“A generous heart is always open, always ready to receive our going and coming.”
– bell hooks
For the past month I’ve been in conversation with David Nee, former Executive Director of the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund, to reflect on some of our shared experiences in advancing the Memorial Fund’s collaborative work for equity in the early childhood system in Connecticut. The impetus for these reflections was an invitation to co-author a blog post for a series on “network entrepreneurship” in the Stanford Social Innovation Review. The introductory post, written by Jane Wei-Skillern, David Ehrlichman and David Sawyer, is entitled “The Most Impactful Leaders You’ve Never Heard Of.” While it is true that many of the leaders featured are not necessarily household names, this does not preclude focus on those with formal authority who are visible in their own respective domains. That said, emphasis is on what people often don’t see or appreciate about what these “network entrepreneurs” do, including making space for others (see this post for some of the key network and collaborative leadership roles that are not always appreciated).
As David and I have worked on our piece, I’ve been thinking about four different positional leaders with whom I’ve partnered over the last few years in building networks for social change, all of whom we at IISC would call “facilitative leaders.” These four individuals are collectively diverse with respect to race, gender, age, change focus (civil rights, food system resilience, education reform, ecosystem sustainability) and, to a certain extent, personality. Beyond these differences, it strikes me that they all bring a common ability to navigate between being directive when needed but generally very open, inclusive and eager to follow the lead of the committed crowd in question. Even more striking is what I and others see these four embodying as a core ethic in their approach to the work. This was named by a participant in a recent network assessment interview as “generosity of spirit.” Yes, I thought when I heard it said, that is precisely a core and critical commonality. Generosity. And it can be such a difference maker.
“In our research and experience, the single most important factor behind all successful collaborations is trust-based relationships among participants. Many collaborative efforts ultimately fail to reach their full potential because they lack a strong relational foundation.”
– Jane Wei-Skillern, David Ehrlichman and David Sawyer
In my experience, in some collaborative/network building efforts, especially as they launch, there can be something I call “folded arms syndrome.” This occurs when people come to the table and there is (for good and not so good reasons) an overall air of standoffishness. People tend to be cautious and/or skeptical, they want proof that this is going to be worth the time. While some kicking of the tires is understandable, the truth of the matter is that when it comes to networks, people will see the value they want to see only when they invest themselves. Seemingly knowing this, these four leaders, or “network guardians” as June Holley might call them, do not wait for others to make the first move. They authentically reach out, adopting an invitational, hosting and appreciative stance. And they continue to model generosity that over time becomes generative. That is, it helps to contribute to “net effects” and greater abundance (see this study on h0w generosity can cascade in social networks). Their offerings include, but are not limited to:
Courage – bringing vulnerability, willingness to take risks and leap of faith, often in the very form and process of emergent network building
Space – literally creating space to host others, helping others feel at home and also being clear that the network building endeavor is very much a shared one, honoring others’ experiences, opinions and knowledge
Doubt and resolve – saying “I don’t know (the answer, how to do this … ), but I’m willing to work hard with you to figure this out”
Attention – seeing others, showing interest in them, making time to get to know them
Resources – access to money, yes, as well as other supports to maintain and protect the collective space for relationship-building, deliberation, creating alignment and taking action
Truth – being authentic, and demonstrating a willingness to name “real issues” (elitism, racism, inequality, climate change) and in so doing inviting others to do the same
Clearly these individuals cannot and do not do it alone. They are surrounded by other facilitative leaders and network guardians. That said, as visible champions for the network building prospect, the way in which these leaders show up matters and can help set a tone for generativity and re-generativity which is one of the core promises of “net work” for social change.
“True generosity consists precisely in fighting to destroy the causes which nurture false charity.”
I sometimes use the metaphor of “fire tending” when talking aboutFacilitative Leadership, the approach to leadership and social change we here at IISC practice, model and teach. Facilitative Leadership is grounded in theethic of“creating and inspiring conditions for self-empowerment so that people can work together on a common goal.”It is a form of leadership, rooted ina series of connected and reinforcing practices, that increasing numbers of people, organizations and networks seem to be drawn to in this ever more complex, uncertain and dynamically interconnected world.
Thanks in part to the following inspiration from poet and professorJudy Sorum Brown, I invoke “playing with fire” as a way to think about ways of creating optimal conditions for collaborative change.Read More
I have had many conversations recently about network form and transition, all of which have me thinking of what we often talk about in our practice at IISC: balancing acts. The core approach that informs our work in the world is Facilitative Leadership, which strives to create and inspire the conditions for collaborative and net workthat yields greater, more sustainable and equitable change. In co-creating these conditions, as process designers, facilitators, trainers and coaches, we invoke a variety of practices and frameworks, each of which has its own dynamic range of considerations. Read More
I live in New England, where everything is under a thick blanket of snow, and the temperatures are in the single digits. Many forms of transportation have come to a full halt. And I still needed to get to New York to lead a Facilitative Leadership training! My train was very late, and I realized, I could fume and panic, but that isn’t likely to change the situation. (Tried that. Didn’t work.) Since leadership often means noticing and naming what is really happening right now, I decided to take a few moments to notice what this weather can teach me about leadership.
