Leadership in Action 2011

Have you ever found yourself completely exhausted and completely energized at the same time? A good concert can leave you physically worn out from dancing (or getting smashed against the barricades, depending on your musical taste) and otherwise charged up–but what I’m talking about is being completely worn out in every sense while at the same time believing that with a couple good nights of sleep, you’ll not only be ready to take on everything but also want to throw yourself into whatever challenges you can find.

Leadership is . . .

Those of you who follow me on Twitter will have seen me using #lia11: this was the hashtag for Leadership In Action 2011, a three-day course on leadership that involved lectures, practice, reflection, shared coaching, and even a pub quiz! Now I’m sure some of you have already stepped into skeptical mode; I have to admit that when I signed up, I did so a bit cynically. Yes, I wanted to become a better leader, but I also figured that if the event turned out to be less-than-useful, I could sit in the back of lectures and draft or proofread—and that in case having a few days away from home during which I didn’t have to cook or clean would be a plus in any case. As it turns out, the only work I got done on my thesis was a page I wrote in my hotel room the night before the event began.

. . . The Courage to Stand Out

I was engaged from the first presentation, during which were shown a clip of man dancing wildly by himself  for a while until he was joined by others. At first there were only a few but eventually, the dancing became a major happening. We were then asked to think about what allowed that first dancer to lead. I know a lot about being the lone dancer. The discussion that followed also drove home to me the importance of celebrating followers and letting them lead sometimes; what I didn’t pick up on from watching the video but that others pointed out was that the first dancer made clear that he welcomed his first few followers and even sometimes copied their moves. This fit in well with one of the areas the assessment I was asked to take prior to attending the course told me I needed to work on: awareness of others’ needs.

For the most part, our days alternated between lectures and opportunities to lead. During the practical sessions, we would break up into small groups (there were 60 attendees total, and each time we broke out into these small groups, we were with different people), given a scenario that focused on particular leadership contexts (leading in a crisis, leading from a distance, etc.). My turn to lead came on the third day during the session on managing multiple tasks. By then, I had a seen a few people use a very light touch to lead successfully, and I decided that I wanted to try out that approach. As I had a few people with very strong extraverted personalities, I let them take the lead on specific tasks (such as guiding blindfolded “sheep” into a pen made of tape on the carpet) while I stepped back to monitor how the group was running both as a team and in terms of the larger goal (which was to score as many points as possible by completing the smaller tasks).

The most important lesson I learned from that session was that I am perfectly capable of leading without running everything. The second most important lesson was that it is important for me to communicate more about why I do what I do as a leader: I had a plan for how to progress through the smaller tasks, but the rest of the group didn’t realize it. Finally, I also learned that I can be a little too harsh on myself. During the last five minutes of the session, when we broke into smaller groups to complete smaller tasks, I felt panicked but no one noticed.

. . . A Pub Quiz?

At the end of the first day, when we had realized just how busy and full the following two days would be, we were given one more task in an assigned group: to take £100 and use it to earn as much money a we could for a charity of our choosing over the remaining time. We balked a bit at this task: we thought we wouldn’t have the energy to do much, but eventually our group decided to run a pub quiz. Once we found a pub that would let us hold it there, we bonded over a pint. We then had less than 24 hours to put together the questions and publicize the event. In the end, we raised about £50 and were able to involve not only our coursemates but also members of the local community. Perhaps the most important service we did for the charity we chose, CODA International, was to introduce it to people who had never heard of it before.

. . . Doing More than You Thought You Could

Over the course of three very long days, we all discovered things we could do that we had not thought possible. We also found our breaking points and learned a bit about when to take a break (as most of us are PhD students, this may be one of the most important lessons). At the end of the final evening, I teared up a little bit when the end-of-course slideshow closed on this quote:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others. –Marianne Williamson

Between this, and the rest of the week, I realized that I not only had been playing small but also had let people convince me that I was less than I was.

I danced with abandon at the end-of-course disco and hardly napped before I had to catch the train. I left exhausted but ready to apply what I learned and able to believe that I can make things better.


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