by Elizabeth Haas Edersheim July 31, 2009
Last week I had the opportunity to participate in the Student Leadership Summit, the inaugural event of the Frances Hesselbein Global Academy for Student Leadership and Civic Engagement, at the University of Pittsburgh.
The academy’s mission is to inspire, develop, and reward accomplished student leaders to meet the challenges of tomorrow. We spent four days engaged in intense learning, discussion, and fun with 44 leaders of tomorrow—4 of whom are my mentees. The summit began with “The Wizard of Oz of Leadership” and took these up-and-coming leaders through love, a lion, learning, innovation, tennis-racket propellers, inspiration, communication, respect, inclusion, a scarecrow, values, service, a courageous MIT engineer, passion, ethics, understanding cultures, a tin man, a gigantic light bulb, listening, the color line, confronting challenges, growing talent, creating opportunities, living, loving, and leading. They came away understanding that—like the scarecrow, tin man, and cowardly lion—they already have the courage, heart, and mind to be leaders; they just need to see that it is all there inside them. The summit was fantastic. I learned so much about the difference in perspective that young leaders bring to the table, and walked away with a new sense of hopefulness. Some observations:
1. The leaders of tomorrow emphasize collaboration in problem-solving, seeking ways to share what they have and meet the needs of the many rather than commanding scarce resources to benefit the few. The members of the crucible generation, as Warren Bennis calls them, really do have a more collaborative and less competitive orientation then we ever did. The differences came through every day as we watched them work. The most telling moment was the Ugli Orange Exercise: In essence, two competing pharmaceutical companies want the 4,000 Ugli Oranges right now. One company needs them to fight a new and deadly prenatal disease, the other to resolve a deadly gas leak. Participants are divided into teams of four, two representing each company. The speaker who presented this exercise has been using it for 20+ years. For 20 minutes the two companies typically argue over whose needs are more important and arrive at no solution or action plan. At the summit, all 11 teams rapidly discovered that one company needed the juice and the other the rind, and worked out a viable plan for moving forward. Some went so far as to plant the seeds for the next year’s crop! This has never happened before. In 1994 no team found a solution. At another group last year, out of 14 teams, 2 found solutions. This year at the summit, every team tried to figure out how everyone could be satisfied rather than how to win a fight. “What part of the orange do you need?” was the first question asked by one of my mentees. The question belies a collaborative mindset that asks different questions and seeks fundamentally different types of answers.
2. Despite perceived progress, the color line, with all its ramifications, is still an active force limiting the participation and potential of millions in our society. In another exercise, everyone in the room answered a survey featuring questions about isolation in everyday situations and scored their answers. One of the questions was “Can I swear, or dress in secondhand clothes, or not answer letters without having people attribute those choices to the bad morals, the poverty, or the illiteracy of my race?” At the end of the exercise, we lined up in order of our scores. The predominance of black faces among those feeling most isolated was shocking. It really brought home to me how far we still have to go toward achieving an inclusive society – even here, among the nation’s most engaged, highest-achieving students. The recent arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., in Cambridge has once again brought this concern into the headlines. The presence of the Obamas in the White House – although inspiring and empowering for many – has not even begun to resolve the issue of how we diminish the defining quality of race in American society, how we bring people of color to the table as full participants. One of the leaders of the future spoke about how many people asked her if they could touch or feel her hair. There has been progress, but no magic; much more must be done.
