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Lessons From a Nonagenarian: Values-based Leadership Etiquette

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Not many of us have the unique opportunity to work with a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom -- our nation's highest civilian honor.

Frances Hesselbein is in her nineties. She has created a legacy of achievement and contribution... and she is still working and leading the way, as president and CEO of a social sector organization dedicated to developing values-based leadership. She's involved. She cares -- and she sets an example for all of us. I have the pleasure of working with her every day.

From Frances, I have learned that leadership is all about valuing relationships, about valuing people. Real etiquette is not about mindless or archaic ritual; it is about the quality and character of who we are. "Good manners" are the expression of genuine respect for others.

Here are a few lessons I keep with me:

1. Listen

Listening is an art. When people are speaking it requires that they have our undivided attention. We focus on them; we listen very carefully. We listen to the spoken words and the unspoken messages. This means looking directly at the person, eyes connected -- we forget we have a watch or a cell phone, we focus for that moment on that person. "It's called respect, it's called appreciation, it's called anticipation -- and it's called leadership," says Frances.

2. Focus on task (the work we do), not gender

Move beyond the old assumptions, practices, and language that can be barriers to equal access. One barrier is placing women in a special category of gender.

The management qualities that might be labeled feminine are embraced by remarkably effective women and men: leading with the power of language, cultivating relationships, building teams and structures that release the energy and potential of others, developing flexible management systems, and building an inclusive organization. Refrain from categorizing "women leaders" -- we are leaders who are women.

3. Carry a big basket

In other words: Be open to new ideas, different partners, and new practices, and have a willingness to dump out the old and irrelevant to make room for new approaches.

4. Be on time

I once lived by the expression "Punctuality is a virtue of the bored." However, while traveling with an "early bird" -- particularly one from the mountains of western Pennsylvania, where 5:30 means 5:30 -- I have experienced unique opportunities that arise in the quiet moments prior to an event: meeting an unexpected or high-level guest, exchanging business cards with event organizers, creating strategic partnerships.

5. Put your house in order

Getting our "personal" house in order is perhaps the most challenging, and most neglected of professional tasks. It requires reserving the time and building the psychic energy for introspection. We must assess our personal strengths and take responsibility for planning our own development. We must listen to the whispers of our lives. When we "put our house in order" we look at the intensely personal challenges of our health, our well-being, our relationships with others, and the promptings of our spiritual life, however we define it.

If we commit to practicing self-awareness, self-evaluation, and self-improvement, if we are aware that our manners -- language, behavior, and actions -- are measured against our values and principles, we are able to more easily embody the philosophy, leadership is a matter of how to be, not how to do.