The truth is that focusing on the future sets leaders apart. The capacity to imagine and articulate exciting future possibilities is the defining competence of leaders. It’s not something people expect from colleagues, but they definitely expect it from their leaders. You have to take a long-term perspective if you’re going to guide people to places they have never been before. And, as important as it is, inspiring a shared vision is the most difficult of all the leadership practices to master. You need to start now in developing the capacity to envision an ennobling and uplifting future.

We’d also tell them that you have to say yes to begin things. You have to say yes to your beliefs, you have to say yes to big dreams, you have to say yes to difficult challenges, you have to say yes to collaboration, you have to say yes to trust, you have to say yes to learning, you have to say yes to setting the example, and you have to say yes to your heart. So, here’s the big question: Are you ready to say yes to leadership?

Q: What would you say to a more seasoned leader?
A: Two things. First, the truth is that the best leaders are the best learners. Leaders are constant improvement fanatics, and learning is the master skill of leadership. We found in our research that those leaders who engaged more in learning, regardless of their style of learning, were more effective at leading regardless of their years of experience. Seasoned leaders have learned a lot, and they need to keep on learning and practicing every day of their lives. They also need to share their learning with all of the emerging leaders in their organizations.

Second, we’d remind them that the truth is you either lead by example or you don’t lead at all. Credibility is the foundation of leadership, and credibility is earned minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour, day-by-day when you do what you say you will do. We’ve seen far too many examples lately of seasoned leaders who seem to forget this very basic lesson. Keep in mind that your example is the most powerful teaching tool you have. To your direct reports, you are the most important and influential leader in your organization. Make sure you set the best possible example you can for those who’re looking to you for guidance. The legacy you leave is the life you lead.

Q: Of these ten truths, which resonates the most for you?
A: You can’t do it alone. No leader ever got anything extraordinary done without the talent and support of others. You need others and they need you. You’re all in this together. You have to be sensitive to the needs of others, listen, ask questions, develop others, provide support, and ask for help. We are reminded of this every day as we work on our books. We’re reminded of it not only by the leaders who share their stories with us, but also by the fact that we’ve been working collaboratively for nearly thirty years with each other and with our publishers. We could never have done what we’ve done without the caring support and involvement of so many other people. We are so grateful to be part of an extraordinary community.

Q: What can fans of The Leadership Challenge expect from this new work?
A: For those who have read our prior works, some of what we say may sound familiar, as we are building on the major lessons we’ve learned from over thirty years of research. But three things make this book different from our previous ones. First, this is a bolder book. We’re taking a stand that our research supports each and every claim. Second, it’s based on far more data than any of our other books were. Over the past few years we’ve been able to accumulate a lot more quantitative information and a lot more cases than for our other books. Third, it’s a more global and a more cross-generational book. The stories and examples we share come from around the world and encompass three generations of leaders. We know that you’ll be the judge, but if you’ve read our other works we still think you’ll find many new and useful insights among these enduring truths.

— VIA —

A 5-star book on leadership that I will recommend to everyone.

The only note of inquiry I have is the part of “learning comes first.” In my experience, leading has always come first, and learning comes only after someone has been leading for a while. There reaches a point when it is iterative, but learning about leadership (through study/reading, etc.) seems only pertinent after someone has already been leading. In addition, learning and leading seem to be synonymous, happening simultaneously. I see this hinted in the chapter, such as in the idea of “reflecting” upon events and activities. So, perhaps I would say that leading happens first, and learning is prioritized in a leader’s mind as first.

Thanks to Kouzes and Posner for the tremendous resource this is.