18 Leadership Lessons from leadership expert Jim Kouzes

Last Friday, I had the opportunity to spend some time learning from author and leadership expert, Jim Kouzes, at the Women’s Economic Development Conference in Huntsville, AL.

Jim is co-author the best-selling book, The Leadership Challenge, and has spent decades studying leadership and teaching others about it. Here were some of my key takeaways from my time with Jim:

  1. Out of the 5 million people tracked and studied by Jim Kouzes, only .00013% exhibit no leadership qualities. In other words, the chances that you have no leadership characteristics are similar to your chances of winning the lottery.
  2. You are probably a leader and don’t even know it. Jim says that, when asked who the leaders are in their lives, most people list parents, family members, friends, teachers, coaches, siblings, coworkers. If you are any of these things, you are probably a leader to someone in your life.
  3. No one should ask, “am I making a difference?”, but rather ask, “am I making a positive difference?” We are all influencing others and impacting the world every single day, whether we intend to or not.
  4. According to surveys, followers say that capable leaders get 95.1% of their capabilities, incapable leaders get only 30% of their capabilities.
  5. Most Popular Leadership attributes associated with leadership as revealed in a survey: Honest, Inspiring, Forward Looking, Competent
  6. Least Popular attributes associated with leadership: Independent, Self-controlled
  7. These attribute findings suggest that people want smart, forward looking, and honest leaders, but, don’t necessarily need them to be self-controlled or even independent.
  8. There is nothing more important as a leader than doing what you say you will do.
  9. “Twelve frogs are sitting on a log in a pond. Five decide to jump in the water. How many are left on the log?” Silence in the room for a while. “Twelve. Always remember that deciding to do something and taking action are very different.”
  10. Leaders must communicate “Why is this important? Where are we headed?” People who find meaning in their work are 1.7 times more likely to be satisfied and 1.4 times more likely to be engaged.
  11. When people were asked to name great leaders, all leaders named faced immense challenges such as Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, or even business leaders that faced tremendous difficulties. Challenges offer you a chance to achieve greatness. Leaders who don’t deal with challenges are often forgotten and are never recognized as great. Look at challenges as opportunity. We only do our best when we are challenged.
  12. Pause before you interact with another person. Ask yourself, “What I can do in this interaction to make this person feel better about themselves?”
  13. “Innovation requires outsight, not just insight” – Ideas come from everywhere. Best ideas that really change things often come from outside your circle or your industry. Read outside your expertise, talk to people from different walks of life, you will often find inspiration in the most unexpected places.
  14. Regardless of personality style, learning is directly correlated with leadership. The more you learn and the longer you do it, you become a more and more effective leader.
  15. Average age of first leadership training is age 42. Average age that a person begins managing other people is age 31. Jim Kouzes believes that this disconnect occurs because of a bias in our society that makes us think leaders are born, not made. His findings have consistently shown that leadership is a skill that is learned, not a trait that is ingrained by genetics at birth.
  16. In his research, Jim Kouzes found that those with strong inner values (i.e., “I want to be the best that I can be”, “I want to achieve XYZ”) are the most likely to be successful and to be committed to their work. Those who lacked that inner motivation and who depend on “things to be right” in order for them to be productive, struggled to be consistent or committed. The takeaway – getting the right people in the first place is way more important than leading them the right way.
  17. What you name things matters a great deal as it relates to trust, expectations  and human behavior. Jim performed a study where participants played a game in which trusting one another can lead to much more desirable outcomes for all. In one study, the game was called the Community Game. In the other, the exact same game was called the Wall Street Game. The players of the Community Game exhibited 70% more trust actions than those in Wall Street Game despite the fact that they were all playing the same game. The names we put on things have broad implications for setting behavior.
  18. When asked if encouragement by their manager leads to better job performance by the employee, 98% of respondents said “yes”. Conversely, when asked if they “needed” encouragement from their manager, only around half said “yes”. The takeaway – your people need encouragement whether they say they do or not. Most people like to say and think, “I don’t need to be coddled”, but, that doesn’t mean they wouldn’t benefit from encouragement and leadership.

You can buy or download a sample of Jim’s classic book, The Leadership Challenge, by clicking here.


Trey Sharp is an entrepreneur & author in Huntsville, AL. Trey is the former owner/CEO of a Huntsville-based technology company, Sharp Communication, which was sold to Mobile Communications America in 2018. In 2016, Trey co-founded technology startup Tango Tango where he served as CEO for nearly 2 years. Trey still serves as an active board member and shareholder in the company. Trey also serves as an active Board Member for Urban Engine, an entrepreneurial nonprofit in Huntsville, AL dedicated to spurring the growth of startups in North Alabama. Trey is married to Claire Sharp and the couple has 4 children. Trey earned his Bachelor’s of Science in Business Administration from the University of Alabama-Huntsville in 2002.