Written by Bevin Theodore

Anyone can be a leader. All it takes is a passion for extraordinary results. But deciding to be an exemplary leader is only the first step to becoming one. So how will YOU do it? In “The Leadership Challenge,” James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner outline the characteristics and frequent behaviors of strong leaders. Presented as The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership, the actions provide a roadmap to help leaders build trust, engage their teams and achieve shared success. This blog, the third in a five-part series, focuses on the practice “Challenge the Process.”  Part 1 explores Model the Way, and Part 2 Inspire a Shared Vision.


Just that one word is unsettling for so many people. Rarely is it met with enthusiasm, as people assume whatever change is coming will have a negative impact. It is often easier to be satisfied with the status quo.  Organizations bring in entire Change Management teams in attempts to mitigate the fear that change will inevitably mean pain, loss of autonomy or even job cuts. Often, these teams do little to alleviate panic because employees are already convinced of the outcome, and the internal leadership team with knowledge of the end game doesn’t share information that could be comforting. This environment breeds discontent, lowers productivity and leads to higher turnover because employees who do not feel secure in their positions will look elsewhere for opportunities.

I once worked for an organization that seemed to be in a perpetual state of change. There had been a massive reorganization, and employees were scrambling to see how they fit into the larger picture. Many were reporting to new supervisors and had not yet determined what was expected of them or how their teams really meshed. The company created an internal focus group, with representatives from various departments, to collect feedback on what was happening across the organization. What were employees saying? What did they fear? What questions did they need to be answered? How did they see the company evolving in the future? The early meetings were met with much cynicism, as many employees felt that it didn’t matter what they thought since no one had asked them if they wanted to be shuffled around in the first place. But over the course of many months, as employees saw that their questions were being answered and concerns addressed, even if it was not always the outcome they desired, trust grew that they were being heard and that the company was trying to make change a positive experience.

Leaders know that change is necessary for growth and that while it can involve risk, it is not intended to be crippling or painful. The best kind of change comes not from the top-down insistence of what must occur, but from employees who challenge the current process by finding creative ways to improve before it is necessary for the organization’s survival. This innovation comes from a willingness to take initiative, break down boundaries and challenge the status quo. These people view change as an ongoing adventure and are willing to experiment and take risks because they can see the potential for positive outcomes more than they fear the chance of failure.  When failure is recognized as part of the innovative process, people are willing to take the risk of challenging the process.

It is easy to get so used to the way things have always been done that you can no longer see when the tried and true system has stopped working. Tradition is not a solid reason to keep doing the same old thing. To be open to change, you must be on a quest for knowledge. Talk to people outside of your company, seek new perspectives and be willing to consider ideas that might sound far-fetched. Realize that asking for advice does not signify weakness or incompetence. If there is a change that must happen, look to other organizations that have already gone through something similar and might be able to offer insight. This applies inside your company as well. Ask questions, get out of your comfort zone, visit areas of the company where you do not normally spend your time – in the field, on the manufacturing floor, in a department that does complementary work to your own. You will be surprised what you can learn.

People are inclined to ask a lot of questions at the start of a new job, but that initial curiosity fades once they become more comfortable with their niche in the company or they are not rewarded for curiosity. As a leader, you have a lot of opportunities to ask questions. Stay curious. Get input from your team at regular staff meetings, set up focus groups to ensure you are on the right path, seek frequent employee and customer feedback to gauge how you are doing. The process involves both task and people.  Provide continuous training and education to stimulate curiosity and teamwork.  Even social media can provide insight into what your customers, or the general community, think about your product or approach. Seeking change is very different from complaining. Many people will see a problem with the current system and note that something should be done to change it. But complaining does not change the process. To get different results, you must act if you see something that is not working or could work remarkably better.

Leaders not only seek out opportunities to test their own skills and abilities, but they challenge others to look for new and improved ways to do their work. They do not point fingers when things don’t go as expected, but ask “what can we learn?” They realize that shared purpose increases motivation, so they set achievable goals and establish measurable milestones. Leaders also don’t wait for permission to make a change. Sometimes, other people are too close to the situation to see how the change could be effective, so it is up to you to find a solution, enlist buy-in from your team and make it happen. Even with the best attitude, change can be a bit unsettling. So, set your goal, establish action steps to stay on course, encourage your employees and coworkers to champion each other and help when there are setbacks and celebrate small wins along the way. With the right approach, your team will no longer view change as something to be feared, but a doorway to new opportunity. In that process, you become an exemplary leader in challenging the process.

Are you ready to challenge the process?  Learn all 5 Practices of Exemplary Leadership and the supporting behaviors.  Join Northstar Women leaders for the first Leadership Challenge exclusively for women coming soon.  Or hold a workshop at your organization to teach your leaders The Leadership Challenge. Claim your seat at the table by contacting Julie McGee at 610-984-5637.