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Sanyin Siang: Relevance built on diversity of relationships

How many academics do you know with a social following of more than one million? Sanyin Siang does! Let me explain.

In writing for this Relevance Report, I think of relevance as the imparting of perspective or ideas that serves our current and future moments in a way that resonates with a large swath of our society. But in our deeply complex and fragmented world, to do so requires the ability to draw from a diverse set of perspectives, datapoints and experiences.

Siang is remarkable in this regard.

Siang is the founding executive director of Duke University’s Coach K Center on Leadership & Ethics (COLE) at the Fuqua School of Business. In 2004, Fuqua and Duke men’s basketball head coach Mike Krzyzewski partnered to create the center to help prepare Duke’s MBA students to be the type of leaders that society needs. Because of her prior experience in convening multidisciplinary leaders to explore the ethical, legal, and societal implications of technological advances in D.C., Siang brought a similar curation across diverse sectors and industries to Fuqua to help understand and contextualize the challenges that leaders face today.

Siang is relevant because of her ability to share leadership insights and emotionally connect with an audience, whether it’s through posts she shares with her million-plus LinkedIn followers, mentoring a student, or advising a tech CEO. Her two decades of experience has helped her develop an incisive and uncanny ability to detect trends and scale ideas. Her scaffolding is the diverse ecosystem of platforms and relationships that she has fostered which enables her to identify patterns of leadership effectiveness for today and tomorrow.

What makes Siang’s approach different is her direct engagement across diverse nodes of influences and disciplines. At Duke, not only is the center she serves the result of an unusual partnership between the Business School and Athletics, Siang also holds a faculty appointment with Duke’s Engineering School (she is an alumna) and a fellowship with its Divinity School. Outside of Duke, she is a CEO, coach and advisor, recognized by Thinkers50 in 2019 as the world’s most influential coach and mentor. She is an author of The Launch Book, and her ideas have been shared across publications from HBR, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal to Fortune and Forbes.

Described by one of her colleagues as a “multi-hyphenate” — thought-leader, investor, author, executive coach, connector, mom — she has built a multivalent platform that spans military, sport, academia, healthcare, tech, and corporate sectors — an ecosystem that allows her to cross-pollinate ideas and extend the influence and impact of Duke and its business school.

For Siang, relevance has an actionable character and quality. Intuiting trends is important, but it’s only half the mission. The other half has to do with influencing action, which results from trust. The lynchpin of her networks is access. Through her ability to build authentic relationships, she has access not just to diverse spaces, but also diverse people and their stories. The heart of Siang’s mission is helping organizations see beneath the surface to recognize the innate value of every individual, and the impact each individual can make on the lives around them.

Her leadership evangelism is informed by the belief that everyone has an innate and instinctive gift, or superpower as she calls it. Context, community, and confidence can help us discover and hone those superpowers. And it’s through the collective superpowers of a team that we can address today’s complex challenges and realize unseen opportunities.

Her latest co-creative project is “Leading and Living a Life of Significance”. It’s not only a podcast and article series that highlight the stories of unsung heroes, it’s a movement that asks its audience to rethink the traditional calculus of success — to redefine what matters, how it matters, and to broaden their perspective of who matters. At its core is a recognition of gifts every individual possesses, our agency to make a positive difference in moments big and small, and how our significance is the result of turning these into action. The project was created from two unlikely partners — the business school and the divinity school — which, of course, will give it enduring relevance.