Along the Leadership Walk: Growing as Leaders by Learning from the Past

On a characteristically hot and humid summer day in Washington, D.C., I ventured with a small group of Goodwill Industries International team members on a journey of leadership along the National Mall. Carrying field guides and cold bottles of water, we visited the memorials of great leaders, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Abraham Lincoln.

We followed a self-directed journey known as the Leadership Walk, developed by David Oldfield, director of the Midway Center for Creative Imagination, to encourage personal reflection and group discussion. Articulating and understanding leadership in your day-to-day job can be difficult, and leveraging our local landscape in this way spurred larger conversations about work, leadership, diversity and inclusion.

"Ironically, by carefully attending to the path of others, you come home to yourself," Oldfield said.

Our first stop was the Thomas Jefferson Memorial. The field guide described Jefferson as "a man of paradox and contradiction: a splendid writer, but a poor speaker; a fierce advocate of individual liberty, yet also a slave owner." We considered the importance of our personal values aligning with our everyday work and reflected on our own contradictions as leaders.

At the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial, we shared our experiences with diversity and inclusion, and discussed how facing both prejudice and belonging have shaped us as individuals. This dialogue on how to effectively challenge the status quo brought to mind a statement by our founder about the importance of persevering in the face of adversity.

"Friends of Goodwill, be dissatisfied with your work until every...unfortunate person in your community has an opportunity to develop to his fullest usefulness and enjoy a maximum of abundant living," Edgar Helms said. He established Goodwill Industries® in 1902, and his challenge continues to reverberate in the relentless work of Goodwill® leaders across the world.

My favorite conversation took place at the FDR Memorial with three team members from different generations and at different points in our careers. The memorial has four separate "theaters" to represent President Roosevelt's four terms in office. The Leadership Walk field guide prompted us to think about our own leadership "theaters."

As a CEO with more than 15 years of executive experience, I had an easier time understanding where to draw the lines of my four theaters than, say, the recent college graduate, only two weeks into her new role. The FDR memorial gave her the opportunity to look at her past work and educational experiences in a new light, understand how they shaped her leadership experience, and see how her leadership matters, no matter what stage of her career she is in. I reflected on the interdependence between an inclusive culture and fostering leadership at all levels.

While we could have sat around a conference table to have these discussions, we had an opportunity to take our professional development a step further by using our surroundings as a classroom, and we have seen the benefits. After the majority of our team members had gone on the Leadership Walk, we used the field guide as the foundation for another all-staff exercise, completed in the comfort of our air-conditioned offices. Team members shared their appreciation for the walk with each other and through written reflection.

I am grateful to David Oldfield of the Midway Center for Creative Imagination and our proximity to D.C., and I genuinely appreciate our team members' commitment to growth and authentic participation on this walk of learning. The guided reflection through the monuments created an open dialogue for all team members. It also provided us with the language and ideas to better understand our past leadership experiences and communicate our leadership goals for the future. Involving everyone in discussions of leadership reveals new organizational insights and infuses new energy in our collaborative work.