BLC 2019: Bruce Avolio on finding authentic leadership where you least expect it

The UW Foster School’s 28th annual Business Leadership Celebration featured a quintet of the school’s most-decorated faculty giving TED-style talks on different “Facets of Leadership.”

Bruce Avolio, a professor of management, the Mark Pigott Chair in Business Strategic Leadership and founding director of Foster’s Center for Leadership and Strategic Thinking, spoke on finding powerful examples of authentic leadership in unexpected places.

Here is the adapted text of Avolio’s lecture:

I’d to tell you a few stories from the arc of my journey toward understanding change that we all work toward. And that journey doesn’t take an airplane, a car, a bus or a train. It actually just takes disciplined reflection.

In the end, where I want to come to is something that we take very seriously at the Foster School, and that is authentic leadership.

Prison story

The first story starts in a prison. I was working on a leadership development program to train supervisors to work with their employees in the Canadian correctional system. It turns out that these employees were inmates. And I was encouraged by the warden to meet with one particular member of the staff. He ran a shop that repaired cars. His name was Sam.

I walked into Sam’s shop one afternoon and he was giving a presentation to a group of inmates—all of them very big and with sharp tools in their hands. And he had his back to them. That should have been a sign of the kind of leadership he exhibited.

Sam pointed to two very different pieces of metal on the wall. One was badly gnarled and the other was beautifully shined. He told the inmates, “If you work with me, we’re going to from this (gnarly) to that (shiny) in three months. And that is how you get a good job and get out of this place—and not come back. Because I don’t want you coming back.”

We went back to Sam’s office and he told me, “I give them a simple vision that they can wrap their heads around. They’re here because they failed at so many things, including crime. What I do is give them dignity and I give them respect.”

And they give it back to Sam.

We ran that leadership development program and had an impact on many of the other superintendents, compared to what some of you might remember as the “One Minute Manager” and “situational leadership.” We had a great transformation through the program, and Sam was a great example.

Newark story

The second story came from the Newark Airport. It’s Friday night, I’m standing on line. I want to get on the plane; everyone else wants to get on the plane. And we’ve had three announcements of delays. I see this nicely dressed woman coming toward me. And I think, “Uh-oh, here comes the hotel voucher.”

But she tells me this story about when she was a young consultant, about ten years ago, in a Midwest town to give a presentation. She got off the plane, went to the hotel, and realized that she had left her laptop on the plane with everything on it. The presentation was early the next morning.

Bruce Avolio is a globally recognized expert on authentic leadership.

A woman standing near her sensed she looked nervous and concerned. She asked, “Can I help you?”

It turned out that she was a flight attendant on that flight. The consultant told her what happened, and the flight attendant made some calls, and got the laptop back to the woman and she gave a wonderful presentation.

Wonder what airline it was? You’ll find out later when we talk about its CEO (Brad Tilden, recipient of a 2019 Distinguished Leadership Award).

Foster story

The last story comes from the Foster School of Business, and the Fritzky Fellows. Ed Fritzky and his family have endowed the work we do with leaders of each MBA class (who mentor the next year’s class). Last year we selected 14 Fellows from 50 applicants.

In the spring we asked our Fritzky Fellows for their expectations. One of them said, “You know, I just want to get back to normal. I’ve been deployed four times. Army Special Forces. And I just need to get back to normal.”

And this group wrapped around this gentleman, and each other. And they made an amazing impact not only on him, but on all of them, too—and the entire class.

It’s a reflection of you, as a community. As I look around this room, I see so many people who represent the kind of authenticity that we are trying to represent in the work that we do within the school. And that, by the way, is what I think is going to get us to number one in everything: by treating each other with dignity and respect, like Sam, and that flight attendant and those Foster students.