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The Leadership Challenge - Book summary

In today’s fast changing world, leaders play a crucial role in leading and uniting people to solve the world’s challenges. The Leadership Challenge is about mobilizing people to create extraordinary results, and uniting people to turn challenges into successes. Based on 30 years of research, Kouzes and Posner found 5 timeless Practices of Exemplary Leadership behind the extraordinary results. Organizations whose senior leaders strongly demonstrate the 5 Practices delivered stronger financial performance over a 5-year period, compared to their counterparts – with net income growth of almost 18 times higher, and stock price growth of almost 3 times higher. In this free version of The Leadership Challenge summary, we’ll outline these 5 Leadership Practices.

Introduction: The Leadership Challenge

Leaders at their Personal Best

For decades, Kouzes and Posner have been interviewing leaders and their followers, to find out: “What did you do when you were at your personal best as a leader?”. Based on thousands of interviews and case studies, they found that:

  • Leaders who consistently use all 5 practices below are significantly more effective than those who use them infrequently. All 5 practices are needed for exemplary leadership.
  • Anyone can be a leader. Exemplary leaders exist everywhere, in every geography, industry, and demographic. In the best organizations, everyone is encouraged to act like a leader; and
  • Although the context of leadership has changed over the years, the 5 Practices have transcended time and context to remain relevant since their initial research 30 years ago.


Let’s now take a look at the 5 practices of exemplary leadership covered in the book.

Practice 1: Model the Way

Leadership starts with the inward journey of discovering yourself. There are 2 main components to this first practice.


To be a credible leader, you must first get clear about your values and guiding principles. Only when you have found your inner voice, can you express it authentically.

  • Know your values. Your values (e.g. collaboration, loyalty, honesty) guide everything you do, including your judgements, decisions, interactions and commitments. When you know and communicate your values clearly, others can commit to take the journey with you.
  • Express in your own words. Once you know what you want to say, you must give voice to them. Use your own words, so people know they are listening to you.
  • Affirm shared values. Besides knowing your own values, you must become equally clear about organizational values. The key is to concurrently honour diversity in the organization while identifying common values that are shared by others. By affirming these shared values, you (a) develop a common understanding of what’s expected, and (b) remind people why they care about their work.  For instance, Procter & Gamble (P&G) leaders constantly affirm their Purpose, Values and Principles, and their people look to the PVP to guide them in making the right decisions daily.


Be the role model of the behaviours you expect from others. Demonstrate that you are truly serious about them.

  • Live the shared values. What you do speaks louder than what you say, so make sure you lead by example. In the book, the authors explain what this entails, including how you spend your time, what you say/ ask, and seeking feedback. (You can also get more details from our full 13-page summary).
  • Teach others to model the values. Seek to align words and deeds at all levels of the organization, so everyone is a role model. Some useful tools highlighted are: critical incidents, stories and systems and procedures.

Practice 2: Inspire a Shared Vision

Leaders have a clear vision of what the future can be, and are confident they can deliver that future. To make your vision a reality, you must help others to see and own the shared vision. Again, this is broken down into 2 components:


As a leader, you must have a unique vision of the future that you are clear and passionate about, and that is for a common good. Only then can you get people to come together and commit to it.

  • Imagine the possibilities. Exemplary leaders are forward-looking and have a “gut sense” of what the future can be. Explore your intuition fully, to get clear on what you truly care about and why. Check out our complete version of The Leadership Challenge summary for more details.
  • Find a common purpose. People don’t want to just follow the leaders’ vision. They want to fulfill their own hopes, visions and aspirations. Hence, you’ll need to involve people in the vision development process and find a shared vision that fulfills a common purpose.


Now that you’ve identified the common purpose, you need to build the common ground and ignite passion and emotions for the vision. To achieve the extraordinary, we must capture not just the minds, but also the hearts.

  • Appeal to Common Ideals. Help people to see how their dreams are aligned with your vision. Here’s a quick overview:
    (i) Relate to what’s meaningful. Most people crave to be part of something significant and ground-breaking. They typically relate to ideas like freedom, world peace, self-actualization etc. You will need to communicate how, by being a part of your vision, people can concurrently make a difference and meet their own long-term goals.
    (ii) Make it special. Help people to feel special and proud of being part of something unique, so they become your ambassadors.
    (iii) Align your vision with people’s dreams. Get them excited by giving meaning, purpose, and showing how their dreams can be realized.
  • Animate the Vision. Ignite the excitement and passion in others by bringing the vision to life.

Practice 3: Challenge the Process

Exemplary leaders don’t just pioneer new breakthroughs themselves. They constantly venture outside themselves and their organizations for potential innovations.

This comprises 2 components: (a) Searching for opportunities, and (b) Experimenting and taking risks. Do get more details from our full version of The Leadership Challenge summary.

Practice 4: Enable Others to Act

A big dream can only be fulfilled through a team that has trust and relationships, competence and confidence. Strengthen others by giving them confidence and developing their competence. Help them to feel a deep sense of belonging and ownership.

Check out the complete 13-page summary to learn more about the 2 key components: (a) Fostering collaboration, and (b) Strengthening others.

Practice 5: Encourage the Heart

The road to success can be long and arduous. Exemplary leaders motivate and support their followers through genuine care and appreciation.

This comprises 2 components: (a) Recognizing contributions, and (b) Celebrating the values and victories. More details can be found in the complete version of The Leadership Challenge summary.


Getting the Most from The Leadership Challenge

In this article, we’ve briefly outlined some of the key insights and strategies you can use to achieve desired change. For more examples, details, and actionable tips to apply these strategies, do get our full book summary bundle which includes an infographic, 13-page text summary, and a 23-minute audio summary.

The Leadership Challenge summary - book summary bundle

The book is packed with more than 100 real-life examples and case studies, with background on relevant research and experiments to help the reader understand the 5 leadership practices and how to apply them. Each chapter ends with a “Take Action” segment with suggested action steps to get started. You can purchase the book here for more information and useful exercises and action plans, you can visit their official website or download their mobile app.

If you’re new to leadership, or are in a leadership development role, do check out the self-coaching tips by the authors in a “sequel” to this book, “Learning Leadership“.

About the Authors of The Leadership Challenge

The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations is written by James Kouzes & Barry Posner.

Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner are authors and speakers who have been working together for more than 30 years. They are best known for their work on leadership, and have won numerous awards including the American Society for Training and Development’s highest award for their Distinguished Contribution to Workplace Learning and Performance. Kouzes and Posner have co-authored more than a dozen books, and developed the highly-acclaimed Leadership Practices Inventory (LPI), a 360-degree questionnaire for assessing leadership behavior and The Student LPI. They frequently speak and conduct leadership development seminars for organizations worldwide.

The Leadership Challenge Quotes

“We need more exemplary leaders, and we need them more than ever… We need leaders who can unite us and ignite us.”

“Leadership is not about who you are; it’s about what you do.”

“Leadership knows no racial or religious bounds, no ethnic or cultural borders.”

“Leadership is a relationship between those who aspire to lead and those who choose to follow.”

“Titles are granted, but it’s your behaviour that earns you respect.”


Click here to download Rise up to the Leadership Challenge book summary and infographic

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