Authentic Leadership Project Report

Problem
Analysis
Rationale
Results
Evidence
Reflection
Competencies
Module

Problem Statement
During the week of June 14th to the 21st, I attended the Shambhala Institute’s 3rd conference on Authentic Leadership. The Institute is a nonprofit, charitable organization based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Originally inspired from Shambhala Buddhist teachings and practices of enlightened society, the program was further developed by a secular network of organizational mentors, who collaborated and prepared internally for three years before hosting the first Authentic Leadership program in 2001. The Institute has attracted well-known presenters in the world of Leadership, Organizational Development and Systems and Conflict Resolution.
Click on this link to find out more about these presenters modules and topic resources. http://commons@shambhalainstitute.org/2003_upcoming/2003_modules.html
My part of the conference was to moderate the Institute’s online forum, encourage discussion, help maintain the site, and assist participants with the technology platform. The problem was, that since its introduction in 2002, the participants had underused the platform, even though participants were requesting post conference support, communication and resource materials. My role, as an instructional designer, would be to; attend the conference, investigate the issues with the platform while helping participants, and make recommendations regarding enhancement of the coaching platforms interactive component, to strengthen the post conference online experience.
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Situation Analysis
The platform was reintroduced to participants three months before the conference began through e-mailed invitations. People would respond to these invitations by clicking on a sent link to a registration page that where they would login to their modules topic area. There they could introduce themselves, post files, graphics, htmls, and read resource material, and talk with other participants. Participants had varying degrees of difficulty with this first step, and I spent time talking them through the tool via e-mails.
Note to Portfolio reviewers:
I am posting my login and password to the Commons, so you can see some of the design issues. I will be removing this information after the portfolio review.
(This login offers access to only the Margaret Wheatley module.)
http://commons.shambhalainstitute.org/
login khansen
password hejkrctr

The users for this platform are all unusually intelligent, most of whom hold leadership positions in their organizations. They came from all over the world working in third world countries as well as major cities. Most were technically savvy using e-mail, and had their own computers. There were language issues, and world schedule considerations such as time changes, as many travel for their work.

The conference week’s schedule was full, with 12 to 15 hour days of large and small group workshops and presentations that varied from daily module work, small discussion, creative process work, meditation instruction, and plenary sessions given by participant / presenters in a variety of subjects over the week. There were 250 participants most of who held leadership positions within their own organizations and had strong backgrounds as administrators, educators and consultants. The distribution seemed evenly divided between the corporate, academic, political, health, and government spheres with people representing every part of the world.
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Rationale for Approach
While moderating the Commons I kept an informal list of issues, and questions people were having with the site. These e-mails were archived in the administration section of the Shambhala Institute for future review. While at the conference, I informally interviewed participants throughout the week, asking for their thoughts on the Commons, their anticipated needs for post conference resources and information. The Institute collected participant evaluations on the last evening, which also covered specific issues around the Commons, and post-conference support. Similar to the previous year, people did not use the Commons post-conference. I researched usability issues, while also looking at past lessons learned in message design, and instructional design classes. I collected the research, notes and feedback I had received and synthesized the information as a feedback document to the Institute
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Results
The results of my observation are shown in the link below.

Click here to see the feedback to the Institute on the Commons Usability.

The head of the Institute wrote me a letter with some ideas collected from the evaluations. I responded by interjecting comments to her letter, and then sent my feedback on observations, ideas, and recommendations for how to; improve usability of the Commons, as well as how to enhance and encourage the post-conference e-learning community experience.
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Evidence of Value
After this letter, responses and e-mail flew back and forth for a couple of weeks. Generally it was well received, though it’s always challenging to hear feedback, and everyone offered constructive information. The Institute met with a graphic designer, and also scheduled a meeting with the technology platform creators to research what control they have over the interface. They also brainstormed further issues on creating e-learning communities, which my report had raised, and will use these for future planning. The Institute is currently collecting information to create a future e-zine. Lastly, I am sending them a CD as an example of other media delivery systems.
The evidence for value of the impact of my usability feedback is shown in the invitation that will be sent out to participants this week.
Click here to see the Invitation Letter that is being prepared for Conference participants

Reflection
I work with this project every couple of days, and predict it will be an ongoing aspect of my online life and summer vacations. I learned from the experience of working with the Institute in a variety of roles, and it’s difficult to explore all these different aspects in reflection.

This was my first usability review away from the University, and I agonized for several weeks how to tactfully say what I had observed. I tend to be fairly strait-forward, and probably could improve my communication skills,( though if I hadn’t been strong, people might not have listened.) Also I really like these people and want to continue to build a relationship with the Institute. It was like throwing a big rock in a pond and waiting for the splash to diminish. The people at the Institute are open, thoughtful, and intelligent and handled criticism well. They also brought up many good points about the technology interface limitations that taught me a lot.

Regarding reflections on the module attended; I wrote this as a class project on Leadership with Joni Dunlap, and also as a summary for Margaret Wheatley and the Institute, to promote further participant conversation and reflection on Leadership.

Click here to see reflections on the Margaret Wheatley Module

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Competencies
Demonstration of Competency 1:
Continued improvement of professional practice that requires critical inquiry, professional development, and reflective practice

This project met this competency by being an avenue to further my professional pratice and development. Being associated with this conference opens up a world of net-working possibilities, as well as excellent future training. I am becoming more clear as to my future goals, and believe that I will eventually do something in the field of Instructional Design for Leadership Training and Human Development.
Demonstration of Competency 2:
Designs instruction or human performance strategy to meet the needs of learners

This responsibility was met by the usability study I wrote regarding improving the Commons as an online post-conference resource and learning community. In the study I suggest several design changes that I thought would facilitate its use.
Demonstration of Competency
5:
Manages complex projects and resources in support of learning

By taking a leadership role in looking at usability issues in the Institute I believe I have met this competency. This project required observation of the tool and user interaction, analysis of overall goals of the Institute, researching and reflection of successful e-learning communities, and the ability to communicate this information to the clients. That the clients have incorporated most of my suggestions supports the belief in my success.

