June 14, 2022
Sanyin Siang: Leadership is about influence and persuasion
The executive director of the Fuqua/Coach K Center on Leadership & Ethics at Duke University reflects on teaching — and modeling — leadership.
Sanyin Siang sees deep connections between her work and her faith.
Among the commonalities: the stress on values, ethics and community, as well as the desire to cultivate each person’s God-given gifts.
“Everybody has worth. We live in dynamism and in responsibility not only to ourselves but to each other,” said Siang, who is an active Presbyterian layperson and the executive director of the Fuqua/Coach K Center on Leadership & Ethics (COLE) at Duke University.
COLE is the leadership laboratory for the Fuqua School of Business and also holds high-level convenings to explore leadership challenges. It is named for legendary retired Duke head men’s basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, who serves as executive in residence.
Siang, who has more than 1 million LinkedIn followers, is also a CEO coach, author and engineering professor. She serves in numerous board and advisory capacities, including as a faculty fellow at Duke Divinity School’s Ormond Center. Prior to Duke, she was at the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
In business leadership, as in church, we’re stronger with others, Siang said. “We need others. That’s a role of friendships. That’s a role of community. And that’s our responsibility — to also play a role in that for others.”
Siang is the author of “The Launch Book: Motivational Stories to Launch Your Idea, Business or Next Career” and is currently working on a project about superpowers.
She spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Sally Hicks about leadership, Coach K and her new work. The following is an edited transcript.
Faith & Leadership: What is leadership?
Sanyin Siang: Most people would think it’s about position or a title. Or it’s thought of as about a place of power. Or it’s about expertise, as we often see in the sciences.
But whenever I talk about leadership, it’s really about influence and persuasion.
From that point of view, being a leader is not in opposition to being a great team member. It’s about trust building, because when people follow you, they’re giving up a big part of their control. And so they have to know that you are taking them to a place better than where we currently are.
F&L: What are the connections between your work and your faith life?
SS: I grew up Presbyterian. I grew up in Taiwan; I’m an immigrant. And with my paternal grandparents, I remember going to Bible studies and going to church every Sunday. My grandparents are very actively involved in church.
And so that continued when I moved to the U.S. and met my parents and grew up here. We went to a Taiwanese church. Today, I’m a member of Blacknall Presbyterian, which is located just a walk away from Duke East Campus.
I’m a proud and humble member of the community. When we think about resilience and we think about our faith, it’s not a walk alone; it’s a walk with others.
F&L: How does your faith get activated in your work?
SS: There are three core aspects of everything I do in leadership. One is my personal mission in life: to enable greatness in others. I used to chase greatness, and that’s not as much fun; you can’t control whether you achieve it. But we can control whether we help others achieve that greatness; we can enable their greatness.
Everybody has worth and value. So everybody has something extraordinary, because God made us that way. And whether the organization or society has yet to recognize it doesn’t take away from that worth or that value.
So for example, we all know those people on our teams who, the minute they walk in, the joy level of the entire team goes up. One of their many special gifts is this ability to raise the joy capital on the team.
F&L: I love that, joy capital.
SS: We think about intellectual capital, financial capital. We should actually consider also joy capital, the joy capital someone brings.
When those people are in the room, those gifts are in the room, suddenly, everything seems to work so much better. Everyone’s gifts are able to be heightened.
The intellectual superpowers or athletic superpowers, people might recognize or systems might recognize and value. But then there are also a whole bunch of other superpowers that have value but are yet to be recognized.
Two is, we don’t live in silos. We live in dynamism with one another. Right now, when I see a lot of leadership-related writings out there — it’s important that there’s an aspect of self-focus. But I think we also need to have a big part of it that’s about looking at our relationship with other people.
Here’s what I mean by that. One of the big topics right now is imposter syndrome.
However, a lot of the conversation is, “How do I minimize that imposter syndrome for myself?” Yes, that’s important for me.
But I’m just as interested, as a leader, in how do we minimize that imposter syndrome for our teammates. And sometimes, in solving other people’s problems, that’s how we best solve our own problems.
So there’s this dynamic of looking at everything from the other person’s point of view. That’s also undergirded by my faith upbringing, that we are responsible to a larger group beyond just ourselves.
F&L: And the third core aspect of your work?
SS: The third is that we have a purpose much greater than ourselves. And I believe that’s what people desire.
Take those three things: One, everybody has value; two, the dynamism; and three, there’s always a larger purpose.
It’s connected now to the secular world in the business school, the Coach K Center on Leadership & Ethics, and how we think about leadership.
F&L: What is your leadership model?
SS: The leadership model that we use was developed by [Duke professors] Sim Sitkin and Allan Lind. It’s called the Six Domains of Leadership. And foundational to that leadership model is that it’s all about behaviors and ethics.
In a way, my faith upbringing and what I care about, my life’s work, actually connects very well and is important to that leadership model.
So if you want to affect credibility, you have to think about the set of behaviors, such as having vision, being reliable, having skin in the game, that affect that credibility.
And then there’s also a middle portion, which is about trust, which is this relationship with other people. To build trust, people have to know that you get what they’re about.
And then the third aspect is contextual leadership, which is the effect we’re trying to achieve in this community. People have to understand the why, understand the priority and what’s the focus.
