Oprah Winfrey on Learning to Be a Leader

Learning is when you remember the “a-ha” of knowing the truth. The common language we all share is the truth about ourselves. Oprah Winfrey, the global media leader, philanthropist, producer, and actress, gave these and other insights about leadership and talent development in her keynote session at the 2019 ATD International Conference and Exposition in Washington, DC on Monday. ATD is the Association for Talent Development.


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She explained that The Oprah Winfrey Show worked for 25 years because she realized everyone on her show—and those watching it—were looking for the same thing: The desire to live out the truest expression of self as a human. The truth through storytelling validates life. Encouraging this truth-telling in herself and in others allowed her to flourish.
She talked about two significant mistakes in her career and what she learned from them: The first, was not following her gut, and the second was not seeking out leadership as the top priority in a creating an organization.
To “follow your gut” means intuition, the “natural knowing” is when to go this way, or that way, or no way. Oprah realized when she spent too much time asking others “What do you think?” it meant she was in the “browse” phase of making a decision, not clear on the right action to take. She had to stop herself and get clear on the answer.
Giving money was an issue where she needed to follow her instinct and determine whether doing it would help the person change the way he or she thinks, how they see themselves, and how they act to help themselves move forward. Just giving money to “please” or to just “want everyone to be OK” can’t do those things.
A second mistake was not seeking and expecting leadership from people that worked for her. At the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa, which she opened in 2007, the goal is to provide education for academically gifted girls from disadvantaged backgrounds. She focuses first on finding the girls that meet the criteria for joining the school, and then finds the teachers afterward—figure that part out as it develops.
She recounted how allegations of sexual abuse of some of the girls at the school involved a school staff person. She dealt with the crisis by making one decision at a time with the information she had, then she would do each “next right thing” one at a time. She made sure the girls at the school had the right leadership.
She recognized she had a character problem: willingness to please, not make waves, and want everyone to be OK. Decisions based on that ego will backfire, every time, she says. Real leadership can’t be about self.
Two major changes occurred in her life that helped transform her thinking about her character.
One was reading the book “Seat of the Soul” by Gary Zukav. The solution to the character problem is the principle of intention—don’t let the head override the gut. Ask yourself what is the real reason why you are there doing work, and would you do it if your name wasn’t on it?
Another life-changing realization came when she recognized a common thread throughout all her interviews and interaction on her long-running show: everyone wanted validation, “was that OK?.” She saw that all people want to be grounded in themselves, to know that someone sees and hears them. A trait of a good leader is to give your full presence to the other person.
The things she looks for in a good leader in her organizations are:
  • A person who can execute the common vision, and
  • The person’s character, or how a person takes care of him or herself.

A leadership culture is people who take care of themselves so that they are “whole” and fully present and productive, to recognize they have a combination of unique skills and personality to fulfill their service in relationships with others. She said you can be of service by starting exactly where you are now.

Dave GaltDavid Galt is the Senior Legal Editor – EHS Training at BLR. Dave coordinates the development and maintenance of all environmental, health and safety training content for the BLR portals and other training products to help businesses comply with OSHA, EPA, and DOT rules. He writes feature articles and presentations about EHS training, workplace safety, and the business value of EHS programs. Dave has presented at ASSE national and regional conferences, NSC, AHMP, and NAEP about EHS training and promoting the business value of EHS. Before joining BLR in 2001, he spent 15 years in the environmental regulatory field as a lobbyist and policy analyst.
Dave serves on the National Environmental, Safety and Health Training Association (NESHTA) Board of Directors. He earned his master’s degree in environmental management from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies in 1997.

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