If you were around this weekend, you know that Saturday was a gorgeous Spring day — the sun was shining, the birds were singing, and the streets were full of people relieved that winter was finally in the rear-view mirror (Punxsutawny Phil has been catching hell lately). Yet I was not among them. On this glorious day I was instead trapped in a gray, windowless basement from sunup to sundown…and I couldn’t have been happier about it.
The reason this captivity didn’t chafe was that Sunday was my first meeting of the Somerville Academy for Innovative Leadership. SAIL, as it’s known, involves cramming a few dozen of the community’s best and brightest in to a classroom to learn about leadership. The program spans several weeks, and going in my expectations were pretty low…”leadership” is one of those corporate buzzwords that conjures an image of a talentless middle manager droning on over a soulless Powerpoint presentation. As it turned out, “adaptive leadership” is something I’m already a big fan of: digging out and addressing the roots of complex problems in the human environments in which they reside. In short, leadership = system dynamics…and what could make me happier than sitting in a room and talking system dynamics all day long?
Teaching the class was a man named Hugh O’Doherty, an older Irish gentleman with a charming brogue and tremendous presence, despite his slight stature. I made note early on of the way he took long, deliberate pauses after each sentence, as if each thought carried such weight that it needed a few extra moments to be internalized. Hugh cut his teeth in adaptive leadership in his home of Northern Ireland during The Troubles, and consequently told several wrenching stories about his time mediating between the various factions. While he never used the the term “system dynamics”, Hugh used so many of the other catchwords (stocks, feedback, dancing, etc) that I was tempted to ask if he knew or had studied with Donella Meadows. I think of system dynamics as essentially being the science of problem solving, and thus applicable to challenges of leadership as easily as challenges of engineering or resource management.
The class was open and interactive throughout the day, but never more so than at the very beginning. To kick things off, Hugh stood at the front of the room and uttered simply “Let’s begin.” And then, he did nothing…he just stood there, motionless and expressionless. For half a minute we sat waiting for something to happen, but he refused to move or make eye contact with anyone. I immediately sensed (and I think others did too) that this was some sort of exercise. My curiosity tickled and confident I could win this test of wills, I focused my best creepy stare at Hugh and waited. But others were not so patient, and as they became more and more uncomfortable with the silence, people started speaking up. They began asking Hugh questions, or hypothesizing about what was going on or what we should do. At one point someone suggested we rearrange our desks in to a circle, and with a palpable sense of relief the group seized upon the idea, happy to have something to do. When we completed our new arrangement, Hugh was now surrounded. And yet still he just stood there.
When he finally spoke a few minutes later, it was not to offer any kind of explanation, but rather to troll our conversations while shrugging mirthfully at people’s suggestions for his intentions in the exercise. At this point there was a tangible antagonism in the room…after all, people had been brought here to be taught, so what good is a teacher that just stands there doing nothing? For myself I found the whole exercise to be a brilliant coup, for as we continued to talk it became clear this method was brining to light a few very important points:
- To lead is to live dangerously. No matter your character or performance, there will always be people looking to take you out of the game (Hugh, having been a peacemaker in his home of Northern Ireland, knows this better than most). In this example, because Hugh wasn’t teaching the class in the way we expected, we revolted and began to explore our situation and other options.
- People are inherently self-organizing. If a group of people share a common goal, one way or another they’ll go out and make it happen. Broadly defined, our goal for the day was to “learn about leadership”, and in the absence of direction from Hugh, the class pursued that goal by changing its communications structure and holding an open forum about next steps to pursue.
- Leadership means disrupting the status quo. Systems are naturally resistant to change…change means disruption, and when we’re talking about systems of human beings like a classroom or a government, disruption usually translates to anxiety and frustration. Indeed the very nature of leadership is to push people out of their comfort zones so they might address tough problems they would rather avoid.
All of that happened in the first hour of the class, and from there it never let up. Consequently I was totally engrossed, and never once thought about being outside. I tell you, I think this class is going somewhere. I don’t know where exactly, and I can’t really explain it better than that, but something good will come of it. If nothing else, I’ve already I’ve already made connections to dozens of thoughtful, dedicated people in my local community.
Towards the end of class, I had an opportunity to make my enthusiasm known. Hugh was explaining that leadership is meaningless without purpose, and then asked an open question: “What is your purpose? Why would you make an effective leader?” I offered a response to the effect that my purpose was to make humanity come to grips with the realities of climate change, and that I might make a good leader because I don’t take anything personally, I thrive on risk and uncertainty, and I love being called on my bullshit.
Hearing this, Hugh stared me down for a moment before uttering simply: “We’ll see”.