At the age of 67, after returning from a meditation retreat, I started running daily for the first time in my life. And I soon learned that the first hill is the hardest.
It was summer, and I had no idea what I could do. So I began by exploring without expectations. I dressed in my regular sneakers, some shorts, and a tee shirt. I live in a rural town with 60 miles of dirt roads, so I ran out of my home and down the 600′ driveway. Wanting exercise, I turned left on the town road and started up the hill. Way before the top I was out of breath, so I slowed to a walk until I got to the top. I ran down some of the other side, decided that was enough for the first day, and turned around and retraced my path. I had to walk up most of my driveway.
The total run and walk was a mere mile.
I wondered if I’d ever be able to do better than that.
“My full-day live seminars have impact on people partly because I don’t announce the specific agenda or the talking points in advance. It’s live and it’s alive. I have no certainty what’s about to happen, and neither do the others in the room. A morphing, changing commitment by all involved, one that grows over time.”
—The Show Me State (of the art), Seth Godin
I run conferences and sessions like Seth’s. I don’t really know what’s going to happen and neither do the participants. Yes, I have an overall structure in mind, but there’s always room for an impromptu performance by the guy who just happens to have brought a set of bagpipes (that was edACCESS 2011, I think), and the unexpected sessions on sea kayaking (Fixing Food Oregon 2009) and Spiritual Leadership (last week at the VLN 1st annual conference).
It’s not only the unexpected topics and activities that it turns out people want and get but also the serendipitous connections that get made. One of the things I feel best about? The lifelong friendships between seemingly unlikely souls, sparked by events I’ve had a hand in. You can’t put a price on that.
So why do most events still insist in trumpeting precise program schedules? We do, of course, go to such sessions hoping to learn something new. And perhaps something surprising will happen. Sadly, we often don’t learn much and are rarely surprised.
Why set up the majority of events this way? I’ve written about this here and more extensively in (free download) Chapter 3 of Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love, but another reason is that most of us are fearful of trying something new if we think we might fail at it. I’m no exception. I’ve lived with this fear most of my life. (Apart from my early years, when this fear is largely absent in everyone.) Only in the last dozen years or so have I begun to rediscover the joy of the adventures that begin when I say “Yes” to what life offers me.
What’s frustrates me is that most people who experience events designed to accommodate and support the unexpected discover they prefer them. But until they take a chance and attend one, they’ll never know what they’re missing.
Viv McWaters and Johnnie Moore call the need to know what something will be like before you commit to it “the tyranny of the explicit“. Need more information before you act? Stuck! Viv quotes Keith Johnstone: “Those who say ‘Yes’ are rewarded by the adventures they have, and those who say ‘No’ are rewarded by the safety they attain.”
When you say “No” you’re safe (unless it’s an emergency.) But you’ll miss out on the learning and delight that is the constant companion of the unexpected.
Ultimately, it’s your choice.
On balance, I’m glad that my events are pretty open to the unexpected. Otherwise the guy who brought bagpipes to my conference would have just left them in the trunk of his car. Let the hornpipe begin!
How do you facilitate change? In this occasional series, we explore various aspects of facilitating individual and group change.
We are surrounded by opportunities that can change our lives in amazing ways. These opportunities come in the form of a choice between continuing with what we are already doing and doing something different. Think of them as forks in the road.
The fork in the road offers only two difficulties…
Most organizations that stumble fail to do either one. The good news is that there are far more people than ever pointing out the forks that are open to us. The “this” or “that” alternatives that each lead to success if we’re gutsy enough to take one or the other.
Why is taking the fork so hard?
Taking the fork is hard because we fear change. We are scared of venturing into the unknown. Perhaps we are scared of what might happen if we fail, or of feeling embarrassed. We may even be scared of what might happen if we succeed!
Change potentially threatens the way we see the world and when we confront circumstances that are inconsistent with our worldview, we’re likely to feel stress. How many people do you know who enjoy extra stress in their life?
Change is also potentially associated with loss. Loss, for example, of all the time and effort we’ve expended learning how to do something a particular way. How many people do you know who enjoy loss?
The reality of this extra stress and loss is a hard obstacle to overcome—and it must be dealt with in order for you to take the fork.
So how can we do better at choosing a new path?
Here are three steps.
First, notice how you’re feeling about taking the fork. If you’re oblivious to how you feel about a change, your emotions will likely determine your actions. When fear is the dominant emotion, you are unlikely to take the fork. If you do take the fork without awareness of the associated stress and loss, they will ambush you later, usually when their effects have built to dangerous levels.
Second, express how you’re feeling about taking the fork. I find that sharing my feelings with someone I trust is the best way to do this, though some people prefer to journal privately about the emotions that taking the fork brings up. Processing how you are feeling helps you work through your emotions and integrate the new path into a feasible personal future.
Third, take the fork! Like most things in life, practice makes taking the fork easier. When you feel those butterflies in your stomach it’s easier to make the scary choice when you’ve felt them a hundred times before and, most of those times, things turned out alright. There will always be more forks, and the more frequently you take them, the easier it’ll be to take the next one. Robert Frost “took the one less traveled by/And that has made all the difference.” Follow his footsteps!
“…if we do not change the way citizens come together, if we do not shift the context under which we gather and do not change the methodology of our gatherings, then we will have to keep waiting for great leaders, and we will never step up to the power and accountability that is within our grasp.”
—Peter Block, Community: The Structure of Belonging
Another stirring quote from Peter Block, from a chapter titled The Stuck Community.
Change citizens to conference attendees and you have a good description of what continues to happen at traditional conferences, where attendees listen to session leaders, rather than collectively reaping the benefits of co-creating an event and associated community.
“[There are] almost as many definitions of leadership as there are persons who have attempted to define the concept.” —Ralph Stogdill, Handbook of Leadership: A survey of theory and research (1974, p.259)
I’m not going to add to the thousands of existing definitions of leadership. I believe that defining what leadership is—essentially, process that influences others to accomplish something—misses the point. What we need to understand first, is the purpose of leadership. Once we’ve decided that, we can think about what leadership qualities we need to carry out that purpose.
The task of leadership
Here’s the wonderful Peter Block musing in a recent book:
Too often our vision of leadership is clouded and restricted by 19th century ideas of leadership, emphasizing autocratic, bureaucratic, and charismatic leadership styles that are still commonly held up for us as models of what leadership is about. Even though more enlightened leadership models (e.g. servant and transformational styles) are becoming more widely used, there’s still a tendency to revert to the old models in some situations.
Leadership at conferences
For example, how do we treat conference attendees?
At most conferences, attendees have very little say in what happens. The event revolves around a set of limited preselected session choices made by the conference leadership. Such an event culture implies a default passivity. Organizers, not attendees, make decisions—organizers who are, perhaps unknowingly, using leadership styles more appropriate for young children.
It’s perfectly possible, however, to offer freedom to conference participants. Unconference designs provide structure and support for participants to determine what they want to learn, share, and discuss. Participants are then free to make the event their own.
Most of us who are asked to try something new feel a natural reluctance or wariness. First time attendees at an unconference often feel apprehensive about the prospect of taking a more active role. That’s why Peter’s phrasing confront people with their freedom is appropriate. Unconferences offer an environment that gently confronts attendees with their power to influence what happens. In my experience, once attendees experience what it is like to have a real voice in shaping their event, the vast majority of them embrace this new freedom.
What do you think of Peter Block’s musing on the real task of leadership?