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Accidental Leadership Lessons
April 30, 2010
Written By: Russell Jensen

I recently spent a rainy Saturday morning in a room at Drake University with about 20 other people. Collectively we serve as the National Advisory Council (NAC) for the Donald V. Adams Leadership Institute, part of Drake’s Center for Leadership. This is a big deal for me; Don played an important role in shaping me as a leader and coach and he is someone I admire deeply. This is a responsibility I take seriously and cheerfully.

Anyway, this is a room full of “big”. Big intellects. Big titles. Big pocket books. Big passion for serving Drake. (OK, I’m batting .250). This group is supporting an active student leadership program while also forging some big, challenging, next step change. We only meet in person once a year, and we have a just short time together to work through an agenda filled with big issues. 
I like to think I know a little bit about leadership, and if ever a group and a setting cried out for a driving, forceful, task oriented leadership style to herd us cats, march us through our agenda, and get things done before, during and after the annual meeting, this is it. Right?
Wrong. Let me introduce you to Bob Young of Neenah, Wisconsin. Bob is a 1970 graduate of Drake, recently retired and actively pursuing his volunteer responsibilities. Bob also teaches me about leadership one Saturday morning each year. Bob is kind, thoughtful, soft spoken and very encouraging. When he speaks there is always a compliment, a thank you or word of encouragement prefacing any larger point. Bob’s style is not driving or forceful, but as I walked to my car following the meeting I was laughing at myself replaying in my mind how effectively he led our meeting. Here’s what I was thinking about:
  • We were never more than five minutes off our agenda
  • Every person around the table had a voice and felt listened to
  • The group made the big decisions that needed to be made
  • The entire group owned every decision; nothing was forced
  • In spite of the number of high achievers in the room, no single ego overshadowed the discussion
  • Bob made sure many people around the table had their moment in the spotlight and did his best to avoid it himself.
Here are three lessons I learned from Bob this year.
  1. He was clear about what the meeting was really about. It was not about checking off agenda items and hammering through decisions. It was about enabling the NAC to lead and support an ambitious change initiative. That wasn’t going to happen if the players in the room didn’t own it and feel valued.
  2. He knew how things really worked. The staff at Drake need to implement the change and run the operation, but they also need to help shape the vision and direction of the Center for Leadership. This isn’t a Board / Staff relationship so much as an interdependent partnership requiring a high level of mutual trust and respect. He treated it as such.
  3. He knew who he was. The Adams Institute teaches Don’s six personal values of leadership: take responsibility, be honest and dependable, be persistent, preserve your options, never stop learning and love unconditionally. Bob was just living those.
I’m looking forward to my next lesson on a Saturday morning in April 2011.

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