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October | Leadership Development | Read time: calculating...

Lessons for Leaders from the Home of SXSW

Leaders of the future will need to be self-disruptors. They will be adept at shifting their thinking, constantly challenging their own beliefs and assumptions.

I recently returned from travelling throughout the USA, visiting renowned business leaders, world-changers and campuses including MIT. The University of Texas, or UT, is in Austin – a city which earned the number one spot on USNWR’s Best Places to Live in the US for the third time in 2019. 

Austin is also the home of SXSW, the largest music/innovation/creative festival of its kind in the world. The creative attitude of its citizens has not gone unnoticed; Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook have all recently set up operations there.

I was in The Lone Star State to connect with Professor Stephen Sonnenberg, esteemed member of the Psychiatry Department of UT.

Professor Sonnenberg’s academic work includes a focus on the use of physical space to promote mental wellbeing. Keogh has long been an advocate on leveraging elements of physical environment to enhance the human experience.

Here, I wanted to briefly recap the insights from truly interesting and visionary thought leaders at the University – meetings personally brokered by Stephen. Looking into the future of work, as we often do, below are some of the key takeaways from these beacons of academia.


Soft skills will be essential for the 21st century.

Clay Johnston is Dean of Dell Medical School and Vice President for Medical Affairs. In this position he is focused on developing medical professionals for the 21st century. 

He described to me how UT is preempting the expected artificial intelligence gains in health, by ensuring that soft skills are factored into selection criteria for their department. 

In his panel discussion at SXSW2017, alongside Google’s David Feinberg, he mentioned what would be needed. 

“Some of it is communication skills. Some of it relates to a different kind of analytical ability. The other thing is that we need physicians who understand the whole health system, including what happens outside the hospital and clinic.”

Clay and I talked at length about getting the balance right – recruiting individuals that have the right mix of soft skills like communication, collaboration and empathy in addition to the intellectual horsepower required to succeed.

Control your diary, control your destiny.

Jeremi Suri is Professor of History and Public Affairs at the University of Texas, and holds the Mack Brown Distinguished Chair for Leadership in Global Affairs. He’s also the author of a number of books, the latest entitled The Impossible Presidency: The Rise and Fall of America’s Highest Office.  

It’s still on my “to read” list but we discussed his premise: “that extraordinary power has pushed even the most ambitious presidents to become largely reactive”.  

This reactive attitude will mean they’re focussed on the new shiny thing, or, “putting out the latest fires, and losing sight of what’s most important. Leaving little room for bold vision”.

What I found most fascinating were his comments on the diaries of several past presidents, outlined in his latest book. 

Roosevelt’s diary shows a day with few scheduled meetings and activities, all manually recorded.

FDR gave himself time to engage meaningfully with people and issues. Importantly he also gave himself plenty of time to think. 

It’s an example of someone in control of his time and his political agenda. His diary shows “an executive with focus, flexibility, and some spontaneity” (p.192). 

Roosevelt allowed himself sufficient time to gather new information, pick it over with others and carefully and deliberately think about the appropriate course of action to take.  


In stark contrast, Clinton and Obama’s diaries are filled with meetings and briefings, generally of a more tactical and reactionary nature, leaving little time to focus on the ‘strategic few’


While I’m not a political commentator, it did make me think of the parallels with organisations. Too often I see Senior Executives lurching from meeting to meeting, crisis to crisis. They’ll voice their frustration at not getting enough time to focus on the big, important things and lament about the state of their diary. 

We all know that this reactive state, this way of being, is the opposite of what is required to generate innovative thinking, those A-hah moments that will help lead to the bold vision for the organisation. Scheduled downtime is often what’s required to the transformational breakthroughs that are required to sustain their organisations long-term. 

Embrace change to ride the wave of disruption.

My final visit at UT was with Brent Iverson, Dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies. 

Brent has worked across the university to develop a core curriculum, based on six key areas,  that will lead to lives of accomplishment in the 21st Century. 

Assisting 40,000 students to become accomplished in these areas is no mean feat; his story of achievement is akin to a masterclass in change management.

He commenced with building a “burning platform.” Brent readied the campus leaders and key stakeholders by relaying the stories of Kodak, Sears and Blockbuster – icons who ignored the signs of disruption at their peril. He got people’s attention.

Iverson used powerful symbolism to communicate the ideas. The six areas to be incorporated were named the Six Flags, creating a psychological link to flags that have flown over Texas since the first European exploration of the region by Cortes in 1519.  

He then enlisted the help of passionate advocates, seeking their help to run successful pilot programmes which then generated momentum. 

Most notably, he did not advise faculty leaders on how to incorporate these areas into their curricula. Nor could he. Rather, he shared with them the key indicators of success for each area. Leaders were then given the freedom to incorporate these into their teachings how they saw fit.

He was successful in the change, but the world is changing at an exponential pace. Brent is now turning his attention to what the next flags might be. He no doubt has the learning to make the next round of changes faster and more seamless.

Of the Six Flags, the one which resonated most with me is ‘Independent Inquiry.’ In a time where advice is sourced from Siri, Google and Alexa, and the 24 hour news cycle, fake news and ‘dark social’ creates new narratives shaped by shadowy agendas, the ability to be sceptical, to question and inquire is an essential skill to nurture in young minds.

The final key takeaway? 

Leaders of the future will need to be self-disruptors. They will be adept at shifting their thinking, constantly challenging their own beliefs and assumptions.

Jump to a section

1. Lessons for Leaders from the Home of SXSW
2. Soft skills will be essential for the 21st century
3. Control your diary and control your destiny
4. Embrace change to ride the wave of disruption
5. The final key takeaway?