Don’t get me wrong, I think Obama is one the worlds great leaders. He’s the reason I bought a ticket to the Forward Thinking Leadership conference; I saw that he was going to be there so I was one of the first to buy a ticket when they went on sale. But there was so much more.

This one is longer than normal, but I promise you, it’s worth taking the time. So grab a cuppa and take the time to read this. You’ll be glad you did.

Must know lessons from great leaders

The team at Denk Producties put together a great agenda and I went to the Forward Thinking Leadership conference. It was a gift to myself, and now I’m sharing the gift with you. I’ve put together the main takeaways from each of the speakers for you.

The Forward Thinking Leadership conference of September 28th was a well organised, invigorating, joyful experience. And while Obama was the highlight of the show, he actually had a really tough job to follow the other amazing speakers of the day.

There were three elements to the day, each developed around one of these themes:

Forward – Thinking – Leadership

So here is a list of the top lesson from each speaker, in the order of the day. hopefully you’ll get a sense of how the day unfolded.

Theme: Forward

The impact of digitalisation, artificial intelligence, and innovation

Steven van Belleghem, Author and Entrepreneur

He spoke to us about what it means to lead in a digital age, where we are moving from a “mobile first” mindset to a “AI first” mindset. The time of relying on a USP is gone, we need to be great at so many things as the bar of customer expectations has been raised so high. So what do we do? Make our customers lives easier. How? Your product or service should either save them time, or enhance their time.

Our customer’s scarecest resource is time. So what are you doing to Save or Enhance their time?

The Dutch Disruptors talkshow

This was a panel with Gillian Tans -CEO Booking, Joris Beckers – CEO Picnic, Ali Niknam – CEO bunq, and Alexander Klopping – CEO Blendle. Moderated by Jim Stolze. Sharing their stories of disrupting their markets by focusing on what people need and their vision of what a great user experience is, the key highlight is

As an entrepreneur you have an idea that everyone else thinks is wrong. Don’t worry about that, you’re going to prove them wrong

Sophia, the humanoid robot.

Wasn’t expecting this at the conference, but we say a live conversation with an amazing result of AI advances. Admittedly, I prefer robots that have cute robot faces rather than the humanoid version – I think it’s because it so close to being a human face but it’s not, that my primitive brain kicks in with a signal “this is not human!”. Fascinating to see.

AI is an opportunity to redesign work for humans. And Robots won’t take our jobs; it is the responsibility of humans to assign the work, and be responsible for the impact 

Theme: Thinking

Courage. Persistence. Creativity.

Daniel L Shapiro, Associate Prof in Psychology

Dan has written many books on conflict resolution and has consulted in hostage situations and peace talks. He spoke to an interesting thing that is happening in the world: increase in tribes. And while Seth Godin highlights the positives of Tribes in the self titled book, Dan reflects on the downside. That tribes can be adversarial, righteous, closed systems: you’re either with us or against us mentality.

When we use the basics of negotiation: listening, and asking good open ended questions (like coaching) then we can actually move forward together. Then we can get to this amazing space:

It’s not “Me versus You”, it’s “Us versus The Problem”

Maggie MacDonnell, Best Teacher in the World

Maggie says she takes the gardening approach to cultivating youth leadership (notice, she doesn’t call it teaching; she’s cultivating leaders. This is significant). This approach is: look at what environment you are providing for the seed. Does it have enough fertiliser to nourish it so that it can grow? What amount of light and water does it need?

Then she engages them in project based learning e.g. the bike repair shop. This particular school had a 90% drop out rate. The kids loved bikes and would steal them from town folk. So she started a bike repair shop – and the former “thieves” learned how to make their own bikes. Give them what they need.

Give them what they need to grow. If a flower doesn’t bloom, you don’t blame the seed, you change the environment it’s growing in

Michaela dePrince, Ballerina at Dutch Royal Ballet

You have got to check out her story! This lady was the most inspirational leader in the room. Sorry Obama, she outshone you. And I think you’d agree. Talk about the audacity of hope! An amazing storing about a girl who was inspired by a simple image to live for happiness and contentment; and chose her path that would take her there. Everything has meaning – and you get to decide the meaning that it has. Michaela story is one of immense strength and the very definition of choosing the meaning. The key lesson is

Choose your goal, and choose your path. Dare to dream, despite the terrible things that have happened. Dream, and make it happen

Theme: Leadership

Bringing change in hearts and minds, showing the way to a better future

Bas van Der Veldt, CEO AFAS

Bas shared the 5 tips for leadership that he has brought to life in his organisation.

  1. Start with love
  2. Publicly share direction and show accountability
  3. Give trust and responsibility
  4. “word geen zonnekoning”. As leader, put yourself in the thick of it, and express decency
  5. More balance between work and private life

But the real gem, and it’s something that doesn’t get said enough, is about taking action. For every decision we take, someone will be unhappy. Take the decision anyway. And if you use the 5 tips above, then you’ll be good.

Take decisions. Dare to know, and above all, act with decency

Marshall Goldsmith. Leadership Thinker, executive coach

In this world we are all focusing on winning: above all else we need to win. This puts a great deal of pressure on us as leaders, but what for? Are we actually focusing on the right thing by winning?

This quote from Peter Drucker was key to his message:

“We spend a lot of time helping leaders learn what to do, we don’t spend enough time helping leaders learn what to stop

And there is a culture of learn more, more, more. But where are we getting to with all the things we have learned? Often, we don’t get to where we want to be. Here is the answer:

It doesn’t work if you don’t do it. 

President Barack Obama

Hang on a minute. Before I get to the learnings I’ve got to share something with you.

*Fangirl moment* I was about 5 meters away from Barack Obama. omg! it was awesome. I am so grateful the the seats I managed to get. This is my very own photo, take by my very own phone. And I’m pretty sure he was looking right at me. That smile is for me. That’s my story, I’m sticking to it til the day I die.

Ok, back to the serious business of sharing the learnings.

Stay connected to real life: The stresses that come with leadership can put you in a bubble. The higher up you go, the bigger the bubble gets. So the things that kept him out of the bubble are:

  • bring the mother-in-law to live with us
  • this is my job for now, not forever
  • recognise that your position doesn’t lift you above everyone else
  • stay in touch with the people to remember that you are dealing with real things, not abstractions or concepts. The decisions affect real people. So he used to read 10 letters from citizens every night

If you want to move people

  • Listen

To keep going and to succeed

  • Set up a culture that avoids self-inflicted wounds, based on values and principles
  • set up an ethics office. For his staff a key rule was: if it looks fun, you can’t do it
  • set up a good feedback operation

Primary job as a leader

  • Help your people be successful

And here’s the key to all the above, to knowing what to do, what direction to take, for how to get there:

Really think about what you believe, about what’s important, and start from there. And focus on doing the right thing, not on doing it right

Bonus lesson from Obama:

How to manage it all? Don’t waste time commuting.

I was a work from home Dad. Instead of commuting, I got to spend time with my family

This day out was the best gift I have given to myself in a long time. And I’m so glad that I get to share it with you. Plus, it demonstrates something I believe: Everyone is a Leader. Just look at the diversity of leadership here.

Want to know more? Want to share your thoughts or ask a question? Get in touch, leave a comment.