Margaret Wheatley Module Days 1 through 5

Reflections on the Margaret Wheatley Module Shambhala Institute 2003
Authentic Leadership Conference

During the week of June 14th to the 21st I attended the Shambhala Institute’s 3rd conference on Authentic Leadership. The Institute is a nonprofit, charitable organization based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Originally inspired from Shambhala Buddhist teachings and practices of enlightened society, the program was further developed by a secular network of organizational mentors, who collaborated and prepared internally for three years before hosting the first Authentic Leadership program in 2001. The Institute has attracted well-known presenters in the world of Leadership, Organizational Development and Systems and Conflict Resolution.

The week’s schedule was full, with 12 to 15 hour days of large and small group workshops and presentations that varied from daily module work, small discussion, creative process work, meditation instruction, and plenary sessions given by participant / presenters in a variety of subjects over the week. There were 250 participants most of who held leadership positions within their own organizations and had strong backgrounds as administrators, educators and consultants.

The distribution seemed evenly divided between the corporate, academic, political, health, and government spheres with people representing every part of the world. Each participant reserved a spot for a specific topic that included 15 hours with the below listed presenters, a three-hour creative process session, and three-hour and a half small group work sessions in a dialogue circle which focused on a variety of discussion topics.
Mark Gerzon: Leading Across Borders
John Shibley: Systems Thinking and Effective Action
Fred Kofman: Transforming Organizational Culture
Toke Paludan Moller and Marianne Knuth: Convening Strategic Conversations
Barry Oshry: Engaging Hierarchy, Power, and Collaboration
Otto Scharmer, Kye Nelson, and David Rome: Accessing the Innovative Mind
Margaret Wheatley: Leadership Inquiry
Click on this link to find out more about these presenters modules and topic resources. http://commons@shambhalainstitute.org/2003_upcoming/2003_modules.html
Each of the presenters is expert, and well known in their field, and I took opportunities to observe other sessions, talk with the presenters and collect resources (if interested about any of the individuals mentioned in this report contact me).

I chose Margaret Wheatley’s module because I was drawn to her writings about working with chaos in organizations (Leadership and the New Science, Margaret Wheatley, 1992) her willingness to discuss team dynamics on the emotional level, and her vision of leadership, which she defines as “anyone willing to help at this time.” My professional interest derived from my own experience and interest in learning, specifically in creating online learning communities.

My part of the conference was to moderate the Institute’s online forum, encourage discussion, help maintain the site, assist participants with the technology platform. Further I would make recommendations regarding enhancement of the coaching platforms interactive component, to strengthen the post conference online experience. Research has suggested that deeper levels of learning require exchanging information within a learning community, and therefore demands some emotional interaction and group process. Therefore Ms. Wheatley’s system of thinking complemented my own professional interests. Turns out that I was not disappointed in my module choice.

Day 1 Module Objectives and Aspirations
Module objectives and goals
Wheatley began the first session by offering her own objectives and goals for our module, which was that it, would be:
A shared inquiry as leaders
A community of practice, to generate new practices and community
An experiment in how to do this
She chose to see herself as a shared participant/leader in our group offering her experience and views but also expecting us to offer lively participation and leadership.
Aspirations

Her aspirations for our work as a group, which she defined as her systems perspective, was that together we would become a true learning community:
To develop a rich understanding of some major dynamics effecting our own leadership
To comprehend how those impact us, our organization, community, and nation
To strengthen our own capacity to lead
To experience our true learning capacity
Core Values
Margaret Wheatley (or Meg, which she preferred) then listed her core values sharing the assumptions and perspectives she was bringing to the module. She emphasized that we all needed to identify and reflect on our own assumptions, and realize that they would most likely be different from hers or each other’s. This emphasis of questioning and reflecting upon core values, recognizing common and diverse views, would be an underlying theme through much of our groups work. Meg’s values were:
She depends on (acknowledges and sees) diversity. Which she described as the complexity of differing views, and in a broader system approach, as a recognition of natural diversity in all groups and eco systems that offer richer possibilities and promotes survival by their interaction. (A taste of Darwinian group soup, my perspective).
It is better to learn than be dead. This is a value she learned from her work with the US Army where she observed and assisted for several years in improving group systems of leadership. While she voiced ambivalence to the overall current mission of our armed forces, she feels that as a learning organization the military bring a heightened sense of immediacy and practicality to teaching and learning not usually seen in most learning communities. In the environments they train for the risks for not learning are so high. She stressed that in our current world-wide community learning system it is imperative that we all recognize the stakes of our not learning, sharing, and intervening in political, environmental, and resource issues are higher than we realize.
She relies on human goodness. Meg shared her own experience working with different cultures, from indigenous tribal peoples, to more sophisticated modern multi-cultures and corporate organizations. She has repeatedly found that people generally value community virtues of authenticity, generosity, and a willingness to sacrifice, despite common voiced cynicism of “just human nature” being an excuse for poor behavior. I personally found this view refreshing and reflected how my own assumptions about others can become an excuse for not rising to ethical challenges or assuming leadership.
She trusts life’s ability to self organize, and believes this always involves journeying through chaos. This final value was the most compelling in my view and really the heart of her teaching. She has joked that she has become known as the “queen of chaos” over the years since her book The New Leadership Science was published in 1992. While her writings have seemed conceptually provocative to me in the past, in person, her reflections seem very heartfelt, and grounded in her experience of human goodness.

