What is Fellowship?

I’ve spent the last two weeks in India and Uganda with the current class of Acumen Fellows (applications for the class of 2018 just opened). It is a profound experience to do deep work with our Fellows: no matter where they come from, they are dedicated to a life of social change; they are well-positioned to create that change; and they are in the midst of a deliberate journey to grow as leaders in service of that change.

The foundational design element of the Acumen Fellowship is the cohort experience. While we introduce many powerful leadership tools, frameworks, mindsets and approaches in our Fellows programs – anchored around Authentic Voice, Adaptive Leadership, Good Society readings, Managing Polarities and Systems Thinking – we know that the impact that we can have in 25 days of time together is necessarily bounded. The real learning happens outside of the room, between the time Fellows are together in session over the course of a year and, most importantly, in the long years after they first come together, as they continue to grow as leaders as they do their work.

This is why we believe that the most important aspect of our program is, in fact, “fellowship.” Fellowship, to me, is the weaving together of relationships, common purpose, shared expectations, aligned values, mutual investment, trust, and individual and group accountability to push and support one another. No matter what content elements we introduce and what discussions we have with our Fellows, part of what is happening in every conversation and every moment of silence in the room is an investment in strengthening the Fellows cohort, an investment in fellowship.

As part of this week’s Good Society discussion with our East Africa Fellows, in which we read some of the great thinkers and leaders from throughout history (including Hobbes, Amartya Sen, Martin Luther King, Ibn Khaldun, Amin Maalouf, Eduardo Galeano, Chinua Achebe, and Nelson Mandela), we waded through the first few chapters of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract (which I find to be one of the most challenging of all the readings that we do). The foundational question Rousseau asks is in The Social Contract is: what makes authority legitimate? Rousseau’s answer to this question is the Social Compact.

He describes the Social Compact, somewhat obtusely, as:

The total alienation of each associate, together with all his rights, to the whole community; for, in the first place, as each gives himself absolutely, the conditions are the same for all; and, this being so, no one has any interest in making them burdensome to others….

Each man, in giving himself to all, gives himself to nobody; and as there is no associate over whom he does not acquire the same right as he yields others over himself, he gains an equivalent for everything he loses, and an increase of force for the preservation of what he has.

OK, maybe it’s really obtuse.

What Rousseau is saying is that we create a social compact when every individual (in a group or in a society) gives himself over to every other individual in equal measure, and, in so doing, the rights each person yields to others are the same as the rights she gains.

For example, in fellowship. For example, when 20 people fully give themselves over to each other, creating mutual bonds of trust and accountability.

In so doing, they create something that is stronger and greater than the whole.

In so doing, they are, paradoxically, more free.

These are the cohorts we are building,

As part of our discussion of Rousseau, we explored what kind of social compact this cohort of East Africa Fellows is making with each other, and what steps they have taken to strengthen this compact.

In service of this exploration, I asked the Fellows to reflect on actions that other Fellows have taken that have supported them in challenging moments. In response, one Fellow told a simple, profound story of wanting to learn to ride a horse, and how terrified she was to get into the saddle. She was with another Fellow at the time, and he gave her words of encouragement and support that helped her muster the courage to get on the horse. But he didn’t stop there. As her horse started walking, this Fellow walked alongside her. He kept on walking, matching the horse stride for stride, staying physically present with her as she faced this challenge.

I can’t get that image out of my head: I see one person up on a horse, conquering a fear, and another calmly walking next to her, accompanying her on her journey.

The beauty and power of fellowship is this invitation, willingness and capacity to accompany one another. It happens for our Fellows when the whole group is together in the room while we are in session. It happens individually and in groups outside of the room and between sessions. And, in our best moments, it happens even when Fellows cannot be physically present for each other, as each Fellow grows to realize that they are accompanied by all of their fellow Fellows everywhere they go.

With this realization, the have more strength to take the leadership steps that lie before them, they have more willingness to make hard decisions, they have more fortification to keep walking the path because they know that they do not walk alone.

Here’s to fellowship, and here’s to the brave, powerful, committed people creating it each and every day.

A place to practice

The only way to improve performance is through a consistent practice of self-diagnosis, reassessment, and behavior change.

The prerequisites are the belief that we have the capacity to change and grow, and the realization that we have not yet reached our full potential.

This work is sustained by trusted allies who are willing and able to give us astute feedback.

It is steeled by our willingness to hear these allies’ truths, even when they feel like criticism.

And, as we hear these truths, and as we see ourselves and our behaviors more clearly, we must, ever so slowly, start acting differently.

But where to act differently? How to act differently? How does this process actually work?

