Whenever I work in teams, I always mention the significance of following. It is rare, however, to be able to carry that conversation forward. I hope this time is different. Following is something all good leaders do: they understand when to follow someone else’s idea – in other words, effective leaders are highly attuned to time/timing as well as to the content or substance of conversation and group dynamics.
The “Taste of College” Retreat is over, but the dynamics it set in motion are barely begun. Will the emotions raised during those three days become a ripple that soon fades or a wave that builds to a powerful crest? Will all of those emotions simply add to past history, reinforcing understandings and relationships as they are already established within the larger structure of our society? If the emotions grow and build, what shore will the wave crash into and wipe clean?
Filling the Void of “Silence”
One of the young people who attended the Retreat noticed how hard it is to facilitate when “no one is talking.” Being comfortable with silence, waiting for someone else to think of something to say, is one of the hardest aspects of leadership. Within the planning team for the event, I didn’t always do the best with this myself.
The manager in me was hyper-conscious of timelines for decision-making, as well as how much participation, input and feedback is necessary to create a quality program. In the end, on the surface, we had a successful event. The youth all got along with each other, named something significant that they learned, and many expressed the desire to come back again next year. The “Public Service Announcements” regarding their visions for the future of Springfield are creative and compelling.
Behind the scenes, however, a few things happened that did not – and still don’t – feel good. The wave – or the ripple – from the Retreat will be influenced more by how the background issues get handled than by the visible surface of shiny videos and memories of fun times.
Diversity: Tensions and Loyalties
Everyone always has their own perceptions of their unique experience (what I called “biography” in the opening presentation). At the same time, people share perceptions of experiences that feel common (the “social identities” part of the opening presentation). These commonalities usually fall along
- the lines of the body (how one feels about the way they are treated by others depending upon how they look) and
- the lines of the mind (how one thinks about the usual ways of talking and making sense of things that happen).
History (things that have happened in the past) is a kind of container for biography. “We all carry our racial identities on our shoulders,” as a friend of mine put it. Or, “Acting white in Springfield will get you killed,” as a youth in the Retreat said during the “fishbowl” activity on code-switching. “What does it mean to act white?” another youth asked in response. As I recall, there was no specific answer provided at the time. Talking about whiteness is a challenge many of the adult staff have been trying to meet for a long time.
Since I was in a leadership position before and during the Retreat, most everyone probably noticed some of the things I said or did. In general, it is fair to say that I “acted white” most of the time, during planning (in advance of the event) and during delivery (the three days of the workshop). Let’s break it down from the outside (what could be observed by others) and from the inside (my self-perceptions and conscious reasons).
First, by virtue of my body (now, as an older white woman) and the socioeconomic class that I grew up in (new middle-class), I am in a position to be a link to the resources of a university. As an activist in a white body, I have assumed personal safety and low risk for most of the social justice causes I have endorsed. Throughout my life, I have exercised the privilege to go wherever I wanted to go, pretty much whenever I wanted to go there. This includes not going to places where I didn’t want to be – both physically (as in, certain neighborhoods) or mentally and emotionally (as in, exposing myself to the suffering of others not as lucky as me).
In counterpoint, I’ve labored hard for some twenty years to un-do the entrained attitudes of privilege and counter the desire to stay safe within the psychological space of what is familiar. Nonetheless, I am still embodied and enculturated as a white American. I tend to prefer structure, order, and predictability – even if only to push against or work around! Leave me in a vacuum long enough, and I’m going to do something! In retrospect, maybe I could have waited longer and/or done less, in order to enable others to step into the empty space and do more.
Structure: Change or the Status Quo
Here’s the thing. Structure pretty much rules. We are all caught up in a system that has roots going back centuries. The way governments, money, the military, science & technology and the arts work today is institutionalized in layers upon layers of law and custom. In practical terms, everything a person does as an individual gets swallowed up by the system. Lots of individuals doing the same kinds of “individual” things (such as, everyone trying to be a leader) is what savvy marketers and politicians exploit: they hook us around selfish needs and desires, things that make me feel good about me.
The only excuse I have for the design of the Retreat is knowledge. “I’ve been to a lot of retreats,” someone said, betraying (from my perspective) low expectations. I heard through the grapevine about someone else whose expectations were (perhaps!) set too high: that the Retreat would be “a life-transforming experience.” My ambition was more in line with the latter. There was no reason for this not to be life-changing for everyone involved, except for the absence of adequate planning time before the Retreat, in order to forge more fundamental trust in the agreements we made with each other.
This means the knowledge I applied was riddled with things I did not know. Some of what I didn’t know I could have learned from co-organizers and facilitators in advance. Some of what I didn’t yet know was told to me both before and during the event, but I was not able to understand what it meant until after the fact. There are many more things that I do not know: either I have not yet realized the lesson or have not been exposed to enough variations to recognize the pattern. I still want to learn, so I can follow better and thus improve my own ability to inspire by recognizing when to follow and choosing to follow when following matters most to accomplishing effective leadership.
Acting into the Future – On Purpose
Between these two extremes of expectations that are “too high” or “too low” is the hard (sometimes even boring) work of co-creating new relationships based on the belief (one could call it faith) that humans can break free of the patterns of the past and become better at getting along and sharing the good things of life with each other. If only it was so easy! I have not yet met anyone who was able to leap into the future without
- regurgitating a bunch of past experiences (such as, making assumptions about others on the basis of stereotypes,
projecting a resemblance from someone else who wasn’t nice, etc.), &/or
- learning that what I know as polite and respectful is not necessarily understood that way by others.
Revisiting the “commonsense” guidelines shared by youth at the beginning of the Retreat, the example foremost in my mind is about the early curfew on Saturday. I sensed widespread exhaustion in the room, and had observable evidence to support it. I did what I would want someone to do for me: set a limit so people could get more sleep. Turns out it was the adults who were so tired, not the kids! The “evidence” I observed from them had another cause. Unfortunately, I was not able to interpret their language quickly enough, and even when I became aware of a misjudgment I could not generate a remedy as fast as would have been ideal.
Sure wish I was better at adapting instantly to the need to change me! Finding myself caught up in patterns of behavior that look like the same old white ways truly sucks! I definitely missed a couple of special chances during the Retreat when I could have broken the mold, but they were not within my awareness at the time. Hints and wisps of feedback filtered into mind, but they all required the reinforcement of repetition before they could break through to realization.
It isn’t that learning is hard – our brains are wired for this. What is hard is letting go of what we already think!
The kids kept right on, though, putting what they need and understand into terms designed to show us grown-ups that the path toward a brighter future doesn’t have to be as hard as we sometimes make it out to be: