A Lifetime of Lessons on the Meaning of Leadership

Dan Schwab

I started working with Jim and Barry in the 1980s as the challenge course instructor, supporting an early version of a workshop then called VIP (Vision, Involvement, Persistence). The clients in those days were almost always mid-level managers from Silicon Valley companies. And this was California at a time of promise and invention, when we were on the ascendant curve of technology and the possibilities seemed endless. We knew then that the need for developing leaders in business was real, but it seemed like a "nice to have" idea. I would have to say that the times were a lot more innocent overall.

 

As the components of the workshop I was presenting ran just a couple of hours on three separate days, I had many opportunities to sit at the back of the room and absorb what Jim and Barry had to say, and to observe how the clients responded. As I look back at this now, I can see what a fantastic learning opportunity this was for me. I was in my early thirties, recently returned from a two-year world travel odyssey, and a true generalist in life. The lessons of leadership found fertile ground and I absorbed a lot of perspective that has been maturing in me ever since.

 

Years later, I have now completed certification as a Leadership Challenge Master Facilitator and can take a moment to look at both how all this unfolded for me and what I have gained from it. What strikes me immediately is how the topic of leadership has resonated for me and become a dominant theme in my professional life. I have so thoroughly incorporated the Five Practices into my mindset that they have, it seems, become second nature.

 

Pursuing a career in adult learning has taken me along many paths, in addition to leadership education. Throughout ten years as an internal consultant, though, leadership kept coming back as a dominant theme: I taught another model of leadership at Franklin Templeton Investments; produced six or eight Leadership Challenge workshops for my colleagues at the Trust for Public Land (TPL); presented on leadership at conferences; and did an occasional gig with FlashPoint.

 

Then the recession hit and my position at TPL was eliminated (along with 67 others). The time came to reinvent myself. I looked around and realized that my "highest and best use" was to dedicate myself to developing the next generation of leaders. To strengthen my ability to do this, I embarked on the path of the Master Facilitator.

 

Sharon Landes and I engaged in a fantastic set of conversations in summer and fall of 2009, unraveling the meaning of the workshop and this thing called leadership. We picked apart the model. We examined the language of the LPI. We scrutinized the workshop design from every angle. It was, without a doubt, one of the best examples of collaborative inquiry that I have ever been a part of.

 

So, what have I learned from this journey? A few thoughts come to mind:
  • The Five Practices provide an immediately useful framework for anyone wanting to make a difference in our world. I am continually impressed by the universality of this message. Seen through this lens, leadership becomes a basic set of tools you can use to build anything you care about.
  • I've come to see that vision is, indeed, a rare and precious commodity. The skill to look ahead and discern a place worth going to, the ability to see a future that is worthy of our past, and the commitment to communicate this to others—this is truly one of the pillars of leadership. Our ability to awaken this awareness in others is what strikes me as a central outcome of the workshop.
  • A philosophy of leadership is essential. When I first came across this expression, taking the Leadership Practices Inventory for the first time in 1992, I honestly didn't know there was such a thing. Even if there was, what would I gain from having one? Now I recognize how important, and subtle, this question truly is. For it is by thinking through what leadership means to us that we discover the power to make a difference, to affect what it will be like to live in our communities years from now.
  • Leadership is put into action by initiating change, and continually looking for the most useful places to do this today. Raised a free thinker in 1960s California, questioning the status quo is second nature for me. But now I see the larger implications of this and the gift we give people to recognize that being "change agents" in line with their values and vision of the future can be profoundly important—even liberating.
  • Ultimately, we become the leader we want to be. Though we use the levers of leadership to create the results we want to see, it is who we are that has the most power to influence people around us. That doesn't mean putting on our "leadership suit" just to get something done. It means learning to be exactly who we are. In a profound way, our power is in our person. This may be the most important lesson of leadership—and also the one our grandmothers taught us. But it is perhaps also the hardest to live up to in a world of high-octane change and ambiguity.

Back in the early days of the workshop at Pajaro Dunes, I had the honor of escorting participants outdoors to engage in ropes-course activities designed to help them practice the meaning of the model. With the perspective of the intervening years, I can see now that this is still our privilege: to enable developing leaders to use the Five Practices model as a basis for the practice of leadership in their world and, as facilitators, to continue to model that behavior for others every day.

 

Dan Schwab is a Certified Master of The Leadership Challenge® and a 20+ year veteran of working with the model. An independent leadership and organizational consultant, with clients in the private, non-profit and governmental sectors, he can be reached at danjschwab@gmail.com or at www.danschwabconsulting.com.

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