From a leadership perspective, the ability of systems to self organize via chaos feels antithetical to most manager/leaders perceived roles of hierarchy, control, guidance and strong leadership. But during the coming days I began to see the wealth of opportunities and challenges in appreciating, working with, and reflecting upon chaos in organizational dynamics. Meg’s own comfort level and appreciation of chaos in group process derives from her own experience, as a common and often disturbing sense of feeling overwhelmed, by the complexities of diverse views and personal agendas. She associates this emotion with the group process need to let go of rigidly held individual opinions to allow for a moment of insight to arise. While most of us may be familiar with that sense of discouragement in working with others, the moment of insight can feel less familiar and fleeting, and it was difficult for me to imagine accessing the trust involved in allowing the process of collective intelligence to work. Meg’s premise is that the experience of being confused together, combined with time, shared discussion, mutual respect and acknowledgment, allows a collective insight to arise that is greater than what could occur from an individual perspective, and will be more accessible to working through conflicting view points.
To emphasize her belief in acknowledging diverse views she quoted Francisco Varallos’ (sp?) research that “80% of perception is internal and unique, thus you cannot expect mutual objective experience.” She points out that in perceiving reality mostly folks get a little trigger of perception and then make up the rest, based on their own backgrounds.
We did a quick survey of the module’s thirty-six participants diversity. Ages ranged from early 20’s to 70’s, various religious, race, cultures, economic status and class upbringing, touched by illness, parental and child obligations and difficulties with family or individual drug or alcohol use, to first reflect that we were all coming from unique backgrounds with diverse perspectives.
Participants were then directed to split into small groups where we discussed what we felt was most important for each other, and the world to understand as an imperative “headline message” for the planet. This would be a view that seemed urgent for us to note and share, with the other members of the group. We recombined several times refining our “headlines”, tacked them up on the board to read, and then reconvened in a circle to discuss how these statements reflected our own core values.
Looking at similarities and differences I noted that there was a general concern about the current military situation in Iraq, worries about the environment, and attention drawn to the disproportionate distribution of wealth in the world. Because participants came from many countries around the world, there was a poignant dynamic about the current US leadership objectives, and I found a surprising number of people (especially Europeans and Canadians) apprehensive about voicing criticism and concerns that they feared would be impolite. It was amazing to me how much of the world takes their news from CNN, which promotes a viewpoint and experience that most of the people I know don’t share. (I told them I go to the BBC for more accurate reporting) As an American I had conversations with many people who expressed relief that not all US citizens were supportive of current administration policies.
The exercise ended with a discussion of how we reveal our core values by what concerns us, that we value a sense of equity, fairness, concern for the environment, and yearning for peace. While I believe these are very basic values the ability and means to achieve them varies with each situation.
On reflection later that afternoon I was a little concerned about such a wide perspective missing the finer points of leadership inquiry, and wondered how much this type of “Preaching to the Choir” mattered to facilitating organizational processes. I came to understand over the next few days how important it is to articulate and communicate perspectives and values in the community before beginning our work as learners.

Day 2 Developing a Learning Community
Meg began the morning by presenting information about what makes a good learning community. She first emphasized that learning, as a community, is to create both environments and relationships with others that allow us to learn. We have all experienced that good teamwork is common to healthy organizations, but Meg stresses that learning takes place as a community. By that, I assumed she meant as a dynamic system that responds to the relationships within the group.
The main question to ask, she stressed, is “do people feel disregarded and disrespected within the organization?

When we look at the knowledge that we each individually hold in our organizations, how much of it is shared? In this age of knowledge management systems our focus is on searching and archiving “how we know what we know.” However a more fundamental issue is how much do we care, about what another coworker knows, and how much do they care about what they have learned. Is it just more information, or is there a process of communication and exchange going on?

This was a provocative thought, in regards to meta tags and categories of research, to remember that the information, which I have retained (really learned) involved my noticing the information, as well as the person, method, and passion in sharing it. In this process, I was reflecting on, why it was important to them, as well as, the environment where the exchange took place. This raises some interesting issues for me regarding how to promote that sense of caring or relevance in distance education. If it is a shared human need to feel that what we say and do matters, then it implies that we build a means to communicate our appreciation and acknowledgement, of both shared and received material.

Meg asserts that learning is a fundamental experience of being alive. She comments that most organizations don’t want to deal with this, because it implies that people have to build relationships, this requires time, trust, risk, emotional response and communication. She pointed out that we’re living in an age where people walk into their work saying,” tell me what I have to do, and I’ll do it, just don’t make me work on a team”. While most of us, who have experienced the challenges of teamwork, can empathize with this sentiment, it is worrisome that things have gotten to the point where we prefer isolation to the difficulties and potential richness created by working together.
If we understand that learning is a function of community, then we have to notice how we are creating community – by caring, reflecting, and taking the time to get to know each other.
Principle of Living Systems
When a living system needs to become healthier, one should always bring in more aspects of the system (for example allow or create opportunities for more communication with parents, customers, coworkers, students etc.) to make it survive and thrive. Why? In Meg’s view adding diverse elements to the mix increases healthy stress (chaos) to a system. This demands more cooperation and competition that makes the system healthier and thus more able to survive. She stresses that in living systems there is no sense of the individual, and that the dynamic is instead always systemic, interdependent, and reveals it’s health by not using more than it needs. This raised interesting issues about the perceived needs of wealthier nations to maintain their population’s lifestyles at the expense of limited world resources.
Necessary elements of a learning community
Trust is an essential element in forming a healthy learning community.
What creates trust? When people keep their word. When there is a sense of equity, fairness, and safety in communicating bad news or diverse opinions. In many of our stressed systems we exhibit zero tolerance for mistakes, and are instantly disappointed in each other’s human frailties. This lack of trust in peoples ability to receive feedback, change, and grow, is revealed in the frequent firings and layoffs by managers, unwilling, or unable, to trust individuals to learn from mistakes. The building of relationship between learners in a community takes time, and the willingness to allow people to risk, fail, and learn from experience. Without the elements of trust, time, and risk taking, we limit our ability to learn and grow from each other.

The other element that this leads to is the emotional dynamic. Trust, risk, competition, mistakes, and cooperation all touch emotions that many corporations are unwilling to acknowledge and instead actively discourage or attempt to control by deriding them as unprofessional.

I reflected that in my experience, working within any living system (family, school, work, government) if you suppress one aspect it can, and probably will, rear its head in a more distorted way in other parts of the system. Often this is seen through gossip, hidden agendas, and unsaid ‘secrets’ or truths about a known dysfunctionality within the organization. That these secrets often reveal themselves as “scandals”, or sudden outbursts is a sign that the information and accompanying emotion is popping out from a lid.

