BOLD Leaders Change the World for the Better: An Interview with Glen Gunderson

Has anyone reading this post NOT heard of “the Y?” The YMCA? How many of you have a story about how “the Y” in some small or great way touched your life? I’m guessing most, if not all, of you.

Glen Gunderson is the President and CEO of the YMCA of the Greater Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul, MN and surrounding communities). While the Twin Cities ranks 16th in SMSAs, ranked by population, this Y ranks in the top 5 in membership and revenues nationally and as one of the largest in glen-gundersonthe world. We can measure the reach and impact of any Y in many ways, but perhaps a more interesting question is, “Why would this Y, in this community, have a reach that far exceeds Y’s in other metropolitan areas with much larger populations?” Could it be the history of bold leadership, carried forward by the current CEO and his team? I think so.

I was at a national meeting of the YUSA member organizations earlier this year in Dallas and missed a keynote speech by Glen to the group. However, I didn’t miss the hallway musings and clear enthusiasm expressed by Y representatives talking about him and his clear vision and passion – many wishing out loud that they could work for him.

Fast forward a few months to when Glen and I connected for a “bold leader” conversation. I asked Glen if he saw himself as a bold leader, using the definition we’ve refined: someone who thinks and acts beyond the existing organizational limits, is imaginative, and is willing to take risks to get rewarding results.

Glen said he thinks of himself first as a servant leader, then as one willing to take chances. He enjoys taking risks and doesn’t much care for the status quo. He noted, “If I serve well, then my team becomes emboldened.”

Glen came into his role in early 2012 from the for-profit health and fitness industry – so unlike many Y CEOs, he did not grow up inside the Y network. He anticipated finding a strong team at the Y and he was right. He started with a great team.  He also knew that “If I was going to come in on a change agenda, I would need to add some folks that could drive new concepts. We knew we needed some new skills and capabilities.” He credits the board of directors for creating the space and openings for him to learn and hire some new key people to expand the strengths in the organization.

Upon his arrival, Glen discovered an organization that was strong and “the existing business would allow us to evolve, but I needed to supplement the team with a few revolutionaries.” That sounds like a clear-headed bold leader to me: appreciate your current strengths and go get the additional talents you need.

Glen grew into his leadership style and confidence by watching others he admired and by learning what fit him and what didn’t. As we discussed growing his abilities as a bold leader, Glen observed, “I have a comfort with vulnerability. I know I don’t know everything and need people with stronger skills surrounding me. For example, the CFO must be better than me in finance! Same in operations.” He continued, “Early in my career, I was not as confident in my own worth. Over time, I have become much bolder.”

Because Glen so clearly pays attention to those around him, sees their abilities and has the capacity to decide what fits, I asked him what has stood out in the bold leaders he has learned from.

Here is his quick summary. Bold leaders display:

  • An indomitable spirit. They project optimism to the team (whether inside they believe it or not)
  • Impatience with politics. “They are non-political, meaning they have little or no time for office / water cooler talk.”
  • Focus: an intensity that is clear in how they use their time.
  • “All their levers and actions are FORWARD! And, so, they are also not very reflective.”
  • Thinking about the “potential” with far less emphasis on the practical.
  • An uncommon belief in themselves. Describing a former boss, he said, “You’d go into battle just knowing he was not intending to lose.”
  • “While younger (or less capable) leaders cow-tow to others, bold leaders don’t. They never really – wait. They convey, ‘I’m capable, smart, and I’m going to tell you what I think…’”

And so, we got to a fundamental question: “Are bold leaders born or made?” Glen observed, “I do think the wiring is something a bold leader is born with; the switches, however, can be altered and developed. What I see is that so much can be learned, but it requires that you are fully tuned in and learning, taking cues from the first managers and supervisors you admire, and developing from there.”

He continued, “There is a level of courage required. Bold leaders are always leaning in. I used to think ‘failure is not an option.’ Now I provoke ‘fail fast’ and learn for the next time.”

Tenacity. Predisposition. Perseverance. Competitiveness/loving to win. All attributes of a bold leader.

And with that, I loved Glen’s closing observation: “Bold leaders want to change the world for the better. Not for themselves – for the world. They focus on the destination, never on the wall (or some immediate impediment). Walls are just part of the day job that you have to break through.”

We’ve all had bold leaders in our lives. What are some of the lessons you’ve learned from those in your life – particularly those that shaped who you are today?

As the first Aveusian to work in the U.S., Asia and Europe, Chris has a unique perspective on how leaders drive material and positive outcomes in today’s global marketplace.