The Challenge of Leadership (Part One) – Clarifying What it Means


One of the Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership described in the book, The Leadership Challenge, is the practice of Challenge the Process. The practice refers to the active search for new opportunities to grow, change and innovate and the actions of experimentation, risk taking, generating small wins and learning from mistakes. It is one of my favorite practices for a couple of reasons. First, it is just great fun to see or read about some of the remarkable improvements and breakthroughs that people have made. I love the imagination of selling pre-cut lettuce in a bag or $300 iPods® in a vending machine. Some ideas work and some don’t, but innovations like these sure keep the world interesting.

It is also a favorite because of its relevance. Challenge is the practice of business growth, and growth is one of the most perplexing dilemmas facing organizations today. If they are unable to adapt, change and grow, it is impossible for organizations of any kind to produce solid results over time and literally survive. Yet, as crucial as this practice is, it may also be the most misunderstood of all. I continue to find people misinterpreting the meaning of Challenge the Process in a variety of ways. In fact, in some circumstances, the practice is misapplied as a defense for almost any kind of disagreement (“You’re an idiot, but don’t be personally offended since I am merely Challenging the Process!”). One way to better understand what it is, is to ensure we know what it is not.

Challenging the way things are does not mean challenge the values or standards, just because uncompromising integrity or flawless quality are too hard to live by. It does not mean attacking other people when we don’t agree with their ideas or points of view. Nor does it mean seeking to dismantle what is working well, or attempting to eliminate something that is simply a personal inconvenience for you. Challenge the Process is about finding and implementing new and better ways of doing things in order to constantly improve and grow.

People in most organizations today have some pretty ambitious objectives to meet each year. The waters are choppy and the wind in their faces is strong, which means that hitting the numbers takes a lot of hard work. But hard work by itself is seldom the answer. It also takes a lot of different work. I frequently ask people if they think they can meet their goals for the coming years by continuing to do their work the way they are currently doing it. Without exception, the answer is no. This is one reason why organizations need more leaders. They need people who will cease the ongoing complaining about how outrageous goals might be (and some indeed are beyond reason), and start rallying people to figure out what can be done to accomplish them. Isn’t it ironic that so-called unachievable or impossible goals are accomplished all the time? Somehow, people do figure out an answer.

In a later article, I will share with you some of the proven to-do items that enable people in organizations to be more effective in Challenging the Process and implementing innovative ideas and methods. Be mindful how demanding this work can be, because it is seldom easy to convince others to let go of that with which they are comfortable, and accept something different.

In the meantime, in order to lay the groundwork for helping others embrace the need to challenge the way things are done, there are a couple of things you can immediately start practicing as a leader. First, do not allow new ideas to be immediately discounted with little or no consideration. Intervene by prompting rich and open dialogue to ensure that ideas get a fair hearing. Second, never allow invalid assumptions to rule the day over proven facts. Ask people to justify their beliefs about whether something new will work or why it won’t. Innovation and growth require discipline and thoughtfulness. Finally, spend less time reviewing and reporting on results already in the bank and more time on pursuing new possibilities. And remember the practice is Challenge the Process, not “Talk about Challenge the Process,” so this pursuit requires more than simply surfacing and discussing new possibilities. You must allow people the opportunity to do some experimenting, tinkering, creating of prototypes, and so forth, before you can hope to achieve the results you are seeking.

Copyright © 2008 International Leadership Associates, Steve Coats