Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Art of Leadership

'The Art of' is a series of conferences that bring thought leaders to Toronto to present their ideas (and their latest books) to an interested community. Attendance has grown from hundred to thousands. The last event attracted 3000 people who gathered to listen to Colin Powell and Chris Hadfield, in a line-up that also included the author of Freakoknomics, and professors from Harvard and Wharton Business Schools.

This was a work-related event, and I heard a lot that day that widened my perspective, not just on the art of leadership, but the art of living.

Colin Powell surprised me with his egalitarian views on healthcare and access to education. I'm sorry to say I had pegged him entirely to the right of the political spectrum and figured he'd been born into a life of privilege. In fact, he grew up in Harlem and worked his way up through the ranks to the top jobs of Chief of Staff and Secretary of State. An excellent speaker, he had the talent of making his talk to 3,000 people feel as though he were addressing a much smaller room. One of the things he spoke about was the stark contrast of being Secretary of State one day, and the next returning to life as a civilian. His latest book, It Worked for Me: In Life and Leadership, has been dubbed a trove of wisdom for anyone wanting to turn their dreams into reality.

Colin Powell didn't grow up wanting to become Chief of Staff of the United States of America, but Chris Hadfield wanted to be an astronaut from the age of nine, when he watched the Apollo blast off into outer space. For me, despite seeing countless images of astronauts, space travel was the stuff of movies and fiction. But it became very real, hearing  Chris Hadfield's accounts of take-off and re-entry. He brought along photographs and video clips and his personal accounts were riveting. Years of focus and dedication went into becoming an astronaut and again preparing for the flight into space.  An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth is definitely on my reading list!

Both Powell and Hadfield successfully pursued dreams that seemed larger than life and now, what comes next? Life on the speaking circuit, wielding their influence and inspiring those of us with more ordinary lives. Although I never set my sights on being a four star general or celebrity astronaut, I'm certainly interested in what these men have to say about Living.

I wonder if they were Givers or Takers? Wharton Business Professor Adam Grant talked about Give and Take and shared some fascinating information about who gets ahead in the business world.  Sadly, many 'givers' don't manage to get ahead, but there are others who end up out-performing everyone. Grant's research analyzes why. Of all the books, this is the one currently on my bedside table. How to best create a work culture that promotes collaboration and support?

Amy Edmondson talked about Teaming in an environment that is constantly shifting. Her years as a Harvard Professor have also been spent studying successful project-based teams. Her advice for teamwork on the fly: speak up; listen intensely; integrate different facts and points of view; experiment iteratively; and reflect on your ideas and actions. Not surprisingly, the Harvard Business Review lists her as one of the Top 50 Management Gurus today. These clips on You Tube elaborate on some key points.

Another Management Guru, Stephen Dubner, first made the bestseller list with Freakonomics. During his presentation he shared an interesting case study about someone who approached a hot-dog eating contest to more than double the world record. Dubner also cautioned about government incentives, talking about how one government's cash bounty on rat carcasses to reduce an infestation backfired, and instead resulted in a booming underground industry of rat farming. True tales - stranger than fiction.

Lots to ponder and reflect, and lots more books now on my reading list!

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