Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Follow the Leader

In September 2008 my wife, Ma'ikwe, and I were at East Lake Commons, a cohousing community in Atlanta to begin an important experiment. It was the first weekend (of eight) in a version of the two-year Integrative Facilitation Training Program that I pioneered in 2003. It was also the first weekend we had attempted to teach this course together. What was at stake was: a) whether we were an effective teaching team; b) whether we were were effective in this format; and c) whether teaching together would be good for our marriage. So the stakes were fairly high.

Though we billed ourselves as co-trainers, the experience (and therefore power) gradient between us in that context was very wide. Because by that time I had already taught this course in its entirety three times, in Atlanta Ma'ikwe was teaching her first session while I was teaching my 25th session. While we were highly motivated to figure out ways to make working together go well, one of our main challenges was figuring out how to close the power gap.

I'm happy to report that in three years we've made great progress in that regard and this blog is devoted to chronicling that journey, focusing mainly on what's happened over the course of the 17 training weekends we've conducted since that launch in Atlanta.

The Unlevel Playing Field
At the outset, we had a long way to go. Not only was it my program, I had many more years under my belt as a process consultant, all of the students in that class had been recruited by their exposure to my work and reputation, I am 20 years older than she, and the pace of the course was tailored to my speed and style:

o Most of the teaching happens on the fly in the context of preparing for, delivering, and debriefing live meetings for the host group. While Ma'ikwe and I can prepare presentations for a few hours Friday morning, all the rest of the weekend is keyed off of what the host group needs, which is out of our control and unscripted.

o Things happen quickly. While the trainers typically have the benefit of a conference call and perhaps some email dialog with representatives from the host group before we arrive on site (which supplies us with a general sense of where the live meetings will be headed), 90% of the prep work happens on the spot, often with only a few hours from start to show time. While meeting facilitators typically have much more time available in which to prepare (it's generally a very poor idea to start prepping for a meeting less than 24 hours beforehand, yet we face that as a steady diet during training weekends), we are teaching efficiency, the ability to focus on the essence of what's needed, flexibility, and trying to develop good instincts (not just good plans).

o Things are intense. Students learn (even more than they already suspected) that meetings are complex animals with many variables in play. As a group, the training class fills all the time available discussing those variables when planning for a live meeting, and the trainers need to simultaneously monitor that the student-facilitator is not overwhelmed (constricting the flow), and yet be as prepared as possible (expanding the flow). The trainers need to simultaneously protect the quality of the meeting for the host and the learning experience for the student, two objective that often coincide, though not always.

o We are on the job working with students, either as a group or individually, for about 30 hours from Friday morning through Sunday afternoon, and that requires stamina and skill at energy management. As trainers, we need to be "on" all the time. Where there are many stretches during a typical training weekend where students can zone out (or even go for a walk or take a nap), the trainers don't have that luxury.

The Theory of Leadership Development
One of the main teaching themes in this training (there are eight; one for each weekend) is Power and Leadership. One of the main points we make in that section is that leadership is needed in all groups (though it's not a particularly good idea that it be the same person all the time), yet cooperative groups tend to be weak in developing clear models of healthy leadership.

Lacking clarity, the default position is that cooperative groups tend to be suspicious of members who function as leaders (why are they drawn to the use of power?). In the pursuit of everyone having a voice and the widest distribution of power as possible (which are fine objectives), the tendency is to hamstring leaders to guard against abuse, with the result that equality is approximated through making everyone sufficiently weak.

We prefer a different approach: encouraging everyone who is less accomplished to get stronger.

We advise that groups explicitly define what qualities it wants in leaders and then create a culture that supports those qualities emerging. In our view, it's superior to celebrate strong leadership, so long as it's in alignment with the qualities identified as healthy. We believe that good leaders encourage the development of their replacements. While not everyone aspires to leadership (we discourage twisting arms or requiring that everyone take a turn in the barrel), you want the invitation to explore it to be as broad as possible—without any dilution of the standards.

In an attempt to walk our talk, this meant that Ma'ikwe and I would be endeavoring to encourage her star to rise without asking mine to set. While there is a theory of ascension that is predicated on the current leader abdicating and propelling their successor(s) forward in a vacuum (rising to the occasion), that was not what we were attempting. I had no intention of stepping back.

How It Looks to the Junior Partner
In our scheme for leadership development, most of the work falls to this person, who must step to the plate. That means taking the initiative to be more present. It means adapting to the format already in place, or making the case for change based on how it will serve the class—rather than just the junior partner's comfort level.

Partly this translated into Ma'ikwe developing her own teaching material (which she's done). She needed to be courageous about trusting her instincts about when to speak, and she's gotten there.

How It Looks to the Senior Partner
While empowerment is essentially the work of the person who wants to become more powerful, there is nonetheless work for the existing leader as well. Mostly it's about mindfulness.

This means monitoring the interplay when we're both in front of the class, making sure that the junior partner has entree (there are important, though sometimes subtle, differences among pushing, encouraging, allowing, and complicating). It entails a certain amount of pausing to see if Ma'ikwe is ready to go when we're both asked a question; it means occasionally deferring if I notice that both of us are ready to speak simultaneously; it amounts to discerning when what I have to say is sufficiently different to add it to what she's said and when it's better to simply let her answer stand alone.

It also means being gracious about dividing the air time, and giving her room to try new ideas. It means trying out my ideas with her, and not just expecting her to vet ideas with me.

In our scheme, I don't hold back on speaking when I think something needs to be said. In the overall pursuit of strengthening the course, I never hesitate to develop additional handouts whenever a new concept crystallizes for me. If she gets there first, great. If not, then I do it.

When we disagree about an approach, it's the responsibility of both of us to be respectful of the other, to be curious about the other's viewpoint. We both have to devote time to reviewing and talking with each other about our working relationship. Success in this attempt is not something that happens simply as a consequence of having the right mind set—it requires active attention and mid-course corrections.

A Work in Progress
For all of our advancement, there are still aspects of the program where our contributions remain grossly out of balance:

o I have authored 95% of the handouts. While Ma'ikwe is a talented writer
(in fact, she has a book out, Passion as Big as a Planet) and has crafted some of the more recent handouts, I still write more than she does and there remains a large gap here.

o I draft all of the reports following each weekend (we produce individual ones for each student who does live facilitation with the host group, plus an overall report for the host).

o I continue to handle all of the accounting for the partnership, and the vast majority of the logistics for travel.

• • •
While we are not equally strong after three years of teaching together, the gap is demonstrably smaller and Ma'ikwe is demonstrably stronger. Best of all, the quality of the teaching has never been better and we thoroughly enjoy working together. Whew!

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