3. The power of a fresh, independent perspective cannot be underestimated. On our third day, each group of four went to a not-for-profit organization in Pittsburgh to help address an issue facing the organization. Their reports back to the group were astounding. My group went to help the Ladies Hospital Aid Society (LHAS) think through how to revitalize their donor base. My team’s first question about achieving that goal was, What is the constraint? They felt that one significant constraint might be the name of the organization. This created a lively discussion with the president and two board members. Finally one board member said that when she has to tell people what LHAS stands for, she often bites her tongue. It is not a name she is proud of, but she had assumed that, as the historical identity of the organization, the name could not be changed. A young man on my team was quick to challenge this boundary condition, pointing out that the organization’s name had originally been the Hebrew Ladies Hospital Aid Society and could potentially be changed again. I was reminded of why McKinsey hires very smart people with little or no business experience—because their lack of preconceptions enables them to push the envelope and cast a wider net in seeking solutions to problems. My team discussed the need for diversity in the images of the organization and on its website, pushing LHAS to redefine its image to draw in more potential donors. Now the board is engaged in reading the Harvard Business School case about the Girl Scouts. The boldness the students showed in their recommendations was surprising, as was the rare opportunity for senior executives to listen to the leaders of tomorrow and discuss solutions with them.
4. The older generation has a significant contribution to make—in mentoring. Jim Collins, the dinner speaker on the final day of the summit, talked about how each of us needs a personal board of directors. That is particularly true for the crucible generation, even though its members scored higher on every academic test than we did and have been developed and programmed to succeed throughout their young lives. They are emotionally young. They have grown up with more supervision than we had, and less freedom to experiment. They are operating in a very uncertain world, where the norm is relentless challenge and unclear expectations. After working hard practicing and performing all their lives, these young people are now faced with the task of deciding how to change the world and making those sweeping changes happen. They do need mentors and people to think with—people who believe in them. When I came home, the first thing I did was call two young people I have worked with recently; I listened to their thoughts and encouraged their ambitions. I hope to be in touch with each of my mentees for a long time to come. Each of them is a fantastic person with a tremendous amount to teach me. To quote Peter Drucker, “Knowledge work requires continuous learning on the part of the knowledge worker, but equally continuous teaching on the part of the knowledge worker.”
5. The leaders of tomorrow define success in terms of making a difference by serving others. Our final exercise was for each leader of the future to define a mountain they want to move, the barriers to moving it, and a plan for how they will get started. To a person, their goals are geared to making this a better world (rather than individual enrichment or achievement) and are all about service. For example, Michael, a graduate student in pharmacy, wants everyone to have available comprehensive information about regulated and unregulated drugs and foods that impact their bodies. He doesn’t want to be a pharmacist – he wants to help people improve their health. Alyssa, an aspiring orthodontist, wants to serve children who might not otherwise be served and help them feel better about themselves. Celeste, a student of Sport Science, wants to help other people accomplish things they never dreamed they could have. Minh, an aspiring ophthalmologist, wants to break down walls and be available to patients where and how they need their doctors. Although it is possible that this youthful idealism will devolve into relentless self-interest, as happened with so many of the baby boomers, the strong emphasis on practical service to others makes me hopeful.
6. Including and respecting young leaders is an essential step to helping them grow and develop. Including people in the group while acknowledging each one’s unique contributions and needs is an enormous part of leadership development—and that is the unique genius of Frances Hesselbein. Frances Hesselbein graciously introduces people to each other so they can make connections, broaden their view of the world, adjust their lens, and grow as leaders. She introduced Tamara Woodbury—a colleague from the Girl Scouts of America whose interest in leadership and organization development was pushing her toward business school—to Peter Drucker, who insisted that business school would be a colossal waste of her time and offered her a different perspective on social enterprises. As a result, Tamara came to change her focus and redirect her impact. As Jim Collins says, “If you are a plant, Frances is the ultimate ultraviolet light—she helps each of us see things differently. For me, the opportunity to talk with military leaders about leadership was a new and eye-opening experience. I learned about President Clinton’s courage in inviting and addressing contrary opinions, about the thinking behind his decision to send troops to Bosnia when only 36 percent of Americans approved of it, because it was the morally right thing to do for millions of innocents. And then when General Randy Fulhart offered to give me some feedback on my writing, a wide smile went across my face…that hasn’t left.
This summit adjusted all of our lenses. Thank you, Frances.
Elizabeth Haas Edersheim conducts case-study-based research on critical leadership issues — often in collaboration with corporations and speaks frequently at management events.