Lessons in Leadership from ATD and Barack Obama

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Leadership Development

Challenging times call for change in how organizations develop leaders.

Leadership is hard. If there’s one message from the first day at the Association for Talent Development’s 2018 International Conference and Exposition, it was that obvious fact.

The annual conference, which brought together an estimated 10,000 people, for a three-day event at the San Diego Convention Center, kicked off on Mon, May 7 with a packed house for the opening keynote speaker, President Barack Obama.

ATD conference attendees enter the exposition hall. Image courtesy of ATD.

After acknowledging cheers from the crowd, Obama sat down to talk with ATD President Tony Bingham. In an hour-long conversation, they covered a range of topics from the role of education in Obama’s upbringing, his time in the White House and post-Presidency work as well as how he finally kicked his smoking habit.

But what stood out were the lessons he’s learned about leadership and what that means for executives charged with developing the next generation of organizational leaders.

There’s no manual for the being president of the United States, Obama said, so it’s important to surround yourself with people you can trust, and most importantly, listen to them.

“The interesting thing about the presidency,” he said, before pausing a beat, smiling and adding, “there are a lot of interesting things – is the only thing that lands on your desk is stuff that really doesn’t have a good answer to.”

To address the challenges he faced, Obama said he created a system for feedback and accurate data that included hearing a wide range of views. He also made a habit of calling on people on the “outer ring” of the decision-making table, the staff members and experts sitting on the periphery who do the hard work of research and analysis. His goal was to be prepared as best he could to make tough decisions.

“I was confident that I had heard all points of view and had all the facts,” Obama said.

Focusing on facts, hearing all points of view and ensuring everyone’s voice is heard were reflections of his values as a leader. It’s ultimately values that are most important to leadership, not skills or competencies. “Values transcend any particular issue or situation,” Obama said. “They become your foundation, your baseline. They will get you through hard times as well as good times. They set purpose.”

President Barack Obama greets the crowd at ATD 2018 Conference and Expo in San Diego, Calif. Image courtesy of ATD.

“When I get worried about our country or our world it’s not about a particular issue,” he added, in a rare moment during a conversation that studiously avoided politics or policy. “I worry when our values are not being upheld. It is important for us to make sure, regardless of our political proclivities, that the values don’t get eroded because situationally in this particular circumstance it’s convenient to abandon our values to get what we want.”

Organizational leadership, whether that is as the head of a presidential administration or within a company, is as much about creating a culture as it is about getting things done. And leader development is just as much about helping people develop the habits that make them better performers and better people as it is about training a particular skill.

“When it’s most successful, it’s getting them to tap into their best selves,” Obama said. “To get them to overcome insecurities, to be open to new ideas, to get them to be respectful of the others they work with. Those things are most of the time what makes or breaks an organization.”

The ability to develop that perspective is particularly challenging in the modern workplace. In an afternoon workshop, Jacqueline Carter of the Potential Project, talked about the “paid reality” of most leaders. In essence, leaders are paid to deal with the realities of work today: feeling constant pressure and being always while dealing with information overload and seemingly endlessly distraction. The result is that leaders are losing their ability to focus.

The answer is for leaders to focus on mindfulness, compassion and selflessness, Carter said. Too much leader development begins with building strategy or tactics before helping leaders understand themselves better and how they lead others.

Mindfulness training is a way to help them regain focus, Carter argued. “The brain has a negativity bias,” she said. “Mindfulness training is a way to clear the mental clutter and stay focused.” She took a workshop of 150 participants through a short mindfulness exercise, teaching them to focus and avoid distractions.

While developing leaders who are capable of dealing with the challenges of modern organizational leadership is essential, it’s not enough, argued Jack Zenger, co-founder and CEO of leadership firm Zenger Folkman in another workshop.

Organizations need to develop leadership with herd immunity. Zenger argued that just as widespread vaccination can help a population resist and eventually eradicate disease, so leadership development at a greater scale can help immunize organizations against poor leadership.

“The success of immunization programs hinges on reaching a high percentage of individuals,” he said. “When a parent fails to immunize a child, it jeopardizes the entire community.”

Organizations need to reach at least one-third of managers to ensure immunity against poor leadership. Failure to do that is the single biggest deficiency in leadership development, Zenger said. Too often, organizations wait too long before developing leaders. The average age of a first-time supervisor is 27 and the age when they first receive leadership development is 34, creating a gap that allows bad habits and poor leadership to lock in, Zenger said.

The answer is to focus on the “workhorses” of leadership development, the tactics that are not flashy but include such basics as senior manager support, measurement of outcomes, managerial involvement and sustainment activities.

That ability to keep an eye on the long term and sustain habits and practices is the key to making change happen, Obama said. That’s where leadership plays a critical role.

“You’re always building on a legacy system,” he said. “You’re always building off what ‘is.’ Often what ‘is’ isn’t terrible, it’s just not what it could be. You have to build a bridge to where people want to be and give them the confidence that they’re not flying blind.”

We face significant challenges and progress is not inevitable, Obama said. It’s up to each of us take responsibility for making things a little bit better. Paraphrasing and embellishing a statement from President John F. Kennedy, he said: “There is no problem man has caused that he can’t solve, primarily by listening to women.”

Mike Prokopeak is vice president and editor in chief of Chief Learning Officer magazine. He can be reached at [email protected]

Tags: leadership, culture, leadership development, mindfulness, ATD, President Barack Obama

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