Lessons from 2012 Forum

I just returned home from the 2012 Leadership Challenge Forum, celebrating the 25th anniversary of this extraordinary leadership model, along with the 5th edition of the book. Whether you were there or not, I thought you might appreciate a few personal reflections from the time with authors Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, and the community of practitioners and supporters.

1. Story telling was a key theme throughout the conference, with the focus less on technique and more on modeling the importance and impact. Stories are a powerful way of communicating lasting lessons and values. This caused me to think about the overwhelming amount of communication exchanged today in cryptic text or confusing email messages. In the attempt to be fast and efficient, maybe we are losing the meaning of many key messages. Maybe that contributes to poor communications being perennially atop the list of problems in organizations.

2. The so called “back story” is important for context. This refers to parts of a story which the listener does not know about. I assume that there are always parts of another person’s life which contribute to his/her behavior in the moment. Starting a book at chapter five will leave one very confused, and so will interacting with new people without understanding some of their history. Remember the quote attributed to Henry Ford, “why is it when I want to hire a pair of hands, I get a whole person.” Be willing to share your own and understand others back stories.

3. Great leaders lead from a foundation of clear core values. As ordinary as this sounds, never forget its importance. Values help leaders understand the  subtle differences between success – and significance, or at being the best in the world – rather than being the best  for the world. Knowing and acting on those kinds of differences are what lead to truly meaningful changes in the world. There is more to success than shareowner value, or being number one on the Global Fortune 500 list. Values are essential. Be clear on yours.

4. Each year at the Forum, I meet more and more people whose names I have trouble pronouncing. That is because more and more people from countries far away – with unfamiliar names to me – are attending.  This is one more indicator that the messages and impact of The Leadership Challenge model are continuing to prove themselves around the world. Very cool.

5. One of the key differentiators of the work of Kouzes and Posner is their ongoing research. Every year they present more evidence which clearly demonstrates the direct relationships between The Five Practices and important outcomes such as higher performance and more positive work attitudes (or engagement levels). I appreciate their diligence in pursuing and finding the truth about the ways more effective leadership does make a real and measurable difference.

6. My final reflection is that conferences such as these are usually very inspiring to those attending. I believe part of the reason is attendees let go of some of the daily distractions for a while to focus on a vision of more noble outcomes, such as renewed hope and promise, or how to really make a difference. I often wonder in our multitasking obsessed world, how often people actually do check out to reconnect with the purpose and meaning of their work – and lives. Who knows, maybe you do not have to be a Martin Luther King Jr. to inspire others.  Maybe you just need to provide an environment which promotes and encourages people to take some time to find and explore those uplifting connections for themselves.

In closing, let me offer my sincere congratulations to Jim and Barry for this very special 25th anniversary. Your work continues to make a difference. And a jumbo-sized thank you to everyone involved at Wiley Publishing for your tireless work, inspiring leadership, and warm smiles.  We attendees will never know how many opportunities there were for things to go south, and how much sleep you gave up to ensure they didn’t. We do, however, know the fruits of your labors, and they were extraordinary. Bravo.



  1. Well said, Steve! You captured much of what made this celebration so special for many of us. Bottom line is that The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership keep changing lives. Even as we attended, people were making life changing decisions based on what they heard. Grateful to be a part of it.

  2. Sterling Gross says:

    I have come to believe that more people believe that leadership is an event instead of a state of mind. Events give you a shot of possibility yet its not enough to sustain you when probability sets in.

    A Practices-based leader strives for something higher than the moment. We call it sustainability. Sounds like the annual conference continues to provide the insights to do so.

    So sad I missed it.

    • Jackie WInner says:

      Sterling – nice said. “shot of possiblity”. I think that sums it up very well.

    • I happen to believe that effective leaders frequently provide that shot of possibility. The not so effective ones allow the annual conference or the training seminar to do the heavy lifting.

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