Leadership doesn’t happen by accident

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Darlene Lowe, our chairman emeritus, led the group’s last session. From left: Jarod Reibel, Mat James, Rita Phillips, Darlene Lowe, Rhonda Ivens, Robin Joye and Dan Wyant.

By Dan Wyant

Today marked graduation day for five of our employees who participated in a new internal leadership program launched last year. The goal was not only to strengthen their leadership skills individually, but also as a group.

It’s natural for different departments in an organization to develop into silos. Yet instead of an “us-versus-them mentality,” I want our people to support each other across divisions, and this program was a great opportunity to reinforce that mindset into our culture.

Here’s how the program worked: Last August, we began to hold monthly meetings that lasted 90 minutes. In each session we examined different aspects of leadership, from collaboration and communication to emotional intelligence and personal growth. A workbook contained articles related to these topics, and we invited guest speakers from both inside and outside our organization to kickoff each session.

I felt it important for participants to own the program, so I asked everyone in the group to take turns running the monthly sessions. This also gave them an opportunity to put newly acquired skills into practice.

The year-long program exposed participants to a comprehensive collection of tools. Some they might use on a daily basis, and other tools might be reserved for special situations. Yet it’s important to know what’s available. For everyone is a leader, regardless of where they sit in an organization — the challenge is to develop and hone our leadership skills.

I was continually amazed by the depth of this group and their ability to be vulnerable and  transparent. Here are some of their takeaways:

Rhonda Ivens — “I loved sharing the content with my coworkers and getting a whole new perspective on the material from them. One of my biggest lessons was about trust, and that it goes both ways: You need to have trust to be able to lead — or to follow. Also, it doesn’t matter what your position is, you can lead from wherever you’re at. Everyone is important in our organization.”

Mat James — “I never really thought of myself as a leader, but the idea is everybody leads from their position in the organization. Leadership is about relationships, trust and communication. One of the most important leadership qualities a person can possess is the ability to listen and be curious. Too often, instead of intently listening and considering what is being said, we are thinking about what we’ll say next. This class has provided a structure that leads to self-understanding and development. I have learned some things about myself and about how and why I react as I do.”

Robin Joye — “When asked to join the class, my first thought was, ‘I’m not a leader, and I have no desire to be one.’ I thought of leaders as CEOs or executive managers. The class has made me look at leadership in a different way, both in my personal life and at work. I now realize each of us is a leader. Something one of our guest speakers said really hit home with me: You must lead with love (compassion and understanding) and not fear (blame, control and power). Communication is key to relationships and listening skills are vital to understanding. The knowledge I gained from this class will stay with me for a lifetime.”

Jarod Reibel — “The program has really allowed me to better understand myself, and therefore, how I work with and around others as part of a team. Everyone is wired differently, which means we are motivated and bothered by different things. Understanding this about yourself and others really allows you to consider what makes people work, and therefore how we work together as a team. It all comes back around to the statement that everyone can lead, and everyone is a leader.”

Rita Phillips— “I loved the program and was able to make deeper connections with my colleagues. It enabled me to learn more about my strengths and weaknesses — how to both celebrate and accept them. One of my biggest takeaways is about trust: It is the key and foundation to relationships. Without trust, you can’t be honest and vulnerable. This applies not only internally with my colleagues, but also to external partners and customers. And it’s not just about me being able to trust them; they need to trust me — it’s a two-way street.”

I was really excited about everyone’s responses. Although I was confident we could strengthen relationships across departments, the results have far exceeded my expectations. One of my big aha moments was that even though participants didn’t initially perceive themselves as leaders, they began to after the first few sessions. I also learned some new things about myself. For example, I realized I have far more control over my destiny than I previously thought — and the power to choose how I respond to what life throws at me.

Bottom line, leadership doesn’t happen by accident. It’s not like an academic degree that you can attain and continue to list on your resume. It’s something you have to keep working at. And despite a few bumps in the road, the journey is not only rewarding but also surprisingly fun.

(Published July 18, 2022)

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Dan Wyant
Chairman & President
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“To me, leadership is about building a team, trying to get the best out of others, and helping them be successful,” says Dan Wyant, chairman & president of the Edward Lowe Foundation.

“If done right, the impact should be lasting.” In this series of articles, Wyant shares insights about leadership gleaned from more than three decades of managing entrepreneurial and conservation organizations in the private, public and nonprofit sectors.