Reflections on Forum 2017


Sometimes the risks you take pay off. For me, my journey began in June of 1987. That’s when Jim Kouzes traveled from the sunny West Coast to a very rustic camp in southwest Ohio to help me introduce his brand new model of leadership to a group of managers from AT&T, where I was employed at the time. And the impact it had on me was profound: within 6 months I’d conspired with other colleagues to form a business whose sole mission was to take Jim and Barry’s refreshingly practical model—The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership®—to organizations across the globe.

Then just last month at The Leadership Challenge Forum 2017 in San Diego, I had the privilege of again joining a few hundred learning and development colleagues from around the world who came together to celebrate the sixth edition of the groundbreaking book, The Leadership Challenge, and the 30th anniversary of The Five Practices methodology that has literally become the worldwide standard for what leaders need to do to help people produce extraordinary results in their work and personal lives.

For two full days I engaged with like-minded leadership development professionals, learned from experts in a variety of breakout sessions, and walked away with three important observations/lessons:

Lesson One: There is no longer any reason to spend time on the question, “Do leaders make a positive difference?” The answer is: they do. Case closed. And here’s why.

In their opening keynote presentation on Day One of the Forum, Jim and Barry highlighted some of their most recent findings—research findings that directly connect more frequent leader behaviors related to The Five Practices with higher levels of trust, overall engagement, peoples’ willingness to work hard, leader effectiveness, and just about everything else. The authors have provided this evidence for years. It is now simply even more complete and convincing. But, as my journalism friends tell me, “Always verify your facts with a second source.” So following that advice, I offer the words of WD-40 Company CEO Garry Ridge who keynoted on Day Two. In a nutshell, here is what he said:

At WD-40, we do this leadership stuff throughout the company. And in a world where 30% employee engagement is the norm, virtually all of our engagement metrics are above the 90th percentile. Our overall employee engagement score is 93%. And just so you know, our return to shareowners averages over 15% annually. We doubled our growth the past few years and will do the same in the next few.

WD-40’s results are indeed impressive, but there are many other examples like them. Leadership makes a difference. The enduring value of The Leadership Challenge is it tells us what leaders actually do when they are making that positive, bottom line difference. I rest my case.

Lesson Two: There is that wise saying that if you are the smartest person in the room, you are in the wrong room. Not once during the Forum did I ever feel the slightest urge to move along. The breakout session presenters were awesome in their enthusiasm and their messages. One simply could not help but learn something of value about The Five Practices. There were clients, Certified Masters, authors, and a variety of other smart and experienced people sharing their expertise and lessons learned. It was quite amazing to witness how many ways The Five Practices are being utilized to help people and their organizations grow and prosper. Many thanks to all who volunteered their time and energy to help all of us continue to learn about leading more effectively.

Lesson Three: Never underestimate the power of a shared vision. Sadly, our world today is filled with a lot of dissension, divisiveness, anger, and fear. There is much more shouting, grandstanding and bickering than there is listening, questioning, and understanding. It is happening between countries as well as within countries, as we in the US know so well.

At the Forum there were people from all around the world, with many deep differences. There were recognizable differences in ethnicity, race, gender, and so forth. And there were less obvious differences in factors such as perceptions, attitudes, beliefs, values, and—dare I say—even political persuasions.

Yet here is what I observed. All of these very different people were reaching out to help one another and to serve the entire community in attendance. They were generous in sharing their knowledge and quick to offer a helping hand. They coached and mentored each other. They gratefully listened to and welcomed the advice and wisdom of others. They laughed and broke bread together, hugged and applauded one another. They did this, in spite of all those real-life differences, because there was one thing they had in common: the shared purpose of liberating the leader in other people through The Leadership Challenge. Everyone was committed to making the world, or at least their individual piece of the world, a little better place through more effective leadership. And that made all the difference.

Shared vision is indeed the tie that binds. Perhaps all of us who had the privilege of attending Forum 2017 will remember the spirit of community we experienced and be even more vigilant and intentional in modeling the kind of inspiring leadership we want so many others to embrace and live.

Two final callouts: Jim and Barry, thank you for your passion and never ending work to enable people around the world to keep learning about great leadership. And to all at Wiley, for all of the sleepless nights, heart palpitations, and high anxiety moments you survived in masterfully making this such a remarkable learning experience…thank you very much for your work, partnership, and commitment.


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 30 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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