Personal Reflections from Forum 2016

Steve Coats

Years ago, I bought a piano. I always wanted to play. But after a few short weeks, I came to the conclusion I had made a financial blunder in buying it. I still very much wanted to play the piano, but I discovered that I did not want to learn to play the piano!

As I’ve reflected back on my experience at The Leadership Challenge Forum 2016 in Nashville last month, I was reminded of my piano—the desire to play but not necessarily to learn. You see, programming for the Forum this year focused on “learning leadership”, the theme of Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner’s newly released book by the same name. And nearly 200 people came to this wonderful and downright enjoyable learning experience to find out more about what it really means to “learn” to lead. 

From the opening session to the last, I believe that most attendees would agree it was all very much about learning—about the meaning and heart of The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®, about the opportunity for continuous learning the Forum provided, and so much more. 

Authors Jim and Barry, once again, Modeled the Way of lifelong learning and generous sharing as they kicked off the two-day event with  key insights from their new book, Learning Leadership, that set the stage for beginning to rethink how leaders truly learn to lead and the exciting breakout sessions to come.  I also made note of something much more subtle that I will remember perhaps more than their opening session comments. What really struck me was Jim and Barry’s full and complete engagement throughout the Forum. As they attended the numerous breakout sessions, for example, they didn’t sit in the back of the room checking email or phone messages. They were present, engaged, and contributing. They asked questions. They participated in discussions. And they offered their experience and knowledge freely to all. In our constantly buzzing, chirping, pinging, ringing, and vibrating world of 24/7 access, we should all be mindful of the powerful messages we send, when we remain present and focused on the people at hand. Thanks guys for the clear reminder.

One of the keynote speakers, Dr. Samineh Shaheem, also reminded us of something that’s so very critical to learning, to being more effective as leaders, to becoming all that we can be: how important it is to examine our past programming and limiting beliefs. Leaders recognize that Challenge the Process is as much about challenging oneself internally (e.g., how I have always done things, drawn conclusions, or determined my beliefs) as it is about challenging external organizational processes (e.g., how to improve onboarding or product development). And it seems there will always be an abundance of iron clad rules, routines, and personal beliefs conspiring to keep the status quo in place. That is why we need leaders to challenge the way things are done. 

Even in our everyday life experiences we are confronted with these iron clad “rules”. For example, at the Forum’s Thursday reception I picked up a small plate of the Caesar salad (vs. the fruit salad). When I attempted to put the raspberry vinaigrette on it, I was told by the server that ‘Caesar dressing goes on the Caesar salad, raspberry on the fruit salad’.  Unfortunately for many, “the way it has always been done” is often and incorrectly translated into “the only way it can be done.” (BTW… the raspberry was delicious on the Caesar!)

One of the most enjoyable parts of this year’s Forum was to see how much the Community truly practices Enable Others to Act and Encourage the Heart.  There were a total of 26 breakout sessions, facilitated by practitioners from around the globe who openly shared their talents, experiences, and stories to help everyone in attendance learn to lead more effectively. It was such a great example of mass collaboration and the collective desire to help everyone grow. There was, as always, an enormous amount of genuine and well-deserved praise and recognition provided. I heard a number of people specifically use the word “encouraging” to describe their Forum experiences. And one very important thing that attendees learned (or re-learned) was how vital encouragement is in creating an environment for extraordinary achievements to occur.

And considering how important well-deserved praise and recognition is to building a collaborative community, there’s a special shout-out I’d like to make here. As many of us who are part of The Leadership Challenge Community know, a shared vision is different than a big, ambitious goal. Whether working with individual leaders or with teams, defining what a “shared vision” will look like is part of the process. And so it was for the  Forum 2016 planning team who had a dream that a couple of hundred people would gather together, bump into long-time friends and meet new ones, enthusiastically share their talents and support of others, and devote themselves to the hard work of learning leadership. For those of us fortunate to be at this year’s Forum, we got to see that big dream become a reality. It was truly inspiring to see our community come together around an inspiring vision and to know that many of us will be taking the dream forward,  inspiring our colleagues and clients to share in it as well. Bravo to everyone at Wiley and elsewhere for their tireless work to bring that big vision to life in such a meaningful and rewarding way.

And now, two last quick reflections about this year’s learning experience at the Forum.  I was thinking back on the presentation by keynote speaker Keni Thomas, one of the leaders of the 3rd Ranger Battalion immortalized in the book and movie, Blackhawk Down. The overarching message of his keynote was that leadership is all about the example you set. And it occurred to me that there is a difference between an extraordinary storyteller and someone who changes lives. People may forget Keni’s name in a few weeks but they will never forget him.  Nor will they forget the lessons he shared, about standing the line and never leaving anyone behind, especially those who might appear to be a little slower or more challenged in their learning. Thank you for your service Keni, not only on the battlefield but for all the people in the world you continue to touch and inspire.

And finally... with almost 30 years of Leadership Challenge experience, there were many moments at the conference when I felt overwhelmed, perhaps even a bit inadequate. I cannot recall how many times I found myself saying, “I never thought about that,” or “Wow, how did you ever come up with such a clever thing to do!” My guess is many of my fellow attendees shared those sentiments.

All that being said…there is little I find more joyful and inspiring than being around really smart and creative people who are graciously willing to teach, coach, mentor and yes, be good friends. Thanks to all for creating a stimulating and rewarding learning environment.

Steve Coats, Certified Master of The Leadership Challenge, is managing partner and co-owner of International Leadership Associates, a leadership development education and consulting firm. For over 25 years, Steve has taught, coached, and consulted with executives and all levels of managers around the world in leadership development, team development, personal growth, change, and business strategy. Steve can be reached at stevec@i-lead.com.

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