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My Key Executive Leadership Program Journey

Last month I graduated from American University’s Key Executive Leadership Program. Hands down, it was well worth the time spent. And, if you will indulge me, I would love to share my key takeaways from my class notes. I do so hoping that you might find some nuggets of wisdom beneficial to your own leadership journey.

Leaders as Executives

Leadership is a choice. That was my biggest takeaway from the sessions discussing leaders as executives. And, it requires actively choosing to be a leader.

In fact, along our leadership journeys, we make choices that will “generate better outcomes, generate more meaning, and shape our future selves.” The key, according to the instructor, is on what basis do you make those choices? Of course, in large measure, our values inform those choices. He also shared that as senior executives, we are being called upon to be leaders in a “VUCA world.”

You have likely learned from leadership sessions that you have attended that VUCA stands for volatility, uncertainly, complexity and ambiguity. As we discussed these concepts, I couldn’t help thinking about how the COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened all of those things. And, we must really use emotional intelligence to get our teams through it.

We left that session knowing that while leadership has been much studied, there is simply no guidebook for every situation. In fact, I was reminded of one of my favorite leadership quotes from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. “What then is my duty? What the day demands.” That quote tells us that the leader must be ready to rise to the challenge. There’s no script but you don’t need one. Your leadership skills have prepared you and you are ready for whatever comes your way.

The Leader as Coach

We’ve all taken leadership classes. So, we know there are different leadership styles. We’ve even experienced some of them. Some leaders have an autocratic style (e.g. “Do as I say!”). Other leaders have a pace-setting style (e.g. “Do as I do!”).

Here, we discussed the leader as coach and the importance of providing motivation. To illustrate, the instructor shared a quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupery, who said, “If you want to build a ship, you don’t just drum up people to gather wood and assign tasks. But rather, teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.”

We also learned, “What can I do to make people better?” is the question every leader as coach should ask. And, that definitely resonated with me. In fact, I believe as leaders we must get to know the strengths and growth areas of those we lead. In this session, we discussed how the leader can use the answer to that question to coach our team members to higher heights. Importantly, the leader in turn takes that information and applies it to the larger organization.

Leading Organization Change

We all know that leading change is difficult. I wrote about it a couple of weeks ago in my article “Change Happens – You Might As Well Lead It!” In that article, I shared my strategy for addressing the leading change Executive Core Qualifications (ECQ) statement when applying for the Senior Executive Service (SES). Of course, that strategy also prepares you to address the very common “what change effort have you led” interview question.

In this session, we learned that some of the key challenges to leading change include lack of respect, lack of trust and poor relationships. Conversely, tolerance is a key element of successful change. And, the instructor defined tolerance as accepting each other’s idiosyncrasies, reframing setbacks positively and viewing mistakes as opportunities. We all agreed that such tolerance can honestly be easier said than done. But, no one ever said leadership would be easy. So, we all agreed its worth the effort.

The Leader as Team Builder and Facilitator

“Pick one word that others would use to describe you and explain why” was the opening exercise for this session. Some executives said they would be described as reliable, dependable, calm, honest, committed and positive. I selected the word purposeful. Are you thinking about your one word?

I work in an environment that believes strongly in teamwork. In fact, everything we do is dependent upon it. And, this session validated my belief that seeking consensus is often a condition of success. I wrote about that in my post “Inquiring Minds Get the Best Results.” This session took it a step further. The instructor noted that the absence of social interdependence results in individual effort. But, when interdependence increases, so do connectivity and trust. And, those things allow your teams to flourish.

Leading Conflict

It is the leader’s responsibility to resolve conflict. I live by that mantra. And, in this session, we were asked to agree on five traits necessary to resolve conflict. At my urging, we ranked listening first. We listed patience second. And, emotional intelligence was a close third. Communicating openly was fourth. It wasn’t easy to decide, but we rounded out the list with self-reflection to understand your own role in the conflict.


I believe strongly in continuous learning. So, while participating in this program was optional, it was an option I am glad I exercised. In fact, there is one aspect of the program that I know I will always keep with me. In my favorite class exercise from the entire program, we shared “crucible moments” in our lives that have shaped us as leaders.

First, the instructor shared his own crucible moment. Then, one by one, we each shared transformative experiences that tested our character and strength as leaders. I have done the same with each of my mentees since then. And, as I close out this article and my time as a featured contributor, I hope you too will reflect on your own crucible moments along your leadership journey.

Interested in becoming a Featured Contributor? Email topics you’re interested in covering for GovLoop to [email protected]. And to read more from our Winter 2021 Cohort, here is a full list of every Featured Contributor during this cohort.

Shirley A. Jones, Esq. is a Senior Executive Service (SES) member in the federal government and a certified leadership and diversity and inclusion trainer. Considering herself an employee advocate and a career development trainer, she was recently elected National President of Blacks In Government (BIG). Ms. Jones has had the opportunity to testify before Congress on the lack of diversity in the SES and frequently speaks at events in the Washington, D.C. area. She often addresses a variety of topics related to leadership and empowerment. Ms. Jones has also written op-ed pieces for the historic AFRO newspaper, HBCU Connect and other publications.

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