Friday, March 25, 2011

Leadership Axiom #1

I hope it isn't too presumptuous to offer my insights into leadership, but I have been around the block as it were, supervising people since 1979 (my first gig was running an underground construction crew for a few years while in college). I have since studied leadership theories and philosophies, and have had the occasion to teach some classes. I will offer, in modest installments, some of the important lessons I have learned, if for nothing else, to keep them codified in my own constellation of tools. So, for this inaugural installment, I will begin with my first leadership lesson, at least in terms of starting a new position at a new place:
Beware Those Who Come to You First!
This has been an important lesson for me in that it is very counter intuitive, and I have started off a few assignments in a hole due to my ignorance of its effects. Often, the folks that get to you first have a reason for doing so. Some are just plain helpful, and in this case, there is little danger. Others however, have different motivations: some have exhausted all other avenues of communication and influence, others have negative and/or biased affiliations, and some want commitments or agendas satisfied. In better words, avoid engaging in any commitment, affiliation, or decision too soon in the relationship!
Over and over again, I have seen this dynamic play itself out, even to the extent that other employees would warn me that a "certain person" would be first in line to meet me. I have not become cynical at all about these approaches, I have simply become cautious about engaging in any type of obligation or promise, even if that offer appears to be helpful to me. On the flip side of this issue, I have also learned to seek out those who don't come forward, cautiously though. They too can have their reasons for avoiding a new leader.

Learning to CARE

A week or so ago, well into my fifth decade, it occurred to me in an instant how I learned to care for others, and how my life began to turn towards a career in education and development. I had never put these pieces together before, but had often entertained fleeting inquiries as to how I had landed on the path I have found myself on. I guess I didn't fret too much, given that it is the right path for me.
I was sitting in a Board of Trustees meeting, having presented a short report on my recent trip to Jordan the night before. I had concluded my remarks by telling them that our work in teacher training (particularly in increasing student engagement) was a critical goal of the United Nations (one of my sponsors), and that helping students find their voice and allowing them to exercise it was the first key towards societal democratization. Changing the power relations in a classroom was the grassroots equivalent of a successful, peaceful revolution.
They enjoyed the presentation, and I got a lot of very positive feedback the rest of the evening. When I returned the second day to do a different update, I was startled by the comments a VP made related to the initiatives I was involved with. To that point, I had found him reasonable and collaborative - he mystified me with his unsolicited declaration. When a board member mentioned that we might want to cite international education in our mission statement if we were to continue to work towards these new goals, he spoke up and took the room by surprise. He announced that he was against helping others around the world when there were so many destitute students right here in our area. He elaborated the point for a bit, then stopped. I felt quite a few pair of eyes on me, almost as if it was a challenge aimed at me (I don't think it was). I thought for a moment, as two primary responses emerged. The first was simple and pragmatic: we weren't voting on anything, nor was the group likely to thwart any of my goals related to international education. In addition, the school had only funded a small percent of my trip. That led me to leave his rebuke languishing on the board floor. The second level of response hit me like the proverbial brick - I realized at that moment how incorrect his premise was, just how naively pedantic and myopic such sentiments were (I had heard versions of this argument my whole adult life, especially after folks learned I had served in the Peace Corps). I was back again in my sixth grade classroom in 1971. I remember being so motivated and excited to collect money for CARE and Unicef to help poor children around the world. I gave every cent I had, and found more. I didn't let the others know how much I was giving, but my teacher knew and nodded approvingly. That was the start of my own salvation, my own path to helping myself by helping others. For if my friend at the board meeting had seen me then, he would have recognized the same kid he now endeavors to help here 40 years later.
I knew things were terrible at home, I knew I wasn't like the other kids, that we weren't like the other families - after all, that had been my ninth school in six years. I am sure kindly people had tried to help me and my family, and had probably tried to point out my situation. This had no effect on my psyche, nor did it help me cope with the anarchy I lived through each evening returning from school. We had food stamps, reduced lunches, free toys at Christmas, government food, etc. It made no impact on my sensibilities at all - having the ability to reach out and make a difference in someone's life 10,000 miles away, albeit anonymously, did! My life changed from that moment.
I learned that people needed to learn to read and write in Jamaica, then that they needed to learn to read and write here. I learned that students in the third world faced tremendous obstacles in pursing their educational dreams, and I learned the same about students here. I have learned so much about helping others, and in the process, have made some minor steps helping myself. I have been very blessed.
By helping others, by seeing their predicaments, by trying to help them overcome their circumstances, I gradually began to allow myself the same opportunity. And as I reflected and dealt with my past (not exactly past as it haunted me for a long time)I learned how to communicate with others dealing with their own versions of hell and calamity. I have also found that they in turn help me, and that makes all the difference. I emerged a better man for dropping a few silver dollars in a large Pringle-looking can with a slot in the lid, 40 years ago.
I thought about telling him this at that meeting. About making a plea about reaching out all over the world in small and quiet ways, here and abroad. I thought about telling him how the kids he suffers over (quite genuinely I think)would feel about themselves if given the chance to make measured, selfless gestures on behalf of strangers anywhere in the world. How they would feel for that moment, knowing that they had contributed to a larger community of humans connecting despite their regionality or ideology. I wonder if he would understand the efficacy that is born there. I decided not to say anything.
Others defended the concept of internationalizing the college and curriculum, and I sat quiet. Some even came to me afterward offering apologies. I had not been offended, nor did I bear him any ill will. I was grateful for the rare moment of insight into my own life, and was assured that the revelation would help me in my continued desire to help others here and elsewhere. Perhaps though, I will forward him this post.