Part of the answer is within the intentional groups we are part of, ones in which we commit to supporting one another’s growth as leaders. For example, both the Acumen Fellows programs and +Acumen courses are run in groups. We have found, like many before us, the tremendous power of cohorts who embark on a shared journey. A skillful facilitator coupled with a group that is willing to invest in a process of group formation can create a holding environment that can be transformative.

The more obvious tools in this process are the bonds of friendship and trust built in these cohorts. Sometimes these groups also evolve into places where open and honest feedback becomes the norm. Most useful, but often hardest to achieve, is for members to use a cohort as a testing ground for new leadership behaviors.

Cohort groups (or, indeed, any group doing intentional work together) are fertile ground for thoughtful, deliberate experimentation of new behaviors. If trust exists, if recrimination is unlikely, and if you’re willing to be a bit brave, you can (like at summer camp) show up in a new way in any of these cohort groups.

What does this look like? It’s as simple as this: if you’re someone more comfortable jumping to solutions, you can choose to spend your time with the group listening more deeply. If you’re averse to conflict you make the choice to step into the fray. If you like to raise your hands first you can see what happens when you give more space to others. If you’re someone who’s afraid to offend you can work on freely speaking your mind. You start as simply as this, and build from there.

It can help to think of the group as a practice ground, a place to break a new leadership behavior into its component parts and try it on for size. Just as a swimmer would never adjust her stroke at an Olympic qualifying meet, and a tennis player wouldn’t mess with the toss on his serve in the first round of a major tournament, we cannot expect ourselves to be suddenly bolder and more truthful when our salary, or our job, is on the line. Nor should we try to have our first courageous conversation when our bosses’ boss in in from abroad for one day.

Instead, we can jerkily try new leadership moves on for size in our cohort group, putting aside our natural desire for approval, or status, or recognition, or safety in service of learning behaviors we ultimately want to utilize successfully with our teams, our Boards, our business partners, or our bosses.

This is not easy to do. We tend to walk the deep trenches carved by the patterns of our own behaviors, hemming ourselves in with the expectations we’ve created in ourselves and in others about how we are going to act.

The peer groups we are already part of, or that we choose to create, are the best place to start breaking out of these old ruts

That’s me

The first time it happened, I was 25 years old and working in Spain on a consulting project for a big Portuguese telecom company.

I was on a small project team responsible for a pile of data analysis that would drive the main project recommendations, and we were nearing a final deadline. The analysis, it turned out, was way over my head. And yet, as I looked around the team and our small office for someone to tell me how to go about it, I had this sinking feeling that the person who knew best what to do was me.

It was terrifying.

Partially the fear came from objectively not knowing enough. I had neither the analytical chops to know how to proceed nor the network of relationships to quickly find someone who could help in time. And I was sure that our firm was getting paid far too much to make recommendations based on what I knew.

So while that moment, stemming from poor planning and preparation, is something to avoid, getting to have that feeling was priceless.

I still remember the quiet, mortifying stillness of, “It’s up to me.”

What an important feeling to be able to identify, because once you’ve felt it you can’t unfeel it, and then you can notice that feeling and notice how much easier it is to kick a decision somewhere – up, down, sideways – to gather more information or maybe to put off deciding entirely.

We kick this habit like any other, with both discipline and nuance.

If you want to learn to swim better, or hit a ball better, or do a yoga pose better, you start with the big muscle groups and body angles and work your way towards subtler adjustments. Just so in the workplace: you begin by making calls in the big, obvious moments where you’ve got no choice but to decide; and you work your way through to smaller moments of stalling, hesitation, and the magical sleight of hand we all engage in to open up “outs” in case things turn out wrong.

It is so much easier to avoid responsibility and future blame.  And it is so much more important to practice putting ourselves on the hook, to practice being the kind of person who makes calls, to practice stepping in to uncertainty.

Step up. Decide. Then make it great.

The person we’re waiting for? That’s you.

They

They didn’t listen.

They didn’t understand.

They are too set in their ways.

They are too persuaded by that one person.

They don’t trust me enough.

They don’t share my vision.

They don’t know what I know.

They aren’t willing to go out on a limb with me.

Yes, it’s possible that the world would be a better place if everyone just listened to you and did what you thought was best. Each and every time. Forever.

Or it’s possible that you’re ready to step up to a different yardstick, one in which you set aside excuses and start trafficking in results.

Because those you aim to serve don’t care who’s to blame, they care about what you are able to do, about what your organization provides to them and whether it makes a real difference in their lives.

Maybe, just maybe, you’re ready to start asking “I” questions: how could I have been more persuasive, more engaging, more understanding, or more supportive? How could I have partnered better, listened more deeply, made it safer to take that risk, told a better story, gone above and beyond a bit more? What am I not willing to do, what beliefs and values and stories am I not willing to let go of, in service of our work?

