Notes from the World Leader Conference

So this past weekend I was lucky enough to be able to attend the World Leaders Conference as my mother was a volunteer. The speakers there included Martin Sheen, Ken Blanchard, Marcus Buckingham, Henry Cloud, Martin Luther King III, Susan Cain, Erwin McManus, Patrick Lencioni,Craig Groeschel, Katty Kay, H. Wayne Huizenga, Jr., Mark Floyd, Jon Gordon, Charles Duhigg, James Blanchard, Adam Grant and Ray Titus. Most of the speakers were excellent and demonstrated clear mastery of their specializations though some of them, such as Jim Blanchard and Henry Cloud lacked the personality, polish and poise one would expect to be on the lecture circuit. Though purchasing their books is likely the best way to obtain the wealth of information the presented on leadership, group dynamics, habits and culture, I wanted to catalog and share what I felt to be some of the best material.

Marcus Buckingham, author of Now, Discover Your Strengths: How to Develop Your Talents and Those of the People You Manage and StandOut: The Groundbreaking New Strengths Assessment from the Leader of the Strengths Revolution, first pointed out the rather simple but oft forgotten fact that within a particular enterprise there is often no one corporate culture but many of them. To give an example of how they differed from place to place he pointed out the Starbucks example and how their approach has helped out many of their employees that typically lacked the educations and family support structure to gain the inter-personal skills that would best serve them for upward mobility. As a former partner myself I was able to relate to what he meant though I am somewhat cynical to his claim that this is strictly for altruistic purposes. He continued by exploring the results of his quantitative work in determining what the cause was for variations in performance and concluded that there were three basic issues that explain it. If someone does not have the chance to do what they do best everyday, if someone doesn’t know what’s expected of them and don’t feel that their colleagues are committed to quality work than their on the job performance will decline. Lacking this key factor removes the sense of serious purposefulness to best work.

After pointing out how the regional executives and managers need to be in contact with their individual branches, he then emphasized the importance of what was basically the Catholic doctrine of subsidiarity. Local managers should have a certain amount of freedom to adjust the general operating framework in a way that they see as best as it will allow them to adapt to the actually existing circumstances. He stated that the best team leaders were those that checked in once a week with their workers only two questions: “What are you doing?” and “How can I help?”. The purpose of such actions is to make sure that expectations are expressed in real time and are able to be adjusted to aforementioned conditions.After this he went into an extended discussion on what he calls his nine strength roles – advisor, Connector, Creator, Influencer, Pioneer, Provider, Stimulator and Teacher. He spoke extensively on the individual qualities of each and those interested in learning more about this material should check out his website to learn more and take one of the self-tests. Buckingham repeatedly emphasized through examples that there is no one perfect leadership profile, only one that is able to fit a person’s individual personality strengths. By taking what is unique, refining it and making it useful one becomes a great leader. Buckingham’s examples of such different approaches to embodied company values included the Apple’s “Quality is beauty” motto in comparison to Facebook’s “Done is better than perfect.”

Though not in direct conversation with Buckingham, Patrick Lencioni’s presentation similarly detailed the cultural aspects of businesses. He was more interested in and spoke on the complicated means by which the success of a group can turn into dysfunction. Seemingly a distillation of his book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable, he illustrated the dysfunctions that can occur within a team: absence of trust, unproductive conflict, lack of full commitment, insecure accountability and actions that don’t produce results. While presenting his case analysis of SouthWest Airlines, he pointed out that this was a successful enterprise because they were able to focus on every small aspect of their customers experience as they didn’t think that any detail was beneath them. He connected success to how it is that people behave that claimed that being healthy in a group was usually preferable to being smart. This was because, according to him, when a leader humbles himself and is able to view the operations from a subsidiary level they will engage with employees that are more willing to follow advice and orders and better able to view the holistic operation of the company.

Lencioni emphasized how it is that employees are the most important asset of a company and that creating networks of behavioral accountability will precede positive results. He stated that while quantitative indication of whether or not a businesses’ purpose is successful is of course important, long term continuation will best be maintained by qualitative means. For Lencioni, the behavioral accountability must be unwavering and apply to all levels, even junior executives, and should enforcement be particularistic then it will deplete morale by demonstrating that leaders are exempt from the rules. If such people are perceived to be invulnerable in the organization, all sorts dysfunction begins to manifest. Leaders, as should be apparent by the term itself, are to set the example that others are to follow and must be open to productive conflict with those inferior in the command structure. Such openness to criticism, such humbleness, is what it is that defines the form of servant-leadership which he propounds as the best form of leadership.