The process that creates trust must be allowed in order for a learning community to flourish. The challenge for a leader is to say, “when do I push? How do I identify and trust these processes, and let go of the command and control that feels part and parcel of leadership. Stirring things up is fundamental to creating community, and when things feel unfocused it may be a reflection that the process of letting go of rigidly held opinions and listening is working, even though the ungroundedness of not having clear direction feels disturbing.

Small group exercise
At this point we broke into groups divided according to organization focus in areas of education, k-12 and University, corporate, non-profit, health, government etc. We were asked first to reflect on where learning was happening in our own organizations. Then to reflect as a group on a recent crisis that had occurred in our organization asking:
How had the organization learned from the experience?
What processes did they use?
Was there value stated by the organization showing a desire to learn?
How was the learning acquired?
What is the organizations capacity to learn?
Learning in organizations comes from the group’s ability to reflect on situations and information. But in that process you have to allow yourself to be overwhelmed, knowing that out of chaos comes the route of insight. However, how do you reflect when there are secrets and unspoken agendas that undermine the community? How do you ask uncomfortable questions? The experience of leadership is often one of “remote control”, trying to see the truth of the experience when everyone is maintaining a false image. As a leader you have to ask yourself if you are really willing to listen to your critics? Is your comfort zone an impediment to learning, and is learning the ultimate value? Meg emphasizes that it has to be if you’re going to call it learning and build a learning community. Value she stresses, not purpose.
Why is learning valuable? When you are open to information all facts are friendly, and all information is useful unless you’re trying to drive to a pre-determined conclusion. (An example of an organization actively involved with not learning, and forcing data to spin to a conclusion was Enron.) If your focus is on learning, then “good / bad” news is irrelevant. Learning gives you increased capacity to receive information without prejudice. The purpose then is toward the broader world. To encourage this, in organizations you need; inclusion and respect for people at the beginning, and a spoken intention to value learning from each other. You have to decide to engage everyone in designing how this work will contribute, to others as well as the organizations mission.

We were then given homework to reflect on for the next day.
Questions were:
Where do you have the opportunity to bring in time to reflect in your organization?
What is the quality of your relationships?
Where are you seeing changes in people’s ability to relate to one another?

Day 3 Our Role as Learners in Community
We began in the morning with the desks lined up in a traditional front- facing row classroom style. Meg asked us to write our thoughts and feelings about how this arrangement emotionally affected our learning. She then asked us to go to a large auditorium and sit in the back rows, again asking us to reflect on our learning in that environment.

While exploring how we felt in the different seating arrangements she asked us to notice when we were in roles of: passive learner, shared participant, or in dialog with others. She stressed that each arrangement was valid for varying learning formats. While many preferred the circle, she felt this often was not a good form for teaching, and when a larger group than ours, felt unwieldy for good sharing. Most people brought up descriptive statements on varying feelings of boredom, exposed, uniform, rigid, uncomfortable, student / expert hierarchy, irritations, passive, sleepy etc.

She asked us to take out paper and write down suggestions on how to improve the module. People busily took to writing with some quickly filling a page with their opinions. It is important to note here that most of the participants held high-ranking positions and were consultants, facilitators, and teachers in their own organizations. I have to say I felt kind of stupid at this point, as I couldn’t think of anything to suggest, relying on Meg to fill the module time. When done she asked us to fold the recommendations over and pass the papers to the right. Meg then collected all the notes and unsmilingly dumped them into the garbage can saying, “thank you for your input, you opinions are very important to this organization”, offering no further explanation. People laughed uncomfortably, I thought it was brilliant, having filled out enough surveys with similar results.

She then suggested that we move to the arrangement we found most comfortable to our learning style. Being a prodigious note taker I stayed were I was, another fellow behind me (who turned out to be a Catholic Priest) also stayed seated. We began to talk together about how we kind of liked getting instruction through lecture. We looked around, some people were sitting on the floor, some grouped around tables, others stood around in cocktail party style, and one fellow looked like he was sitting alone, but said he had actually rejoined the circle by himself.

We regrouped and Meg then suggested a topic discussion from the previous nights homework, asking us to list primary factors that are currently influencing people’s relationships. People began listing factors such as: time, trust, technology, travel, communication mediums, school systems, money, stress, speed, competition, authority, power, love, fear, desire, etc. She noticed that most people felt an aspiration to be better, and we voiced underlying feeling that something is wrong with many of our relationships.She then asked us to reflect on where we see these feelings in family, work, and community? Where might other be seeing this too?
People discussed feeling a sense of insecurity, transient relationships, lack of input, issues with authority, something better elsewhere/later, feeling displaced lack of family time, interdependence, problems with communication, too much media, superficiality, cynicism, increased sense of loneliness in our world, community, organizations, and families.

At this point she asked if anyone knew how to mind map. Two older (~60’s) male leadership consultants and one older female administrator volunteered their mind mapping talents. Meg handed them markers and they turned to the whiteboard to draw Venn diagramed spiders outlines, waiting to be filled in by our mutual minds. The purpose of the circles on the whiteboard was to visually show the interconnectedness between relationships and what affects them.
The dynamic changed and you could feel a sense of emotion and creative energy heighten. The two men took center stage and the woman slipped off to the side. It was very apparent that the men had slipped into roles of taking control, and I reflected that similar to many educated people, all you have to do is give them a whiteboard and a marker and they will carry the group torch. The energy became more unwieldy with people shouting out words, disagreeing over categories, and showing irritation with the two male facilitators. By this point the woman facilitator was sitting down in a chair by the side and one of the men drew a line over to her connected to the main circle inviting her to participate more, she declined, my observation being that she already felt there were enough chefs stirring the pot. Many of the women participants were uncomfortable with her lack of presence, and I too noted a sense of irritation and anger in recognition of having to “be assertive” to be noticed in many male run organizations. Points of view and emotions were flying, with prong personality styles in order to be heard and seen. I reflected on how desperate we all were to be acknowledged, and how difficult it was for us to let go of our opinions and agendas till we were. I saw that no one was really listening to the other, and everyone appeared to be competing for some nebulous recognition, but from whom, was hard to say. I caught a few people who were smiling at the chaos, some looked sad, others irritated, and still others continued to go at it on the whiteboard. I recognized myself in all these poses at one time or another, and felt an overwhelming sense of sadness at how hard it is to work as a group, a feeling I’ve hit many times in team situations, feeling that the whole thing wasn’t workable and just too hard. One person suggested that we stop and move back to a circle form, which would facilitate dialog, rather than shouting at the whiteboard. We did this, and again started trying to communicate about the dynamic in the room, each sensing that something had shifted that felt uncomfortable. I understood again why people choose isolation and was extremely grateful when someone suggested we take a coffee break.

