Navigating the Leadership Labyrinth

Navigating the Leadership Labyrinth

Since The Inception Of Its “Inspire” Leadership Series, American Public University Has Spoken With Talented Leaders Across Many Industries. Here Is What They Told Us.

By Michelle Maldonado

In a 2013 interview, Krishna Pendyala hit the nail on the head when he suggested that we “have to get out of the habit of thinking of people as a return on investment (ROI). When you default to those perspectives, you’re actually looking at only extracting from people rather than helping them through a symbiotic relationship.”

In Western culture, our economy thrives on a capitalist system. When fueled by the demands and deliverables of this system without the appropriate checks and balances in place, we get a broken system that continues to run on hobbled legs. Here’s what we know:

>> The 2013 Gallup “State of the Workplace” study reported that more than 85 percent of worldwide employees (71 percent in the U.S.) are disengaged in the workplace.

>> According to 44 percent of senior executives surveyed for the 2013 Adecco Staffing U.S. Report, soft skills make up the largest competency gap among U.S. workers.

>> As noted in “Conscious Capitalism,” written by Whole Foods co-founder John Mackey and Conscious Capitalism, Inc., and co-founder Raj Sisodia, organizations that equally value and integrate technical and soft skills consistently outperform companies in the S&P 500 and “good to great” companies when they are compared and measured over 3-, 5-, 10- and 15-year periods.

Apart from the known historical challenges with internal talent development metrics and reporting capabilities, as well as engagement and buy-in of senior leadership, I believe there’s a disconnection here that is, in part, attributable to the way we are leading from the top down and the bottom up. Many of us can see what is broken and have ideas about why and who is to fault. However, we do not create the change and transformation needed to get us on the right track. Why? Because the most impactful and sustainable change is the one we must make within ourselves.

On Transformation

Nothing is ever accomplished in a vacuum, but we do have to start with ourselves first. Every person we spoke with over the last year offered great ideas about how to move transformation forward.

Here are some of my favorites:

>> “Communicating consistently and simply is important, but you also have to model the behavior you seek from your team and others in order to create trust and collaboration.”—Chief Master Sargent Edwin Maldonado, U.S. Air Force (Ret.), August 2013

>> “When asking a bird and fish what a boat looks like, each will give you a different description based on their view. There are always multiple perspectives to a situation. Your job is to be open and flexible enough to connect the dots for the whole picture and best outcome.” —Krishna Pendyala, director of A Mindful Nation Foundation, October 2013

>> “A mindful leader embodies leadership presence by cultivating focus, clarity, creativity and compassion in the service of others.” —Janice Marturano, Institute for Mindful Leadership, November 2013

>> “Every institution has organizational policies and procedures that fit together and synchronize how their people view the world. The end result is a pattern of linear thinking, which is detrimental when cognitive diversity is misunderstood or shunned. One’s ability to challenge the norm — not or the sake of being contrarian — but for the sake of improving processes can improve the outcomes for whatever goals an organization is trying to achieve.” —Lt. Richard Goerling, Hillsboro, OR, Police Department, September 2013

>> “Leading and navigating multi-generational workplaces requires each of us to do things differently. There’s a transformation under way — a culture shift that emphasizes mindfulness and accountability. Many employees are no longer willing to sit idle when what’s promised to get us in the door bears no resemblance to the actual culture and values seen on the other side.” —Omari Head, American Public University System, May 2013

>> “We all have egos or what some may call ‘shadow perspectives’ that influence our ability to lead. Self-mastery is about catching ourselves and identifying the hooks or preconceptions that cause us to create stories that do not reflect the full picture.” —Dr. Velma Cobb, VL Leadership Group, March 2013

>> “There are five key pillars for developing a healthy, personal leadership framework: Purpose, Wisdom, Self-Awareness, Love and Growth.” —Dr. Hitendra Wadhwa, founder of the Institute for Personal Leadership and Columbia Business School Professor, February 2013

>> “‘O3’ creates opportunity and a strong foundation for leadership. One: We only get one lifetime and one chance to accomplish our aspirations. Ownership: We must take ownership of every experience we encounter. Opportunity: Our opportunities are as few and as boundless as we see them.” —Dr. David Yudis, founder of Potential Selves and former Learning and Leadership Development executive at The Walt Disney Co., December 2012

An Experiential Process

There are as many leadership styles and paths to leadership roles as there are people. Ultimately, it’s an experiential process that is honed over time with each choice, thought and action. It’s interesting, because for so many, we think there’s an arrival point or final destination — when, in actuality, navigating the leadership labyrinth is simply a series of experiences that build upon one another and create stepping stones for the lives we lead.

I remember a conversation we had with Dr. Greg Ketchum back in November 2012. After having been caught in Hurricane Katrina, Dr. Ketchum came away with some leadership lessons to help others live and lead authentically. He observed that authentic leaders hold themselves and others accountable in a deeply collaborative and participatory way. He offered five guiding principles to discover and develop our own authentic leadership styles:

1. Access, trust and act on your gut instincts.

2. Learning to be a leader is fundamentally an experiential process.

3. Your ability to deal with reality is key.

4. Acknowledge and understand your own weaknesses to develop your full leadership potential.

5. Never hand over complete responsibility for your situation to an authority figure.

—To read the full conversation, visit: Michelle Maldonado is a former corporate attorney with more than 17 years of leadership experience in strategic planning, operations and partnership development across the e-learning, technology and online media industries. She is associate vice president of Corporate and Strategic Relationships for American Public University System (APUS) and the creator and editor of “Inspire Thought Leadership Series.” To learn more about how American Public University may help you with your talent development and retention strategies, email Michelle at

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