The Association for Talent Development Fosters Servant Leadership at International Expo

1. Leadership is an act of service

At this year’s American Society for Training and Development Conference, servant leadership was the most pressing mandate issued by those sung and unsung heroes who have dedicated their lives to developing leaders. During four full days of programming, 9,000 learning professionals, from over 80 countries, participated in more than 250 educational sessions by industry experts, many of which were devoted in some way to leadership development. This year was a momentous one for the association as it unveiled a new global brand, transforming the organization from a U.S.-centric body to one that is relevant for leaders and coaches everywhere in the world: the Association for Talent Development.

Over the course of the multi-day event, these key lessons stood out from the rest, each supporting the general thesis of servant leadership.

2. It’s not about power

Dr. Debra France doesn’t mince any words when it comes to describing the skills required to drive innovation at W.L. Gore & Associates Inc. “Leadership abounds. It doesn’t imply authority at Gore. Leadership is available to all. Anyone can lead at any moment. If you’re the knowledgeable person, and you speak up at a moment of need, you’re a leader.”  This approach, still considered radical even for a long-standing industry leader such as Gore, stands leadership on its head by explicitly starting with the need of the group, not the authority of the leader. Such an approach deemphasizes power in favor of outcomes. “A primary act of leadership is to know when to step away and let someone else lead. The task in the moment is indicative as to who should be leading.”

3. It’s not about you

Leadership that appropriately addresses the context of the moment is at the heart of Situational Leadership II, the foundation of the work of Ken Blanchard, well known and celebrated for his contributions to leadership theory and practice over the last 35 years. Blanchard and his associates have taken the long-standing view that leadership is other-focused. Says Blanchard: “The most effective leaders realize that leadership is not about them and that they are only as good as the people they lead. These kinds of leaders seek to be servant leaders.” The first responsibility of a leader is to assess the individual and situation and then provide the appropriate level of direction and encouragement.

Blanchard & Company continues to publish cutting-edge research alongside recommendations for its practical application. One of the more exciting sessions featured Blanchard & Company associate Susan Fowler explaining “Why motivating people doesn’t work” as she summarized her research that yielded a book by the same name to be released in September. “We are in a position to create an environment where other people flourish and thrive.” Fowler outlined the Optimal Motivation process, a scientifically-based approach to creating the environment for success, which, in turn, enables employees to internalize motivation and develop sustained engagement.

4. It’s about shared purpose, in service

Shared purpose is at the core of a successful organization’s environment, but creating such an environment requires exceptional leadership work. For effective managers, it never goes without saying, and it’s a never-ending responsibility. So is the accountability for developing the next generation of leaders. Representatives from both eBay and Samsung emphasized these ongoing twin challenges.

Interestingly, both companies used examples of action learning to build that shared vision and further develop their leaders. Diane White of Right Associates spoke about eBay’s approach: “The greatest impact on a leader’s development comes from action-learning projects, simulations, coaching or mentoring, rotational programs, and international assignments, if they are part of the strategy.”

 “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

– Lao Tzu

Samsung, celebrating its 20-year anniversary of “Move on to Quality” has taken that action learning one step further. During the company’s turn-around in the early 1990s, Samsung leaders established a program that would provide an on-going pipeline of innovation and new ideas. Each year, the company sends its most promising talent to a new region—a completely new environment—for an entire year. The result: a drastically different environment yields new connections, new relationships, new language skills, and overall, a deeply personal cultural understanding, which informs how the business can best serve the people of the region.  Angela Oh, reporting this aspect of a strategy that contributed to building one of the world’s most successful companies explained, “The company trusted that these people would surely contribute to the global society. People have deep pride; they continued to work and to learn, reporting what they learned.”

5. Sometimes, it means leaving your comfort zone

Going cross-border is one of the most challenging learning experiences, and Judith Katz and Fred Miller of the Kaleel Jamison Consulting Group, Inc. had four beautiful pieces of advice for leaders seeking to foster a high-performing, highly-aligned environment:

  • Lean into discomfort
  • Listen as an ally
  • Use common language to clarify intent
  • Embrace diversity of views

Learning and change never happen from the comfort zone. By learning how to deliver results, even in the face of discomfort, leaders can effectively deliver business outcomes, even in the face of adversity. Listening is one of the most overlooked leadership traits, and listening with a bias toward collaboration can make an individual and their team more accepting of other ideas. Discerning a project’s essential intent from its auxiliary details can often be the difference between business success and mission failure. Clarifying intent through common language, especially in new cultures when social nuance can be even more foreign than language, is a critical leadership capability.

Most importantly, leaders must share ‘street corners,’ accepting every person’s perspective as true to them. If at the outset a leader believes that she has identified all views, she probably has a big blind spot. The best way to ensure a complete perspective is to ensure all corners are clear, all voices are heard. Leadership identifies the differences, legitimizes dialogue, and enables shared purpose, which leads to the development of shared value.

6. And, always enabling followers

In the final analysis, leadership is really about followership, about creating the kind of environment in which those we lead can excel in harmony with one another, moving forward in service for something greater than ourselves.

Laura Asiala

Laura Asiala

Laura Asiala is the Vice President, Public Affairs at PYXERA Global. Passionate about the power of business to solve—or help solve—the world’s most intransigent problems, she leads the efforts to attract more participation of businesses to contribute to sustainable development through their people and their work. She also serves on the Board of Directors for Net Impact, a community of more than 40,000 student and professional leaders creating positive social and environmental change in the workplace.

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