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5 things leaders could learn from graduates

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This post is by Albert W. Niemi Jr., dean of the Southern Methodist University Cox School of Business, and Frank Lloyd, associate dean of executive education.

At graduation time, students leaving high school and college receive wisdom from prominent leaders. But what if these leaders’ words were reflected back at them? What should experienced leaders be reminded of at graduation time?

At the Cox School of Business, we remind our graduates of five components to success:

1. Work hard — earn your success. At Duke University, Ted Turner reportedly gave the world’s shortest graduation speech. As the students, parents and relatives eagerly waited, Turner approached the podium, said, “Get out there and work your butts off,” and then returned to his seat. In response to the university president’s plea for him to return to the podium and say more, Turner said, “Nope, that’s it.”

2. Practice the Golden Rule. Treat everyone with respect, as you wish to be treated. Business is founded on reliability and reciprocity so workers need to speak and act in ways that build trust with multiple stakeholders. In today’s multi-cultural and multi-generational workforce, leaders must know their personal and cultural values, and how their words and actions express these values to others. As they seek to clearly communicate their values, leaders must avoid misperceiving others’ values.

3. Follow a moral compass and maintain your ethical standards. Business demands courage and commitment. The leader’s job is to balance and to align intersecting and, sometimes, competing value systems: What they believe, how they treat others, what they say and do to motivate their teams, how they align and mobilize their organization, and how they embody and articulate its larger purposes among all stakeholders.

4. Keep learning. Flexibility and adaptability are needed in the face of uncertainty and continuous change. Fortunately, leaders have three primary learning resources to draw on to help them maintain a competitive edge:

  • Experienced managers can learn new tools and knowledge from subject matter experts, practitioners, and peers in today’s action-oriented classrooms that encourage experimentation with new ways of thinking and behaving.
  • Business leaders can learn in the workplace through structured situations and projects in which they apply new learning.
  • Managers can learn in the community, through volunteer activities and service on nonprofit boards, where these are pursued intentionally as part of a learning and development plan. Leaders should make these learning resources available to their people as they build leadership depth.

5. Maintain a safety net of relationships. Leadership requires healthy relationships to support the application of learning resources on the job. A safety net can include coaches, mentors, peers and supervisors.

MBAs need to hear about hard work, respect, the moral compass, and continuous learning at the start of their careers. And experienced leaders need to be reminded of the factors that, along with hard work, contribute to sustained success: reliability and reciprocity, courage and commitment, adaptability and flexibility.