For years the following phrases were taped to my desk blotter: “Model the Way; Inspire a Shared Vision; Challenge the Process; Enable Others to Act; Encourage the Heart”. These are the Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership ® and formed the foundation of an in-house leadership development curriculum at the health system where I worked in the 1990s. I found daily inspiration and concrete guidance in these dozen words and they shaped the way I understand how effective leaders work.

James Kouzes and Barry Posner are scholars of leadership; their best-known and best-selling book, The Leadership Challenge, was first published in 1987 and is now in its fifth edition. They have authored many other books and articles on leadership and are renowned speakers and consultants on the topic that is the focus of their academic research and professional lives.

Their newest book, Learning Leadership, was just released this year. The authors begin by describing a current leadership shortage and pipeline that is inadequate to meet the needs of institutions of all kinds. They attribute it to three factors: demographics, insufficient training/experiences and prevailing mindsets. Millennials are overtaking the workplace and transitioning into supervisory roles, often with little or no training. We have all likely observed the dearth of investments in leadership development, with initiatives that are inconsistent, under resourced and generally deficient. This is coupled with a reluctance of individuals already in leadership positions to see themselves as leaders who can be developed and grown into more effective ones.

This book is based on the premise that “learning is the master skill”. Can anyone learn to be a (better) leader? Yes, say the authors, by believing you can and working at it. So learning as a continuous process of engagement and discipline is essential. One of the core recommendations, based on sound behavioral and management research is to keep a leadership journal. By using it to set goals, reflect on progress, document activities and reinforce values, the journal is living documentation of learning.

Divided into seven parts, Leaning Leadership first examines what we know about effective leaders, including a review of the Five Practices noted above. The following five parts describe five fundamentals essential to skill development and the final part is a call to action and to be “positive, energetic and hopeful”. In addition to Belief, these fundamentals involve Aspiration, Challenge, Support and Practice. Each chapter ends with a Key Message summarizing the chapter in a few sentences and a SelfCoaching Action, an assignment designed to build a fundamental skill.

Kouzes and Posner write in a style that is adult, direct, values-based and remarkably jargon-free. Their work is enduring because it is well-researched and not based on the latest fad or catch phrase.

This book is best approached and digested in small pieces over a period of time. I do not recommend it as vacation reading because it is a call to action. This is not a book to read for content and place on a bookshelf for later reference or pull out when you need a pithy motivational quote. It is a serious book for a serious student of leadership who is willing to work to get better; it would be a great gift to a newly-appointed leader.

Book review from Perspectives, Pittsburgh Human Resources Association, November 2016