We all rambled out into the hallway. The energy level of the group was higher than I’d seen it so far. People were laughing, arguing, and talking quickly. One of the men in the group came up and mock strangled me saying that he thought I had shoulders broad enough to handle it (he’s a very nice guy, who had liked my comments). I was standing next to Meg and asked him if he felt irritated? He said he couldn’t stand the tension. I replied that it had made me feel sad. Meg said “that’s good you should notice that,” I then noted the group and pointed out to her how much more intimate and energetic we all were with each other after getting stirred up in the room, she suggested I share that reflection with the group when we get back to the room. I looked around to see people standing closer, some with their arms round each other commiserating. A few of us looked at the other sighed, shaking heads in empathetic recognition.
Leadership Vacuum
When we assembled back in the room I looked around and noticed Meg wasn’t there, pointing it out to the group. The fellow who had strangled me issued a statement from Meg saying, ”Meg has chosen to not be here, she has suggested that you continue, and she is available if you need her”. Stunned silence met the news. A few people laughed out loud, some people looked really confused and sad. People repeatedly asked Meg’s poor friend for clarification and he kept repeating the same statement.

The energy at this point shifted dramatically, and statements mostly focused between, what we were going to do, how should we govern ourselves, what was the purpose of our being here, could we get Meg back right away, etc. I shared the observation that we had increased our energy and intimacy with each other, and that seemed to have been essential to building a learning community, which I thought was the purpose of being here. Nobody responded, I would have felt hurt but then realized that no one was responding to anyone. We were like dried corn in a hot pan, popping off with various disassociated comments, competing for attention, with noessential dialog or point.

The most heated issue related to why Meg had left. Many people were very concerned and felt they couldn’t continue without her. As there was still an hour left to lunch, I too wondered what we were going to do with the time. Some of the group (myself included) felt it was obvious that we were being set up to react and interrelate with each other; wanted to see what would happen, and didn’t particularly want Meg back in the room right then. A lot of chaotic conversation ensued, bickering, raised voices, a few looked overwhelmed, disturbed, some looked extremely happy and interested. A couple of people flipped through their notes reading aloud statements Meg had previously made, which one participant derisively coined, the “Gospel of Meg Wheatley.” It was apparent that people still were not listening to each other. Someone recommended taking a minute to bow (Japanese style) to each other as a group, a gesture they felt offered positive regard and intention, as well as a moment of cohesiveness. This we all agreed would be good. Consensus emerged for a second and we bowed, and were quiet for a minute.

One of the men, who had been raised in a Maori culture in New Zealand, recommended we use a talking stick. Again there was consensus that this would be good, and I noted how we revert to primitive forms because they are so basic and instinctively work in groups. Further, contrary to the mind mapping system, (which had caused strife, competition, raised authority/gender issues, and muddied communication) this more primitive system was facilitating further listening. I wondered about how many of the sophisticated systems we develop actually keep us from experiencing emotions or intimacy with each other. Do they instead control attention toward goals and objectives, which may not always be as important to the health of a learning community? The fellow from NZ put a remote control video clicker in the middle of the circle on the floor (the irony of Meg’s “remote control” was not lost to me). I liked this placement because you really had to decide if what your were saying was worth schlepping all the way to the middle of the circle and back. This simple commitment increased thoughtfulness to people’s statements, and the listening became much deeper.

The same issues were raised, but there was a greater sense of emotion and several people got choked up when they spoke. One fellow made a particularly poignant statement about how difficult it was to communicate as a group and began to cry, which seemed to touch everyone. A few people responded to emotional outpourings as being more authentic, and less conceptual, a point in which I disagreed (not usually wanting to display strong emotion publicly, or feeling that was necessarily more authentic than thoughts), still I felt admiration for people who were open enough to take public risks. Some people who had been quiet pointed out that they had been quiet, with suggestions that the more extroverted talkers do the same. This smelled a little self righteous to me, (I smugly observed, aren’t projections fun?) and it was interesting to see people using more subtle methods to gain attention via sighs, moans and active body language. People did became gentler with each other, though I noticed and pointed out to the group that every time an action was suggested, like voting on something, wanting to get Meg, or asking for consensus, the energy and chaos would rise up again and we would become frozen in lack of agreement on how to proceed.

We seemed to be stuck in a yearning for agreement and action, as well as a desire to recognize and respect individual, diverse, viewpoints. We also seemed greatly in need of a leader, and familiar confused emotions of being in meetings that lacked leadership surfaced. Some people looked to me like they were being purposely obstinate, I recognized a similar irritation with seeing that in other teams I’d worked with, and again wondered about my own projections. The minutes were ticking by, and lunchtime had begun. A couple of people had left, but we still could not reach consensus on ending the session. Feeling hungry and tired and not liking how people were dribbling out, I asked if we could just bow. There was general relief, and intuitive consensus by enough of a majority that everyone just did it. Most people then got up to leave, while a few looked stricken and hurt that the group was closing for the day. At this point my sympathy was with myself, I was tired, and felt like we would be there all day, without any sense of closure if we continued. Peoples straggled toward the main hall to eat, and continue conversations in small pairings. Everyone looked exhausted.

