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The Central Challenge for Leaders of the Future

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The University of Chicago’s dean of Students made headlines this week with the letter he sent to new students there. The letter outlines the school’s commitment to academic freedom, and Dr. Ellison, the dean, lays out what this means for students. It means that they should not expect the creation of “safe spaces where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.” It also means that they should not expect the University to cancel invited speakers because of perceived controversy.

The letter illustrates a larger struggle to figure out how to educate the generation that has been most impacted by the social media revolution. This new generation has increasingly flexed its muscles as it has realized the strength of social media campaigns and how quickly they can target, terrify, and make administrators bow to their demands.

As schools are trying to come to grips with how they should handle these types of situations, it is becoming increasingly clear from the business world that the most important and vital set of skills lacking in the marketplace right now are soft skills. The Wall Street Journal featured another article about this subject, noting that in their own survey of 900 executives, eighty-nine percent said they struggled to find people with the requisite soft skills necessary to do the job. As technical jobs become outsourced or automated, companies are looking for employees who can, in the words of one business owner in the article, employ “common sense.”

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How to transition well

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This year marks Tim Cook’s fifth anniversary at Apple. Over the past few days, various media outlets have run articles assessing his leadership so far at the iconic company. Apple has largely transitioned from a cool tech company under Steve Jobs to an all-encompassing behemoth under Cook, with tentacles in hardware, software, music, and, reportedly, the automobile industry.

This got me thinking about the various transitions that involve leaders . The first transition comes with assuming a new leadership role. Subsequent transitions follow within that role. Leadership, comprised of numerous transitions along the way, in many ways mirrors life: we transition from child to teenager, from college student to adult, from married with no children to married with children. How we respond to these transitions defines how we grow and mature in our lives. With the new school year underway, an obvious transitioning point for so many in our culture, let’s walk through strategies that help leaders transition well.

Michael Watkins wrote a popular Harvard Business Review book entitled The First 90 Days, an excellent read about this subject. One of the most important things a leader in transition can do is to mentally prepare for the new role of leadership. Max DePree’s maxim of leadership applies here: the first task of the leader is to define reality. Before leaders can define the reality for others, they have to do it for themselves. Mental preparation involves giving yourself time and space to reflect and think about the new task ahead of you. Whether you are an internal processor or an external processor, the need for this reflective space is important, as it is the birthplace of the motivation and energy that you will rely upon for your new endeavor.

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What is your Why?

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Every four years, the Olympics captures the attention of the world. We’ve witnessed Michael Phelps bring his total gold medal count to a staggering twenty-three. We’ve seen Simone Manuel and Jenny Simpson make history in their respective events. We’ve watched Simone Biles dominate the gymnasium. We’ve stared at the screen in disbelief as Katie Ledecky blew away her opponents in the pool.

Along the way, we’ve also witnessed the heartache of competitors who came just short of medaling, the pain of athletes who couldn’t finish because of injury, and the agony of runners disqualified because of a false start.

The common thread in all the athletes at the Rio Games is that these Olympics are a culminating moment for years, even decades, of preparation. Every athlete has a story of how they got to the Olympics, and those stories are often so powerful that they overshadow the competition itself. We don’t watch as much for the actual events themselves as we do for the stories of the athletes in them. We watch because we want to know why they are there, what adversity they have had to overcome in their journey to this moment.

Every Olympic athlete has a “why,” a reason why they’ve dedicated their lives to a particular event, a motivation for the countless hours of practice and hard work they put in with no one watching. For many of the competitors, the “why” is the glory and fame that the medals represent. For others, it’s to break a barrier or accomplish something no one in history has ever done. Some are carrying the expectations of an entire country or hoping to honor their loved ones who aren’t there to see them.

The Olympics provides an opportunity for us to be inspired by all these various “whys.” They should also cause us to reflect on our own personal “why.” As Os Guinness asks in his short work Rising to the Call, “Do you have a reason for being, a focused sense of purpose for your life? Or is your life the product of shifting resolutions and the myriad pulls of forces outside yourself?”

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How to build Olympic level teamwork

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The "Final Five" took home the gold in the women's team gymnastics competition Tuesday night. The name, a tribute to longtime national team supervisor Martha Karolyi, also works because this is the last Olympics to have five person teams. In 2020, teams will be made of four gymnasts. The squad, comprised of previous Olympic stars Gabby Douglas and Aly Raisman and newcomers Simone Biles, Laurie Hernandez, and Madison Kocian, dominated the competition en route to a historic win for team USA. Their margin of victory over second place Russia and third place China hasn't been seen since before the Kennedy administration.

The Olympics is a grand smorgasbord of sporting events, including both team and individual sports. While gymnastics and swimming have captured the world's attention so far, track and field and beach volleyball are next in line. Along the way we'll also see weightlifting, handball, golf, and kayaking.

I am fascinated by the teamwork required for all of the events, however. We traditionally see the individual sports as one-on-one matches, where athletes triumph on their own. This spirit was perfectly captured in the now-famous waiting room scene between Michael Phelps and Chad Le Clos just a few nights ago. The reality, though, is that none of the athletes in the individual events would be where they were without having a team around them. Just go back and watch any of the three races Katinka Hosszu won and you'll see her point and beam as her muscled husband (and coach) cheers her victory.

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Tolkien's Creativity Can Empower Your Leadership

Credit: Thomas Burmeister via APThe BBC has found new Tolkien interview material, lost for decades, which they plan to broadcast for the first time this weekend. In what can only be described by Tolkien's own phrase Eucatastrophe, this news marks a "sudden, joyous turn" for devoted fans of Tolkien. J.R.R. Tolkien, of course, wrote the enduring classics The Lord of the Rings series and its prequel, The Hobbit, along with a host of other stories and poems. He gained an immediate following both in his home country of England and in the US after the publication of Lord of the Rings, which came on the heels of World War II. In recent years, new generations have been introduced to his works through Peter Jackson's three-part film adaptations of both stories.

I'd like to briefly reflect on what Tolkien means for leaders, whether you are a die-hard fan or know next to nothing about him, While there are numerous avenues we could use in this endeavor, I want to focus on one specific aspect of Tolkien, the idea of sub-creation, and show how leadership is a form of sub-creation.

Back in the creation account in Genesis, when God created man and woman, the Scriptures tell us that he created them in his own image. Part of the purpose of the first humans was to cultivate the garden God created, including naming all the animals that God created to populate the earth. That ability to name is a creative ability, one bestowed on humans because God created us in his own image. He is the Creator God, and we as his creation are given the ability to create as well, only our creations are not original. We cannot make raw material out of nothing like God can, but we can refashion and rename things. That's the basic idea of what it means to be "sub-creators," and Tolkien has been instrumental in bringing that idea to common parlance.

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