Oh, and lest we forget, to everyone else, each of us is just another “they.”

Opening the door to emotional content

My last post was about what it takes to deliver a message that has emotional content, whether an apology or an expression of gratitude or a sincere request for help.

The flip side of that post is to ask: what can I do to make it easier for people to show up in an authentic way and speak their truth?

Highly effective teams are those in which the emotional hurdles have been lowered. While it’s not up to the authority figure alone to lower these hurdles, the work often starts with her.

In thinking about how you show up with your team, notice how what you say in the first few minutes of a meeting plays a huge role in determining what is and is not discussed. Be aware of when it’s time to talk less. Notice what happens when you ask more open-ended questions. Make sure that you let silence be your friend, and that you allow challenging or uncomfortable moments to persist, instead of jumping in to resolve them. And always keep an eye on the data you’re getting back from participation: Google’s research finds that the most effective teams have equal participation from all members.

This all might make intuitive sense, but we can often be unaware of our own biases. I’ve always been pretty comfortable speaking up, and I’ve always taken it as a point of pride that I deeply believe that good ideas can come from anywhere. But it took me a while to see my own blind spots: I spent far too little time thinking about how different people respond to roles, hierarchy and authority; I rarely gave much thought to noticing who was more introverted or extroverted and adapting accordingly; I paid too little attention to the active work I could do to build others’ confidence; and I expected that that most people experienced “healthy debate” as, well, healthy.

Mostly, what I was exhibiting was a lack of empathy: respecting other people is one thing, but empathy means that I actually see things from their perspective, rather than generalize from my own. If I’m honest, I often used to find myself thinking, quietly, “well, if he thought that why didn’t he just speak up?” until I finally figured out that every time I thought that I needed to then ask, “and what more could I have done to help make that happen?”

How we Support Each Other

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it takes to sustain someone trying to make a difference in the world, and about the kind of virtual contract we need to sign with each other if we are going to do this work together.

Here’s a starting list for what I’d put in that contract:

I will answer your call, even if I haven’t heard from you lately. Because I know that if you’re calling, it’s important.

When we speak, I will be there fully for you – emotionally as well as intellectually.

I will care for you.

I will express support and love.

I will ask tough questions, and I will be willing to search for answers with you.

I will help you hold up a mirror to yourself.

I will always show up in service of your purpose, which sometimes means holding your feet to the fire.

I will be kind, and tough, gentle and strong.

I will remind you of why you do this work.

I will help you to see that you are stronger than you think you are, and that you are stronger than you feel right now.

Additions welcome…

My Job

Is my job, right now, to tell you what I’ve figured out, and share my wisdom?

Is my job to show you all that I don’t know, and show my openness and vulnerability?

Or is my job simply to write half of the sentence, and let you fill in the…?

Each day, every moment, a choice.

Why we need more and better groups to support social sector leaders

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about leadership development for the social sector, and how best to design programs that create the longest-lasting impact.

The starting question I’ve been asking is: what is it about the kind of leadership required for this kind of work that’s special, different, unique?

One of characteristics of this work is that it is long-term by nature. While it sounds (and is) exciting and motivating to “live a life of purpose,” the secretly difficult part is that when you’re ultimately measuring your success in terms of societal change, it’s easy to feel like you’re not making any real progress. Growing topline revenues is one thing; overcoming systemic bias and exclusion in a national education system is another.  One lends itself to quarterly reports; the other measures progress over decades. 

This is part of the reason that burnout is so common. It’s not because the work can be grueling, though it can be. It’s because the change one is working towards happens at a communal and a societal level, not just at the level of an institution or a company. To counteract the natural sense of alone-ness that this type of work can create, those engaged in social change need to create and embed themselves in strong and supportive cohorts of other change-makers, others who are walking this path with them.

Jonathan Haidt, in Chapter 10 of his book The Righteous Mind, beautifully captures the texture of how groups can transform the experience of individuals. In describing army veterans’ experience in battle, he quotes William McNeil, an army veteran and historian.  “McNeill studied accounts of men in battle and found that men risk their lives not so much for their country or their ideals as for their comrades-in-arms.” McNeill continues:

Many veterans who are honest with themselves will admit, I believe, that the experience of communal effort in battle . . . has been the high point of their lives. . . . Their “I” passes insensibly into a “we,” “my” becomes “our,” and individual fate loses its central importance. . . . I believe that it is nothing less than the assurance of immortality that makes self sacrifice at these moments so relatively easy. . . . I may fall, but I do not die, for that which is real in me goes forward and lives on in the comrades for whom I gave up my life.