Day 4 Leadership Appreciation Day
We all returned the next day to greet Meg’s continued absence. Her friend delivered another message stating that she was available if we needed her. The group spent the next half hour in a do we/don’t we need her discussion. We again reached the same governing issues of wanting consensus, with several people feeling we still needed closure on what had happened the previous day. Several people became very frustrated stating that they had made an investment of time and money to learn from Meg about Leadership, and if she didn’t reappear they would leave. A suggestion was made to ask if anyone strongly disagreed with asking Meg to come back. A few hands were raised. Issues were raised again. Again people were polled as to their hesitations, now only a couple of participants raised hands and the pressure of the group was focused on those folks who replied that they would not stand in the way of the majorities feelings of wanting Meg’s presence. There was a consensus to get Meg. Several people, including myself walked out into the hallway (I needed to use the bathroom). While getting water I saw Meg seated with a couple of men and said hi. I asked her if anyone had requested her to come back yet, and she replied “no.” I said, “Well the group wants you to return” just as several participants rounded the corner. She said fine and came back to the classroom. On the way back her friend said “well you were right, it took them about a half hour.”

Back in the room, we all reconvened in a circle. Meg sat in a chair with us and nothing was said, or asked of her. Instead we all continued rehashing the same issues, but now in a more past tense way, like something was over. One of the participants mentioned this, saying that this is what they had feared, that as soon as we had a leader back in the group, the dynamic exchange would be replaced by trying to impress Meg, or slip into conceptualization. Soon a woman who had been one of the last holdouts began to cry stating that she felt very unpopular with the group now. Empathizing with the feeling of being a “Cassandra”, or bearer of sometimes unpopular viewpoints, I spoke out for how difficult a role that was to be in, especially when dealing with organizational dysfunction or hidden agendas. Sort of a, I don’t agree with your viewpoint, but I admire your courage to share it. The talk went on in a somewhat aimless mix of thoughts, emotions and responses. I wondered if we were a community. Is a community more than just a group in time and place? Did we need a shared purpose, and if the purpose was to explore leadership and learning communities were we fulfilling it, or merely wasting time? After awhile someone suggested a tea break. This seemed as good a thought as any.

We reassembled and again I noticed Meg had again left the room. This was getting to take on a surreal edge, a group game of “Where’s Waldo?” or better rephrased as where’s our leader? Meg’s friend stated, “Meg has chosen not to be here until you can tell her what role you would like her to play in this group, she will wait till 10:30, and if someone doesn’t come get her, will leave the building.”

Once again we entered into what was becoming to me a painfully boring process of debate. People shared, postured, quoted songs, sayings, and argued. The minutes ticked by and at 10:25 someone said that we needed to take action, or by not doing anything Meg would leave. The reality of going on as we had been, seemed to motivate most everyone to come to a decision, which was that we; wanted Meg to be there to teach us about leadership, and to help us process what we had been going through. Someone left to get Meg and she reappeared.
This time Meg came in and began to talk. Relief was in the air, and people looked more relaxed that something had ended. Meg stated that because she had left the group, creating a leadership vacuum, she could not return to her role as leader/facilitator without being specifically requested to do so by the group.

We began to rehash the last session with her. People were interested in why she had left, and were curious about her motivation in setting us up for such confusion. She replied that her inspiration to leave had been unplanned, and she had simply thought that our mutual expertise would take allow us to handle, and explore the dynamic better without her. When some revealed to feeling somewhat tortured by the process it was generally done with good humor. Meg emphasized that there was a leadership vacuum, because she hadn’t really handed that role off to any other person before leaving, and as we didn’t have an authentic reason for working together besides the module participation, it would have been impossible for us to manage much of anything. She predicted that eventually people would have just walked away.

I found Meg’s presence to be reassuring; she has a powerful personality that communicates her experience and knowledge. While somewhat remote, you have the sense that she can hone in quickly when need arises, and she is a very skilled observer of group dynamics. I felt her interest in helping others, and belief in human goodness underlies her work, and it is this crucial aspect that keeps her from seeming cold, or manipulative. I think it was at that point that I felt a little in awe of how rare and valuable a good leader is, and reflected on how my confusion regarding authority has often made me ambivalent to leaders I’ve worked with in the past. I think I’ve remained distantly critical of many leaders, waiting to see their weak spots as an excuse to not follow them. The last couple of days showed me how crucial a leader was to a group’s mission. I wondered if it was necessary for one person to hold the vision for the group, so that participants could have room to experiment with ideas, get to know each other, and create new perspectives and plans. I also saw that leadership is a temporary manifestation, and that one can assume that role as needed without necessarily being caught by it permanently. This was important to me, because I really don’t like the role of managing people when I feel like it’s just telling others what to do. I questioned if instead I could view leadership as helping to create a shared idea, where I don’t have to hold the baton, and if that would feel more comfortable. Maybe feeling comfortable really wasn’t the point; however riding out chaos doesn’t seem the point either. I felt that what I was lacking was reflection and perspective. I hadn’t come to many conclusions; just further questions about what leadership could look like in action. I did feel that Meg’s showing us what leadership does, and doesn’t feel like, via a group experience was more powerful than any book I’d read, or lecture attended.

Meg pointed out to the group that to be a leader is to be opportunistic in a gentle way, and she stressed that we need to see each other for expertise. She stressed the necessity to develop a sense of where you want people to end up, and then seize the moment. This would be contrasted to being more “tool” oriented, where you keep applying a system of thought to each situation. She emphasized that if all you have is a tool you will look at the world with that view (If you have a hammer, everything begins to look like a nail). Using a theory is different, because it is a vision of where you’re heading, the discipline comes in raising it to the level of explicitness. To be able to reflect and articulate where you are headed.

Group Process in a Learning Community
In working with others in organization, Meg suggests that we have to develop agreements on how we will learn, and act together, and share our aspirations of how we will be as a learning community. We have to learn how to be learners in a group and understand common processes. She points out that in a group the first dynamic is always “please see me” so we have to develop acknowledgment and reciprocity, in order to begin any process of working together.

When looking at the process, the question that needs to be asked is, does it promote a community of learners? To do this you have to create systems that bring the whole larger system into the room – then passage through the arising chaos. Chaos is what we experience when we let go of our ideas, certainties, and feels overwhelmed and depressed by the complexity and difficulty of the issue. You have to experience giving up, and combine that with a time boundary/container. This helps you to see when enough is enough.