F&L: In what way does Coach K influence the Center? What has he taught you about leadership personally?
SS: Well, he’s fantastic, isn’t he? We launched officially in 2004. And the idea was that everything we think about when it comes to leadership — the character, the integrity, the team, the sense of purpose — we also happen to have this rock star leader who embodies and represents all those things. And his name is Mike Krzyzewski.
And so it became a beautiful partnership. It’s another language for these very common human longings and desires and what enables human flourishing, right?
So with Coach K, we are able to take leadership from the abstract to the concrete — here’s a living example of what we’re talking about.
And in terms of what I learned from Coach K? I think one of his many superpowers is the ability to manage the emotional energies of a team.
We’re doing a set of interviews with his former players on leadership lessons from Coach K — how did he teach them, and how are they applying that in their lives? Because one measure of the impact of a leader is how those he or she has led are also applying those lessons.
And one of the consistent things we hear about Coach is him taking the time to know every single person, really know them.
So Marshall Plumlee [former Duke and professional basketball player now serving in the Army], as an example. Marshall Plumlee was very interested in the military. So Coach was able to draw on his West Point background.
He switched a lot of the language he uses when talking with Marshall, drawing from military-based language, whereas with another player who might be more musically oriented, he might be drawing all those musical analogies.
So you have to get to know your people and really care about them, have them feel that care. That’s one key thing.
Another key thing I learned from Coach K is that it’s not enough for people to know something. They must feel it and believe it.
F&L: You also emphasize storytelling. Is this another connection between the church world and the business world, this reliance and emphasis on stories?
SS: My definition is stories are information put into context that becomes emotionally resonant. I think leaders do have to build a skill set as effective storytellers.
Most of us are not wired to read an Excel spreadsheet and suddenly have this, “Oh, we must act on X, Y and Z.” What does that data mean? What is it trying to tell us?
Let’s put it into something concrete. For example, if we’re saying this data is about having to build more parking lots in, say, a hospital setting, then you have to think about where are the people in that story that can connect the dots with that data and that context and why it’s important to build more parking lots in hospitals.
We are wired to consume stories. Ever since we were little, we’ve been hearing stories. It’s part of human history.
The Bible’s full of stories, right? But it’s a set of stories that codifies our values and what is good and what is not desirable. And Jesus talks in parables, because sometimes things may not seem as clear-cut.
F&L: You have a new project about superpowers. What’s your idea, and how are you pursuing it?
SS: “Co-creation” is a big word with me. By the time a book is written, it hasn’t been tested with the public. And so I thought, “Instead of it being a book, why don’t I start off with a biweekly newsletter?”
People’s attention spans are so short nowadays. So it’s 300 words. It’s a key idea around superpowers connected to a concept like belonging or how do we embrace change. Then there’s a link to a resource.
And I want to just test out these ideas, and I want people to respond, say, “You know what? I totally didn’t buy that.” And then I’m like, “Why? Tell me why.”
F&L: What do you mean by superpowers?
SS: It can be an innate superpower. You think about in athletics, the LeBron Jameses of the world, and their innate superpower. They just have that capability. And it’s not only innate; it also brings them a lot of energy when it’s in application. So that’s one.
The other aspect of superpowers is you may be honing it so much that it becomes instinctive. You didn’t immediately become good at it. And for those people, it might be something that you didn’t realize you were [doing].
Now here’s the thing about superpowers. When we are good at something, when something comes naturally and easily to us, we tend to think everyone else has it too. And we discount it.
I love connecting people. If I’m talking to someone, I’m hearing their story [and thinking], “That person would really love adding value in talking with this other person. I’ll make an introduction.”
Finally I thought, “Why aren’t people reciprocating?” And I realized [connecting people] is my superpower. They have other ways that they are adding value and using their superpowers.
When I’m working with students, I give them a compliment. I say, “Hey, you did great on this because of X, Y and Z.” And they believe it for a second. Then they’re like, “OK, now tell me what I can really improve on.”
I’m like, “That’s what I really think.” I think about things, not as strengths and weaknesses, [but] as superpowers and behavioral detractors that get in the way of your superpowers being expressed at their full level.
So here’s the other thing about superpowers: How do you deploy that?
We don’t have to figure it out by ourselves. All my reflecting can’t help me figure out what is it that makes me different, that’s good. You know who can? People who know us. So we have to ask them.
You’ll be surprised. Sometimes we just have to ask. And by the way, people don’t jump in and tell us, because they tend not to tell us what they think is obvious. It’s a lot easier for other people to see another person’s superpower, because it’s in contrast with something that they lack.
We don’t tend to rush and tell people, “Hey, this is one of your superpowers,” because we think, “Well, it’s so obvious. They must know it.” The thing is, they don’t.
So then I will add this one thing. A big part of our faith is this idea of forgiveness. Not only forgiving other people but also believing that we are forgiven and we are redeemed. And in today’s world, when being in a leadership position is more trying and more demanding than ever, that’s something I hope people will embrace. The sense of self-forgiveness and engaging others in helping them reach there.
Because if we are not able to be as whole as we can be, as secure as we can be, and see the brightness and the light that is in us, we won’t be able to help others. We won’t be able to lead as effectively.