“Our world is, to a very real extent, based on dialogue. Every action taken that involves more than one person arises from conversation that generates, coordinates and reflects those actions. Those actions have impact. If our human world is based on conversations, then the work of creating and supporting those conversations is central to shaping a world that works. Designing and conducting meetings and other groups sessions well is vital to determining our common future.”
Just recently in work with a national network, we turned the corner to start creating a structure to channel the alignment it has achieved around core goals for system change and ultimately to realize “collective impact” in a particular domain. As we were kicking off some of the early discussions, someone asked what I thought were the keys to creating a successful network structure. That’s a huge question that merits a complex answer, and I’ll admit that in reflecting on the dozen or so large scale change efforts I’ve been a part of the past 7 or 8 years, the first thing that came to mind was – “really good facilitation.”
Simplistic as this response may sound I was thinking of lessons learned from numerous efforts that no beautiful or well thought out network/collaborative structure stands up to a lack of strong facilitative capacity (skillset, mindset, and heartset). To be more nuanced, it is not just facilitation that ultimately came to mind, but what we at IISC call facilitative leadership.
For over 20 years, IISC has been teaching, preaching and practicing Facilitative Leadership (FL), and in many ways it seems that this approach has never been riper in light of the burgeoning call to collaborate and cooperate across boundaries of all kinds. At its base, FL is about creating and inspiring the conditions for self-organization so that people can successfully achieve a common (and often evolving) goal. The logical question that follows is, “How does one ‘create and inspire’ these conditions?” The answer is found in a variety of practices derived from successful group work and that have indeed shown promise across different networks and large scale change efforts to create solid foundations and momentum for social change. Among them are these: Read More
Thanks to Deborah McLaren for putting this slide show together that references the good work of June Holley, Chris Brogan, and Beth Kanter. I find that there are many people out there who naturally get the concept of “network weaving” and many others still who are still learning to understand its value, and to see it as a function of leadership in a networked world.
At IISC, we like to talk about “Facilitative Leadership” as a practice of “creating and inspiring conditions” that deliver on the promise of collaboration (innovation, rapid diffusion, equity, resilience, adaptation, etc.). In this vein, I particularly like what Chris Brogan suggests as the following leadership practice related to network weaving:
Spend 20 minutes every day thinking about your network
Spend 10 minutes every day cultivating your network
Deliver 2 or 3 times as much value as you ask from your network
Two recent graduates of a Facilitative Leadership for Social Change workshop Mistinguette Smith and I led in New York, Alison Gold and Juan Sebastian Arias from Living Cities, recently wrote to us about a creative way they are bringing the frameworks and tools they learned back to their organization. So many of you ask us for advice about how to apply this stuff that we thought you’d want to know about it too! Read More
I’ve been thinking a lot about process. What is the best way to get things done? What is the most collaborative and inclusive way to move forward? Our bias towards inclusion, towards a process that is truly democratic, can often seem at odds with the idea that “action trumps everything.” Read More
Process can sometimes get a bum rap in our work, as in: “I’m not a process person. I’m action-oriented.” This attitude can become a source of considerable frustration, and yet, I get it. Some people are tired of what seems like endless talk that gets them no where. And yet to translate this kind of seemingly circular conversation (what Chris Thompson has referred to as co-blaboration) as “process,” as opposed to action, does a disservice to what is essential to the work of social change. No, I’m not talking (only) about talking. I’m talking about how it is precisely at the level of process that we can make truly profound change. Read More
I’ve spent the last two days with twenty-three people who do the concrete, sometimes humble work of convening meetings, directing resources and evaluating programs. They came from far flung places, from Ohio and Illinois to Hawai’i, to explore how the tools of Facilitative Leadership can remake our work so that it awakens and nourishes our communities’ deepest desires. Working with them was like a peek into the future of what leadership can be.
There are lots of workshops that help leaders to learn about decision making; there are few that require a decision-making process to be informed by our hearts as well as our minds. This group seized the opportunity to engage both their hearts and heads to wrestle with tough practical questions: How can you do brainstorming that includes people who value reflection and introspection more than quickly generated speech?
They made space to speak tender truths that usually cannot be said out loud: How can we help our communities hold each other more accountable for achieving results without damaging the richness of our relationships, or abandoning our traditional cultural processes?
And they practiced creating the conditions for the people they serve–the people they supervise, their clients, their coalition members–to take responsibility for learning and working through these questions together.
It was an honor to witness how they showed up for each other in the workshop, as well as what they did and what they learned. Twenty-three new and seasoned facilitative leaders reminded me that the purpose of leadership is to show up as an agent of dignity and hope.
If another world truly is possible, I think I spent the last two days with the leaders who will guide us there.