Business Leaders Never Stop Learning

Professor and coauthor of The Leadership Challenge Jim Kouzes explains what makes a good business leader in a time of technology disruption.

By Ken Kaplan

By Ken Kaplan April 22, 2020

What makes a leader? Some look for character traits in historic heroes like Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, Abraham Lincoln or Winston Churchill. According to a professor who has researched leadership skills for decades, what worked in the past won’t be so effective in today’s business world, which is increasingly transformed by fast-evolving digital technologies.

“Leaders are made, not born”, said Jim Kouzes, the Dean's Executive Fellow of Leadership at Santa Clara University's Leavey School of Business. He is the coauthor, along with Barry Posner, of The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen In Organizations. The two are working on a new book due in 2021 that has a working title of Leadership is Everyone's Business.

“In our research, we have found consistently that credibility is the foundation for leadership,” Kouzes said. “If people do not believe in the messenger, they will not believe the message.”

Clarity is critical to becoming an effective leader.

“One of the first steps…is to understand what your beliefs are about the world, about business, and how to work with other people,” he said.

[Related story: Masterclass Teaches Tech Leaders to Tackle Digital Transformation]

Kouzes’ research showed age makes no difference in how constituents see a person as a leader.

Leaders Are Learners

Kouzes said leadership is a constant learning process.

“The best leaders are the best learners,” he said. “The more the individual leader engages in learning activities, the more they demonstrate exemplary leadership practices.”

He said there is a positive correlation between learning and exemplary leadership practices. Evidence supports the notion that to be effective, particularly at leading, people need to read broadly.

“You need to understand how developments in science relate to your business,” he said. “Developments in the arts might relate to your business, how changing demographics relates to the way you conduct your business.”


He said it’s critical for a leader to constantly read and learn things outside of the leader’s particular area of expertise. People who spend five or more hours a week learning tend to be happier, more engaged and more productive. He explained that learners are open to ideas and not hung up on having to do things a certain way. This contradicts the notion many people have of leaders as experts set in their ways. In fact, Kouzes said research revealed little correlation between having a lot of expertise in the business you lead and being a good leader.

From Bossing to Empowering

Leaders who are learners enable others to act. A new generation of employees entering the workforce today might never work for a boss who has all the answers, makes all the decisions and gives orders.

“The word ‘boss’ connotes someone who is in charge and tells other people what to do and does not take other people's opinions into account,” explained Kouzes. “The classic top-down type of not going too well in organizations today.”

Employees are no longer worker bees who execute the commands handed down from above. They are more like volunteers, particularly when there is a full employment economy, said Kouzes. It’s important to think as a leader of a volunteer organization, one who doesn’t have the formal authority to tell people what to do but one who motivates and articulates a clear path ahead.

[Related story: How Design Helps HR Attract Top Talent]

“People are here because they want to be here and I am appealing to what drives them to their hopes, dreams and aspirations,” Kouzes said, voicing what a good leader tells herself.

“If you have that mindset, then you will be more likely to be effective.”

Nutanix co-founder and CEO Dheeraj Pandey embodies this approach whenever he describes employees as customers of the company.

“They [employees] have invested all of their time on the company,” Pandey said to a group of CIOs and IT leaders attending “The Leadership Experience” at .NEXT Copenhagen in October 2019. “They agreed to give 50, 60 hours a week to us, sacrificing their family time. So we have to look at them as a customer. If we do a good job with the internal employees, they'll do a really good job with our customers.”

[Related story: Secret of a 10-Year-Old Tech Startup]

To get people to put in extra effort, incentivizing them with bonuses or monetary rewards only is unlikely to motivate them, according to Kouzes. People spend a lot of hours at work and they expect the workplace to provide something more than a paycheck.

“What makes people put forth extra effort is to treat them with dignity and respect, to listen to them, to enable them to utilize their strengths and their skills in their job,” he said. “Those kinds of behaviors are going to get people put forth extra effort.”

In his research, Kouzes sees people are calling out more for meaning at work.

“Two-thirds of employees would refuse to work for an organization that did not share their values,” he said. “They expect the workplace to provide them with a sense of belonging, colleagueship and friendship, with an opportunity to utilize their skills and abilities.

He said leaders need to demonstrate an interest in things other than making money.

“It helps people see that you are taking an interest in creating a work environment that will fully engage people,” Kouzes said. And that’s what gets the best out of people.

Ken Kaplan is Editor in Chief for The Forecast by Nutanix. Find him on Twitter @kenekaplan.

© 2020 Nutanix, Inc. All rights reserved. For additional legal information, please go here.