A prescription for leading in cynical times
By James M. Kouzes and Barry Posner

While there is nothing inherently wrong in a
CEO's command to "Just believe me," there may
be something horribly wrong with the CEO -for
example, a lack of honesty, credibility or even
competence. These authors, noted experts who
have written several books on leadership, offer a
prescription for restoring damaged leaders to
health-and for turning cynics into believers.

By James M. Kouzes and Barry Posner

James M. Kouzes is an executive fellow at the
Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship,
Leavey School of Business, Santa Clara University,
and Chairman Emeritus of The Tom Peters
Company. Barry Posner is the Dean and Professor
of Leadership, Leavey School of Business, Santa
Clara University. They are the authors of several
books on leadership, most recently, Christian
Reflections on the Leadership Challenge.

"It was the best of times, it was the worst
of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was
the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of
belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was
the season of Light, it was the season of
Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was
the winter of despair…" Charles Dickens,
A Tale of Two Cities.

Charles Dickens wrote these words over 100 years
ago, but they could easily be parts of today's chorus
of confusion. While the only constant that we can
hold onto these days is that "things will change,"
the platform on which we are building the future is
being undermined. We see the evidence in the
almost-daily newspaper headlines and media
reminders of corporate scandals and excesses.
But subtler forces tell the real story. Just cast your
eyes on the growing popularity of Dilbert. From a
single cartoon strip appearing in one publication in
1989, it has expanded into more than 2,000 daily
newspapers in 65 countries. It has been the source
of 22 books (with over 10 million copies in print),
numerous T-shirts, hats-and is coming out soon
(possibly) with its own network television program.
What explains the Dilbert phenomenon? While
appealing on a number of dimensions, Dilbert is
nothing if not your quintessential cynic when it
comes to today's workplace and management. Could
it be that the cynics are winning? This article will
offer suggestions for how leaders can counter the
growing tide of cynicism and define and exhibit a
positive, credible leadership style.
Cynicism and the culture of disillusionment and
distrust Cynicism is the tendency to be close-minded and disillusioned. It differs from skepticism, which is
also a tendency to disbelieve; however, skeptics are
willing to be convinced if they are presented with
persuasive information. Cynics are much less
inclined to be influenced. They believe that human
conduct is motivated solely by self-interest, and they
have a sneering disbelief in the integrity of others.
They adopt unrealistically high expectations of
themselves and/or other people, and then generalize
these into expectations about society, institutions,
authorities and the future. They then experience
disappointment in everyone's ability to meet these
expectations, which results in their feeling of
frustration and defeat. The cycle continues with
disillusionment or the sense of being let down, in
turn resulting in a sense of feeling deceived, betrayed
or even manipulated by others. The logical
conclusion is a character such as Dilbert, portrayed
as either helplessly naïve or being constantly taken
in as a sucker.
One recent survey indicated that 23 percent of
workers would fire their managers if they could.
Other studies show that those who are cynical about
other people are only half as likely as their peers to
report that they trust their management and their
co-workers. More than two-thirds of cynics do not
express confidence in management's integrity, nor
do they feel much loyalty or commitment to their
organization. What does this mean for today's
business leaders?
Leadership is a relationship
How do you know that someone is a leader? The
simplest response is that "the person has followers."
Within this simple observation lies a powerful
antidote to Dilbert and cynicism. Leaders are defined
by their followers. Leadership is a relationship
between those who aspire to lead and those who
choose to follow, and any discussion of leadership
must attend to the dynamics of this relationship.
Strategies, tactics, skills and practices are hollow and
empty unless we understand the fundamental human
aspirations that connect leaders and their
What do constituents expect from leaders? Why
do people believe in some leaders but not in others?
Why do some people choose to follow one leader
while others reject that leader? What actions sustain
the relationship and what actions destroy it?
To better understand the leader-constituent
relationship, we must look at it with fresh eyes. We
must see how leaders and their constituents are
connected and how those connections might be
What do people expect from their leaders?
Consider this question for a moment: "What are
the personal values, traits or characteristics you feel
are most crucial in a person you would willingly follow (that is, take her advice, follow his guidelines, sign up for her team, attend to his directions, etc.)?" The key idea here is "willingly" follow-because you want to, not because you have to.
We have found that the responses to this question
have been surprisingly consistent over the past 20
years. They've also been consistent across industries,
disciplines, generations and continents. Time and
again, people send a clear message about the qualities
leaders must demonstrate if they want others to
voluntarily enlist in a common cause and to freely
commit to action.
What are these crucial attributes? According to
our research, the majority of us look for and admire
leaders who are honest, forward-looking, inspiring
and competent. Let's examine each of these.
Honesty. In virtually every survey we conducted,
honesty was selected more often than any other
leadership characteristic. Honesty is absolutely
essential to leadership. If people are going to follow
someone willingly, whether it is into battle or into
the boardroom, they first want to assure themselves
that the person is worthy of their trust. They want
to know that the would-be leader is truthful, ethical
and principled.
Forward-looking. We expect our leaders to have a
sense of direction and a concern for the future of
the organization. Leaders must know where they
are going. They must have a destination in mind
when asking us to join them on a journey into the
unknown. Constituents ask that a leader have a welldefined orientation toward the future. We want to
know what the organization will look like, feel like
and be like when it arrives at its goal in six months
or six years.
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