As a leader she looks for a sense of the group needing to move forward, and checks the energy level, to see when it looks like people are just going around again, and notice when they get stuck.

She finds that agreements about how we will be together are more helpful to define after people go through some process together. That you have to have some feeling of “we” to make the possibilities and agreements more meaningful, so people will see the value, rather than just play lip service to being reasonable. She stresses that people need to talk about the purpose of the community, in order to create a shared understanding. We need to look at what we are doing together, the reality of it, our shared interpretation rather than just people’s opinions.

Meg related her admiration for learning practices she observed in the military. The army has an exercise called “after action review” to help make the learning explicit to those who were involved in an activity. In this exercise all participants are considered equal observers and asked to share their insights into three questions:
1. What just happened? – And you expect to hear different stories.
2. Why do you think it happened? – Your interpretation of experience
3. What can we learn from this? Why is this important, and how will you apply it in the future?
She points out that for many organizations the stakes have to be high enough to do this (like dying, or losing others lives). Though it’s interesting to imagine the power of a group reflecting like this after a stressful project or period.
Meg emphasizes that if you’re using chaos to access creativity and insight, then your act of leadership, is to engage to move things to action.
The day’s session ended with a homework assignment to reflect on these areas:
1. What are you learning about authentic leadership?
2. What are you learning about leaning communities?
3. What are you learning about your own learning?

Day 5 The Creative Process
The next morning we met at a different building, within the Mount St. Vincent’s campus. Meg assembled us in a room with paper and markers. She asked us to divide into three groups based on what we viewed as our most compelling issue from the preceding days homework. Which was:
Learning about authentic leadership
Learning about leaning communities
Learning about your own learning
She asked us to brainstorm some of the aspects of learning we had experienced from these different perspectives.
Being old hands on the perils and challenges of “brainstorming” from previous days, I noticed everyone in our group was cooperative and well mannered, willing to share markers and paper. (Of course I had chosen the learning communities group, and we may have just been more community minded…). We created a list, and one more visual participant created a schematic model that illustrated our ideas. We disbanded and a member kept the lists for future work the next day.
The module participants were then asked to move to the gymnasium. In †here were two creative process instructors, Arawana Hyachi and Jerry Grinelli. Arawana is a dancer and instructor, specializing in Bughaku, a form of Japanese Imperial Court Dance. Jerry is a jazz musician who has worked on many recordings. They had us assemble in a circle and Arawana began to discuss working with body movements without sound. She did some extremely funny and revealing imitations of various walks and postures that people exhibit, asking us to experience our own walk and postures, and reflect on what it communicates to others and ourselves. We lay down on the floor amidst self-conscious laughter. She asked us to close our eyes and simply feel our bodies, then continue to subtle and larger movements, to walking around with eyes closed feeling our own and others movements in the room. There was some occasional soft collisions and laughter, but everyone seemed to be curious to try the exercise.
Jerry then led us through an exercise of incorporating a variety of sounds with our movements. We would move to the sounds we were making. From low to loud, short to long, low to high noises. As a group it was a cacophony of noise similar to what one might here at a cocktail party from a distance.
The last exercise involved working with another person in a slow improvised reflective dance. I partnered with a fellow from England that I’d had little interaction with. We began to quietly circle round and our “dance” became very tender and light hearted. We discussed later, that we both saw and appreciated much different aspects of each other in the exercise, noting that we had shared a quick experience that was both memorable and intimate. This was interesting to me, because I rely so much on speech to communicate. I often forget, or ignore the tremendous amount of communication that goes on through our bodies. In fact, speech can often become an obstacle to communication, relying on words to communicate ineffable feelings. It was ironic to both of us, that it was our words, which had depicted a different image than our bodies, and that had we just been paired up to talk, we would have never discovered further aspects to the other. I have often noticed this same experience working with others, especially children. When I want to really get to know what is going on in someone else’s mind I usually find that it’s best to do something with them that is simple, such as taking a walk, or creating something that doesn’t require total concentration. We often build intimacy with others best through not speaking, but instead by experiencing together, a shared activity. This aspect is essential to understand when managing and working with others, that it is the simple, often seemingly mundane experiences that allow us to communicate more deeply with others.
The ramifications for online learning communities would therefore require some creative interactions to access this same potential. Perhaps people could be paired to create graphics, music, or avatars that could interact in cyberspace to achieve similar processes. I have experienced writing group poetry online and found it to be a powerful way to play with words that can provide deeper sharing, and insight then mere “chat” or discussion.
When we gathered after the exercise for discussion and reflection, many people noted that it had been a tremendous relief to work quietly together getting out of our habitual talking. Everyone had experienced the limitations and frustrations of trying to communicate with words the last few days, and we were all ripe for some creative silence together. Arawana and Jerry shared humorous insights that the reason they, and many of their contemporaries in the arts, had gotten into music, movement, painting, and other mediums, is that they were frustrated, or had exhausted the limitation of spoken language, finding it more fulfilling to express themselves through other methods.
I really liked this insight and reflected again on how much of our experience is beyond language to express, that it is often the limits of language, and not our experience that binds us to mundane chatter. With the exceptions of some gifted writers and poets, what we experience with each other is far richer than most of us can name, and often, we are more articulate through the environments we create, or the music, art, or movements we make. When creating interfaces for online learning the environmental aspect often seems to get lost in technology. All of us are constantly entering each others worlds, and how you graphically present yourself online in terms of creating e-learning or community environments, can have powerful consequences for how a technology too gets used, or not. A common graphic theme in current corporate sites is to use grays and blues, as background colors to communicate a “professional/clean” appearance. However this often comes across as cold, and impersonal, (which may be what corporations view as professional) and certainly impacts the interactions of users. If we want to create places for people to share information, and work together online, then we may need to pay more attention to the cyberspace environments we create, even if at the expense of technology.
The group ended for the day in relaxed, comfortable conversation, and the sad realization that the conference would soon be ending.