This observation speaks to a paradox of social change work: we get into it because of a sense of higher purpose, but we need something beyond this high-minded objective to sustain us beyond the first few months or few years. To pull that off – to succeed at recommitting ourselves time and again to our higher purpose – we need to be part of a collective. The right kind of collective (cohort, comrades in arms…the language is less important) helps our ego-driven selves dissolve into the acts of service that further the objectives of the group as a whole.

It strikes me that the notion of the heroic entrepreneurial leader isn’t helping us here. This isn’t a framing that pushes us to create the kinds of infrastructure that help larger numbers of people develop and sustain their commitment to a life of service. Amazing generals don’t materialize fully formed, they emerge from a collective that has a strong sense of norms, identity, and values as well as a well-honed approach to tackle the problems at hand.   In fact, while it’s certainly lonely at the top nearly everywhere, I’d argue that it’s lonelier still at the top of a social purpose organization that has a multi-decades time horizon to make change.

This is not a path one can or should walk alone.

What this means is that one of the biggest and highest-leverage way to invest in this ecosystem may be to facilitate the creation of the sort of deep and lasting bonds needed to sustain a lifetime of commitment to the work of making a difference.

Ensemble

I come from a family of soloists. So I suppose it’s natural how ingrained it feels for me to put effort into mastering my own craft – once it was the piano, but since then it’s been things like excel modeling, writing powerpoints, analysis…and then on to higher level skills like building effective relationships, strategy, storytelling, fundraising, you name it.

There comes a point, though, when the work we do, in a fundamental way, cannot be done by us alone, when the only way to make the change we seek is with others. Lots of them.

For anyone who cares deeply, like I do, about mastery, this moment requires a whole lot of letting go.

Letting go of the idea that when the chips are down it’s my job to jump in and save the day. Letting go of the simplistic connection between the task and the result. And, perhaps most counterintuitively, letting go of the idea that there’s a most qualified someone to do each something. There might be, but since we are playing a long-term game, the question to ask isn’t “who can do this best today?” but rather “who on the team should take this on so that our ensemble can get the best results in the long run based on everything that lies before us?”

Yes, every cellist needs to play in tune, to be able to read the music and nail the arpeggios. But an orchestra is not just a collection of soloists. And there’s a reason the conductor, who plays no instrument at all, stands at the front of the room.

Good Society in India

I’m in India this week, and today I had the pleasure, and challenge, of facilitating a selection of “Good Society” readings with the Acumen India Fellows.

The opportunity to take a step back and be reminded of the words and deeds of the great thinkers and activists throughout history is a rare one, and I thought I’d share some of my favorite excerpts from these readings.

While these excerpts lose some of their richness when taken out of context, I hope they serve to remind you, as they do me, of the great thinkers we have in our corner as we work to build a future of greater rights and dignity for all.

 

Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) (link)

“Preamble. Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world.”

“Article 1. All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.”

“Article 6. Everyone has the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law”

 

Letter From Birmingham City Jail (1963) by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr (link)

“I am in Birmingham because injustice is here…Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.”

“History is the long and tragic story of the fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily.”

“I am coming to feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the vitriolic words and actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence of the good people. We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability. It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men willing to be co-workers with God, and without this hard work time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation.”

 

The Republic, (390 BC) Plato (link)

“He who is to be a really good and noble guardian of the State will require to unite in himself philosophy and sprit and swiftness and strength.”

 

The Social Contract (1762), Jean Jacques Rousseau (link)

“Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains.

“The problem [in creating the Social Contract] is to find a form of association which will defend and protect with the whole common force the person and goods of each associate, and in which each, while uniting himself with all, may still obey himself alone, and remain as free as before… [To do so] Each of us puts his person and all his power in common under the supreme direction of the general will, and, in our corporate capacity, we receive each member as an indivisible part of the whole.”

 

Development as Freedom, Amartya Sen (link)

“The usefulness of wealth lies in the things that it allows us to do – the substantive freedoms it helps us to achieve. But this relation is neither exclusive (since there are significant influences on our lives other than wealth) nor uniform (since the impact of wealth on our lives varies with other influences.”

“Expanding the freedoms that we have reason to value not only makes our lives richer and more unfettered, but also allows us to be fuller social persons, exercising our own volitions and interacting with – and influencing – the world in which we live.”

 

The University and the Leadership Factor in Nigerian Politics (1988), Chinua Achebe (link)

“Leadership is a sacred trust, like the priesthood in civilized, humane religions. No one gets into it lightly or unadvisedly, because it demands qualities of mind and discipline of body and will far beyond the need of the ordinary citizen. Anybody who offers himself or herself or is offered to society for leadership must be aware of the unusually high demands of the role and should, if any doubt whatsoever, firmly refuse the prompting.”