MIT Sloan Executive Education Blog

Life of purpose and other discoveries from the FRED Forum 2015

Contributed by Peter Hirst, Associate Dean, MIT Sloan Executive Education

Motivating leaders is not hard--these are the people who are used to raising their hand when no one else will. The big question is what drives them each and every day and how do they sustain that drive? What inspires them and compels them to action? And what can we learn from them? Answering these questions and developing the practice of leadership to make the world a better place is the goal of FRED Leadership incubator. The organization's annual conference, the FRED Forum, is something I look forward to with great anticipation, and this one was no exception.

Held last fall in Denver, Colorado, the FRED Forum 2015 focused on the question of purpose--in work and in life. The four-day conference brimmed with inspiring talks, thought-provoking workshops, illuminating field trips, and opportunities to learn from leaders from a variety of backgrounds for whom the purpose of their work is to improve the lives of others and make the world better.

Finding purpose through discovery and reflection

Richard Leider

On the first day, Richard Leider, a renowned executive life-coach and author, guided us through a workshop on how to identify and articulate our individual purpose in life. An interesting experiment in self-reflection, it was no small task by any measure. Leider encouraged us to think of purpose along six essential principles: Purpose is a choice; Purpose is a practice; Purpose is an aim outside yourself; Purpose begins with believing you have one; Purpose is more than saying "yes" to what you already have, it's also saying "no" to deterrents; Purpose gives life focus and meaning. While each person's purpose is a deeply personal matter, Leider pointed us in a general direction of leading a meaningful life by growing and giving, as people and as leaders in our fields.

Of course, having a clear purpose does not guarantee that you will succeed, but striving in the right direction will get you closer to fulfilling your purpose, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The next several speakers shared lessons and perspectives gained from experiences that could have easily embittered them but instead gave their work a clear purpose.

Diplomacy in conflict zones

Christopher Hill

Ambassador Christopher R. Hill spoke about his service in conflict zones around the world and what he learned from dealing with dictators and war criminals, and working alongside international leaders and U.S. Presidents, Vice-Presidents, and Secretaries of State. During his distinguished diplomatic career, Hill had served in Iraq, the Republic of Macedonia, Kosovo, and Poland, and had headed the U.S. delegation at the Six Party Talks on the North Korean nuclear issue. Now, Ambassador Hill is the Dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. (Photo: Ambassador Christopher R. Hill, courtesy of University of Denver) 

His insights and opinions were refreshingly candid and forthright--particularly, his reflections on leadership as collaboration, team empowerment, and supporting the success of others.

Finding paths to reconciliation

From dealing with high politics on a global stage to surviving local adversity with global consequences, we next heard from two astonishingly inspirational and moving speakers.

Fred Leadership Forum

Robi Damelin and Bassam Aramin belong to The Parents Circle-Families Forum: a joint Palestinian-Israeli organization of over 600 families, all of whom have lost a close family member as a result of the ongoing political conflict that has brought immeasurable personal suffering to people on both sides. The Parents Circle was established in 2010 to create a framework of reconciliation on a personal level with the goal of ending violence between the two nations. This admirable grass-roots organization works with public and political decision makers "to choose dialogue and the path of peace over violence and war in order to achieve a just settlement based on empathy and understanding."

Hearing Robi's and Bassam's stories, and being able to meet them and talk to them afterward, was deeply moving. Losing their own children to conflict was, and still is, tragic, yet their ability to rise above and make meaningful change is greatly inspiring. 

Ending human trafficking


David Batstone is an ethics professor at the University of San Francisco and the president and co-founder of Not For Sale, an international anti-slavery campaign. Batstone presented startling statistics on modern-day slavery and human trafficking, and reported on Not for Sale's efforts to improve the lives of thousands year after year.

While the organization's impact is significant, their approach is what made their story especially relevant in the context of leadership. Batstone is a former investment banker and his business experience has been instrumental in creating the Not For Sale's strategy--creating better economic conditions in vulnerable communities to break the cycle of exploitation. One of the tools the organization is using is "impact sourcing." Also known as socially responsible outsourcing, impact sourcing gives established companies a way to offer jobs to members of marginalized or excluded communities as part of the company’s supply chain. Even when low skilled, these jobs provide vital economic stability that comes from meaningful employment and inclusion in commercial structures. Not for Sale provides survivors and at-risk communities in five countries with safety and stability, education, and economic opportunities.

Revitalizing a depressed city   


Landing in the Denver International Airport, I realized that I haven’t visited the city in decades--and what an incredible transformation! Once a drab and occasionally dangerous stopover between the airport and ski resorts, Denver has become a popular destination for people and businesses. The FRED Forum gave us an opportunity to hear about this amazing change from the person whose leadership contributed the city’s turnaround--first as an entrepreneur whose vision and business savvy helped sow the seeds of revitalization in downtown Denver, and later as a public servant. Governor John Hickenlooper has been serving the state of Colorado for over a dozen years, first as Mayor of Denver 2003–2011, and as Governor since then.

