Goldfish, Leadership Development, and Lessons from The Leadership Challenge Forum 2015

Imagine taking a dingy-looking goldfish out of a bowl of dirty water. You scrub it down and shine it up. In short order, you practically have a brand new goldfish. Then, you put it back in the same nasty water and wonder why it’s back to its old grimy self in two or three days. 

Unfortunately, our poor goldfish’s dilemma also plays out in the world of leadership development. People go to an outstanding workshop or conference where they become re-inspired, learn new and usable skills, and leave resoundingly committed to becoming more effective in their work. In other words, like the goldfish they get scrubbed and cleaned. Within a couple of weeks, however, they are often right back to the same behaviors and attitudes as before.  Why? The systems and environment they go back into (the dirty water) have not changed and, in fact, are seductively working to ensure the new behaviors never get a chance to take root and blossom. With little or no support, encouragement, coaching or incentive to continue to practice new skills and experiment with different behaviors, people naturally drift back to the way they were. 

For organizations to grow leaders capable of running successful businesses today, and moving them forward tomorrow, there must be a culture supporting leadership development. It is impossible for anything to grow—plants in a garden or leadership in an organization—if there is not an environment that fosters and produces growth. 

Which brings me to The Leadership Challenge Forum, an annual event designed to promote the growth and development of leaders in all aspects of life.  It’s a remarkable continuing education experience for users and practitioners of The Leadership Challenge methodology and, for that matter, anyone interested in developing leaders. And this year’s conference, developed around the theme of Cultivating a Culture of Leadership, was especially relevant. Through case study and breakout sessions, and terrific keynote presentations, it focused on helping all of us better understand how important culture is for sustainable leadership growth, and what it takes to create that kind of positive culture. Perhaps more than any other Forum event I’ve attended (and there have been many!), this one truly made me realize the role we can play in helping the goldfish in our care—our clients, friends and family, members of our community—thrive and prosper, and why this topic of cultivating culture may be at the core of effective, ongoing development efforts of any kind.

From the first morning when authors Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner took the stage to welcome us, they set the tone for the next two days, reinforcing how the best leaders continue to be lifelong learners and that a culture of leadership has, at its core, a value of learning.  As usual, they modeled that message. In fact, the entire Forum was structured to create a massive learning environment, with people from around the world sharing lessons learned and offering proven practices and novel ideas with total unselfishness. New technology was deployed in the general sessions to facilitate large scale idea exchange. And if you looked closely enough, you would have even seen the authors taking notes during some of the sessions. Learning at the Forum was not just a noble-sounding aspiration, it was happening naturally—and intentionally.  How much better all organizations would be if they would actively embrace this kind of insatiable appetite for learning, and then create the environments to ensure it occurs.

As in years past, Jim and Barry again were generous in sharing the stage with others. During Day One’s general sessions we heard from two leaders who are already cultivating cultures of leadership in the non-profit sector and in business: Ruha Devansesan and Cora Carmody.And the following day we had the privilege to hear from one of the foremost authorities on organizational culture:  author and corporate culture guru Ed Schein. In a down-home style conversation with Jim and Barry—and with all attendees in the room thanks to the interactive technology provided by Covision—Ed shared some truly thought-provoking insights about the topic. With a master’s degree from Stanford, a Harvard Ph.D., and as a former MIT Sloan Fellow professor, his academic credentials are impeccable and yet his message was real world, relevant, and practical. There was an enormous amount of buzz about the value of Ed’s remarks.  And personally, while I always appreciate the chance to hear informative and wise perspectives from guests at the Forum, Ed’s participation this year was truly a special gift.

Also special this year was seeing the fast growing investment others are making to develop the next generation of leaders. There were groups from school systems in Texas and Arkansas in attendance, along with a number of other participants working with students and faculties at various levels within the educational system. They were all seeking new ideas, tools, and techniques for creating cultures that invite and encourage students to begin the process of leadership development while still in school.  In addition, there were several breakout sessions focused on how The Student Leadership Challenge is being used around the world to help develop the leaders of tomorrow.  It is exciting to see the increasing array of outstanding student-focused resources dedicated to this effort. And, from what I see, the world needs more and more younger people willing and equipped to step up to address the tough challenges confronting not only them but the rest of us, too.

All that, in matter of two short days, is what brings to my last observation about the experience of The Leadership Challenge Forum….and goldfish. Most of us who have devoted our lives to leadership development find great joy in experiencing, first-hand, the growth of people. And this really stuck out for me this year in a number of ways.  

First, the staff of our gracious host, Wiley…For years they have taken care of zillions of really important details to ensure the success of these events, nearly always operating behind the scenes. Today, they are responsible for much bigger and more important outcomes—both at the Forum and on a day-to-day basis—and they have clearly stepped up to the challenge.  How exciting and rewarding to see their growth, and to directly benefit from it.

Then there is the continuous pipeline of colleagues engaged in the process of developing the knowledge and expertise to achieve the level of Certified Master of The Leadership Challenge.  Although I see most of them only once a year (at the Forum), I’ve known many of them since they first connected with the community. Today, those who have accomplished their goal are confident, polished, capable, and contributing leaders who are giving back. Their growth is striking.

The progress and development of these friends and colleagues may be the greatest evidence of all about the power of an effective culture. The aspiring Certified Masters are part of a system that challenges and supports them. They are given real opportunities to step up, and they hold themselves accountable—to themselves and to their fellow community members.  They have formal mentors and, at the same time, they have dozens of others who are freely offering advice, hands-on help, and lots of encouragement. Everyone wants everyone else to be the best version of themselves they can be, and to succeed in all aspects of their lives. And in that vein, it was especially rewarding to see my fellow colleague and Certified Master Tom Pearce honored by the Wiley Leadership Challenge team with the Star Award—well-deserved recognition for the way he Models the Way with his willingness to be of service to others. 

Perhaps our individual and collective successes will ultimately be measured by the number of organizations we can touch, and help build the kinds of leadership cultures they need to help their own people develop and excel in similar ways.  What a great job it is to help organizations make this happen.

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 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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