Day 6 Final Performance and summation

We met the next morning and gathered in a circle to talk. Meg began by circulating an advertisement from the military that promoted a sense of certainty and threat to destroy those who disagreed. She shared that she felt increasingly unnerved by the “political adolescent male posturing” of our current administration, and affirmed her dedication to getting politically involved to work for change. She asked us all to reflect on what we were going to take back from this experience, for ourselves and other communities. Asking, “what have you learned that would be a gift for others to use?” “How are you going to bring Authentic Leadership into your own lives, and to the greater political community?”
She talked about the early settlers who when reaching the foothills of the Rockies, had to assess what they needed to leave behind, and what would be necessary for the journey ahead. What was essential to take for creating a new community on the other side of the continental divide? Faced with hauling excess weight and risking the journey was the: piano, and china, art, or tools essential? What of the weak and old, and young? What place did compassion, and appreciation for intangibles have on future community survival? Some recognized potential value, and their diligence in caring for others, and items of meaning made them more precious. When we look at our own paths, what can we leave behind? What is our own personal baggage and what is our lack of self-confidence to make the journey? What aspects of ourselves, our lives, and values must we preserve at all costs? What do we leave behind, and what is worth dragging over the mountains?
Meg believes in the transformative power of social action. She has made her living viewing trends, and changes in how communities interact. Currently she feels a great deal of apprehension about the world’s directions towards further, militarism, fundamentalism, blind certainty, and unwillingness to listen and communicate. She also feels that Western Civilizations general assumptions about “human nature” need to be questioned, as they are being used as excuses for lowered expectations, and distrust of each other’s motivations. She points out that contrary to many assumptions, the groups that are most generous are those who live within poverty. Their shared struggle develops empathy and shared humanness. It is harder to ignore others suffering when you live beside it. In her journeys through third world cultures she has observed acts of courageous generosity between people, who give to each other through famine and disasters. She notes the experience of people stopping and risking their lives to help others on September 11th I reflected on the times I had been in emergency situations, the instinctive need to want to help, and how that innate instinct becomes frustrated and overwhelmed when at a distance, wondering where, or how to begin. Her definition of leadership is, “just anyone who wants to help at this time” so in developing our own leadership we have to ask:
Where can I be of help?
Where am I acting from fear?
We have to have recognition of universal human experience, especially fear- and be willing to acknowledge and hold it as the starting place to open our hearts. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable to the common emotion of feeling afraid, or overwhelmed, builds empathy for similar feelings in others, this empathy can transform your heart, making you more available to be of help.
She quoted writings from Thomas Merton from a letter where he shares the difficulties of leading others, and trying to effect change. In this letter, he contemplates his life and the contribution he wants to make, the ongoing dance of hope and hopelessness in challenging situations, he asks, where will we find our strength if thing don’t work out the way we would like? Meg also recited the poem “Counting to Twelve” by Pablo Neruda emphasizing the line of “Needing to interrupt that terrible sadness”
When I reflect on this last part of her talk, I think about how she had previously stressed the need to feel overwhelmed and sad within chaos, in order to let go, and allow insight to arise. It is easy to get overwhelmed by the tragedies of this world, getting stuck in sadness, depression, or frozen into inaction by the difficulties of dealing with seemingly impossible situations. True leadership seems to come about by manifesting energy and action through a vision of what things could, and should be.
Coincidently, I was reading Ghandhi’s biography while in Nova Scotia, and was touched by the power of this seemingly ineffective man, a poor student, failed lawyer in his thirties, unremarkable in every way except for his view that Indians where being unfairly treated in South Africa. Despite that, he was able to take this simple observation, and start a movement, which eventually led to the overthrow of British colonization in India. That he is still viewed, as one of the greatest 20th C leaders, affirms Meg’s vision of Leadership. We do not need to be prepared or credentialed to be a leader; we do need to be passionate, committed and opportunistic in the methods with which we achieve our objectives. If it is a shared vision, needed and helpful to others, then we may find voice in improving our organizations, communities, and the larger world.
We paused for a break and then reconvened to go over the previous days brainstorming results. Meg shared that there was an open invitation from the Institute, for all of the modules to create a group summary of the weeks learning and reflection. She asked if this was something we wanted to do. Everyone thought this would be fun; I think we were all yearning for less talk and more activity. We again split up into the three groups with our previous days notes. In the learning community grouping, we decided to create an imitation in mime, with sign placards labeling what aspect we were manifesting within the group. We labeled paper with essential elements of a learning community, such as:
Container and boundary
Silence and Space
Chaos and order
Love and Fear
Sharing and Competition
Safety and tension
Stillness and action

We then each took a label and walked around, comically bumping into each other, to eventually form a circle (This was a definitely a “had to be there” performance.) But from my perspective it was funny, touching and symbolic of our week long process. The leadership group then performed a simulated flock of geese, changing positions as each person assumed the “head goose” spot, they then formed a circle where each member went out to the audience to acknowledge the others presence. Lastly the “individual learners” group stood in a circle, while one member read their summary out loud.

It was time to say our module goodbyes; Meg thanked us, leaving evaluations for us to fill out.

We left for lunch. Later that afternoon, the entire conference gathered in the auditorium, which was a large room with a raised stage. Each module presented their performance summaries. They were all wonderful, funny, intelligent, creative showcases of lessons learned, and were similar in being performed through movements, as well as words. As the largest module, with thirty-six participants, our group had to stand in rows on the stage. Meg came out in a Styrofoam lobster hat, took the mike and said “in building a learning community blah, blah, blah, turn to each other, blah, blah, leadership, ya, da, ya, da, turn to each other,” and handed the mike to one of the participants. He then took her hat, sweater, and purse, and said,
“Meg left, and we became – Being Margaret Wheatley”.

Our groups displayed their various routines, amid much laughter and delight from the audience. I think we had developed a reputation as a somewhat outrageous and edgy group over the week, so folks were curious as to how we would manifest.

The afternoon turned to evening, the cash bar opened, and people changed into more formal wear for the last night’s banquet. Food, drink, toasts, poems, and heartfelt goodbyes ended the night, and the conference.

I’m already looking forward to next year.

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