His pride in the city's rebirth reflected his tenure of civil leadership and the firsthand knowledge of challenges and triumphs that came with that. For him, the most important lessons learned from Denver's story are: cooperation, action, innovation, and confidence. Not surprisingly, all echo Leider's purpose principles.

Keeping an open mind  

For me, one of the most exciting aspects of the FRED Forum has always been the chance to visit organizations focused on the needs of local communities. These Leadership Expeditions take us not only out of the conference halls, but often outside our comfort zones, as well.

Marijuana sales

I was part of a group that visited the State Capitol, where we met with Andrew Freedman, Director of Marijuana Coordination at the Governor's Office, and Lewis Koski, Director of Colorado State Marijuana Enforcement Division.

On November 2, 2012, Colorado became the first state in the nation to legalize marijuana for personal and recreational use for adults 21 and over. The commercial sale to the general public began January 1, 2014. The media coverage that I have seen has been focused more on the consumer aspects of marijuana legalization--health and safety concerns, illegal use by minors, etc. Although, the new state law intended to treat cannabis use similar to alcohol, the commercial side of the regulation presented serious hurdles that no bar owner or microbrewer should have to worry about.

What Freedman and Koski shared with us were the economic and legal issues surrounding this new sector—how to coordinate and ensure lawful practices with the federal government, or how can businesses operate safely and legally in what is essentially a cash economy? Cautious about federal regulations, Colorado banks don’t offer banking services to marijuana retailers. Yet the business is booming, and the large amounts of accumulated cash raise concerns about opportunities for corruption and organized crime moving in on those legitimate (in Colorado) businesses. Regardless of what one’s personal opinion on marijuana legislations may be, hearing Freedman and Koski talk about the challenges and roadblocks that their teams have to overcome every day, made us all appreciate the pioneering work they are doing.

Knowing how to recharge

As usual, the FRED Forum agenda was packed, so we all were delighted by the wonderful musical interludes that punctuated the full schedule of events. At the opening of the workshop, we were treated to a surprise concert by the Colorado Children’s Chorale. The group of about thirty children performed fun and inspirational songs and then greeted us individually--displaying impressive confidence and poise. The Chorale annually trains 500 members between the ages of 7 and 14 from all ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds representing more than 180 schools in the Denver metro area and beyond.

FRED Leadership Forum

Another highlight was a musical performance by Orbert Davis, founder and leader of the Chicago Jazz Philharmonic. This spirited group delivered an unforgettable performance of jazz and classical music. As a management school executive and a jazz lover, I found it to be an apt metaphor of blending different styles of leadership into a cohesive performance. Maybe more so than other professions, musicianship embodies at least two of Leider’s purpose principles: it is definitely a practice and always aimed beyond itself.

Purposeful business leadership

The Forum concluded with a powerful call to action from Jostein Solheim, the affable CEO of Ben & Jerry's, and Nick Craig, President of the Authentic Leadership Institute.

Solheim took the helm of the legendary ice cream manufacturer in 2010 with a commitment to continue the company's dedication to social and environmental causes. His message of the important role that values-led businesses can play in driving positive change resonated with everyone in the audience. By the end of his presentation, we all wanted to work at Ben & Jerry's or, at least, dig into a pint of delicious ice cream.

Nick Craig heads up the Authentic Leadership Institute, a leadership consulting firm "committed to creating leaders and organizations with a deeper purpose and the courage to transform their business impact." At the FRED Forum, Craig led a workshop on articulating leadership purpose and learning how to become a better, more conscientious leader.

The three key lessons I took away from this workshop reflected my overall impression of the FRED Forum. Most of us already have a purpose, perhaps we just need to reconnect with it. Leadership purpose is deeply personal, but it affects people around you as it defines everything you do in your position and your organization. Your purpose governs all aspects of your life and even what you leave behind--it becomes your legacy.

Journeying back to Boston after the FRED Forum had drawn to an emotional and reinvigorating close, gave me an opportunity to reflect on the presentations, conversations, and discoveries we have been treated to over the two-and-a-half days. It also provided a spontaneous demonstration of an authentic and grounded leader in action, when Nick Craig, who happened to be on the same flight, selflessly dived under a row of seats to retrieve my phone, which had shot under several seats in front of me when the plane landed. To me, it seemed like an apt expression of the FRED spirit!

This all came back to front-of-mind as I recently received an invitation to the next FRED Forum East Coast “alumni” reunion, which will be hosted by the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York. It seems like this could be quite a contrast to my "field trip" to Denver, Colorado!

Contributed by Peter Hirst, Associate Dean, MIT Sloan Executive Education


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