One of the four presenters whose work I was familiar with prior to the conference was Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking and someone who’d become somewhat of a social media phenomenon following the wide circulation of this TED talk. She built up on the theme that there’s no such thing as an optimal one size fits all environment. Her focus, however, was in relation to introverts and extroverts. After pointing out that these two two types are evident throughout the animal kingdom, ie in fish who swi towards a disturbance and those that will avoid it, she says that accommodating introverts is the new most important diversity issue. She based this finding upon research which shows that individuals often do better when brainstorming than in groups. Pointing to the Asch Conformity Experiments as a leveler of creative thinking, she states that when people bring what they’ve produced to a meeting it will be better than a single, group brainstorming meeting. Part of the accommodating for those that are introverts include businesses allowing introvert employees to take breaks when they feel it’s necessary to go on solo walks, meditate or even nap. These types of behaviors are encouraged by multiple teach leaders and despite expectations otherwise this has the effect of increasing productivity. This is because those that are in a state of equilibrium will always be the most effective, productive and passionate about their work – and successful work is always related to an expression of passion.

Another wonderful speaker, one that I was fortunate enough tolunch with, was Charles Duhigg, author of The Power of Habit. He continued to speak on business culture issues, though focusing more on how habits are the true form of culture – a statement already familiar to Aristotelians and Hegelians. He gave multiple examples of how when people get into the grip of a habit the brain literally slows down. It stops functioning in as creative and innovative a manner and merely “get’s into the grooves”. The most important types of habits are what he called keystone habits, ie those habits which communicate a specific self-image until to do otherwise feels alien. Proclaiming that will-power is the single greatest correlate for future success, he said that it’s important to connect the successful completion of actions to a system of emotionally-significant rewards. These rewards are part of the habit loop of cue -> routine -> reward and that lacking them it is difficult for individual or social will to continue. As Dr. Martin Luther King III was there, he used the example of the daily meetings held in the churches of Montgomery during the boycott as an express of dedication to will and reward – social recognition for continued, collective determination.

One of the general themes that I found rewarding intellectually was the constant referent to servant leadership by the speakers. I first came across the notion in Bethany Moreton’s book To serve God and Wal-Mart: the Making of Christian Free Enterprise and have since read other academic articles on it. Most of the speakers referred to it directly or to certain aspects of it. Katty Kay, author of Womenomics, for instance encouraged women to push for workplace flexibility as a means of achieving personal fulfillment – albeit fulfillment strictly in relation to being a mother. She saw flexibility qua itself as something that’s good for business, an interesting claim considering the various attempts by trans-national European workers unions to fight against the imposed “flexicurity” programs. While I am able to see the benefits of such leadership as it incorporates multiple perspective and thus allows for better management of business enterprises I don’t believe it’s wholly beneficial for most people. Considering the eight-hundred ticket of cost to get into such a conference, however, this wasn’t meant for most people but the local West Palm Beach elite and those international oriented that were able to make it (For example, I met ands spoke with the man who represented the executive of ToTo’s American and Brazilian enterprise). Continuing with my example from Kay, for instance, most women do not have the bargaining position in the workplace to obtain favorable changes in scheduling to give you more “family time”. It’s fantasy, unless there is collective action across various work sectors, to presume that businesses will take these considerations seriously. The servant leader is still in the organizational structure of the enterprise, the boss just as the partner, the associate or any other name you want to give the person is the employee that must alienate his spirit to fitful the will of the boss. This, per se, isn’t something bad but I find it disingenuous when someone such as Ken Blanchard states that “Today’s leaders much be partners with their people…” during an epoch that has seen wealth increasingly divide. To qualify this line of criticism, this is not to say that the material presented is in any way bad, not effective, or anything but good leadership craft – merely to emphasize the flip side of such an ideology in a broader degree of abstraction such that is applies to more people. Put in more poetic terms, if the leadership is considered a servant in such an ideology, what then are the workers considered?

Without directly confronting this issues and to a limited extent I felt that Martin Sheen’s closing speech addressed what I saw was this gap in the discussions presented. His speech also alighted upon culture, but more so upon the role that people have in the continuation and maintenance of a culture that can be considered vibrant and virtuous rather than one that is degenerate, focused solely upon the sensual gratification and distraction from the realities of daily life. While staying aligned with his personal life narrative, he deftly transitioned from personal to social truths and while not quite as electrifying as <>this speech was still quite powerful in that while it was directed to this privileged crowd it was also applicable to all. The universality of the message was a great way to end the Leadership conference as it pointed out that they could not be so without those that are led.