Aden Inspired to Lead with Purpose (commentary by Jeffrey Wood)

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If you missed John Aden’s address at this year’s 40 Under 40 luncheon, it’s time to start praying the man writes a book.

The new senior vice president of Wal-Mart International, Aden was as dynamic and practical as promised at the late August event. Our friends at the Soderquist Center for Leadership and Ethics, which serves as 40 Under 40’s exclusive speaker provider, have now set the bar so high it’s hard to fathom the next leap.

If Aden is indicative of the new generation of leaders Wal-Mart Stores Inc. is recruiting/developing, then Wall Street’s pundits are wrong about the retailer’s recoiling from a “growth stock” to a purely dividend holding.

Historically, I have written few first-person columns. Paragraphs peppered with “I” and “me” are just not my thing. You folks are the ones on the front lines, sculpting Northwest Arkansas into the state’s show place. I figure a kid from Paragould who was lucky enough to scratch out a few sports and business stories over the years has more to learn from you than you do from me.

But Aden inspired me to speak a little from the heart. At the core of his message was living and leading with purpose, accountability and transparency. Those of you among the 300 who were there know what I am talking about.

So as one of the leaders in our organization, I feel like I would be letting my teammates down if I didn’t follow Aden’s lead.

I am nowhere near the purpose-driven leader I would like to be. I try. I am flawed.

Over time, I have screwed up and let more people down than the entire rest of our company combined. I am blessed with co-workers who 1) expect excellence; 2) challenge their teammates to perform at that level and 3) take ownership in “the process,” the product and supporting one another.

I will never again work for a company that does not have that kind of atmosphere, and I challenge you, Joe and Jill executive, to require the same.

Part of what Aden spoke about was valuing and recognizing the contributions of co-workers. I think it is high time more of us in management seats in general did a better job of that.

I need to acknowledge the journalists who inspired me during my now 18 years in the profession. You know them, and the publications they represent or represented. Jeff Hankins, Bob Rhodes, Michael Rodman, Steve Wright, Bill Bowden, Dudley Dawson, the late Orville Henry, Stephen Caldwell, Bob Holt, Jeff Krupsaw, Ron Higgins, Michael Whiteley, and Jim Lovel were all extremely kind to me. In different ways, they all mentored me and made me want to be a better professional, a better friend or a better man.

Some all three.

I would imagine that several of them probably doubt I ever heard any of what they were teaching. But I did, and if I am ever as half as good at our craft as those guys, I will be gifted.

In the business world, too many of you have inspired me personally to list. I appreciate your friendships and contributions to our product over the years.

In our own building, Darin Gray and Ronie Sparkman continue to teach me the art of leading by listening. Worth Sparkman is the best editor we’ve ever had, and Ashley Dougherty, our senior brand strategist, has grown into a tremendous asset for our customers.

For Ashley in particular, I need to say that I am proud of the job she is doing. Jonathan Adams, her predecessor, is now doing a remarkable job at the Tulsa Business Journal where we do some consulting. I tend to hit our staff over the head with “the Jonathan stick” too often because I think so much of him personally and professionally. I will do better at that.

I will also pledge to do a better job of honoring those who have sacrificed most for me and my career. My wife, Trish, and our three daughters, Kelsey, 7, Kasey, 2, and Clancey, 1, come first these days.

I am committed to my faith, although I keep my beliefs a lot more personal than Aden. That probably comes from growing up in a field where you must detach yourself so much from the product. Objectivity aside, I am more and more certain of my purpose in life.

I am nowhere near the purposeful leader I should be. But it’s a start.

(Jeffrey Wood, publisher, can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].)