Connect People • Strengthen Leaders • Embrace the Future


Leadership Lessons from Grey Towers

July 11, 2012 by Joseph DiCenso

Last month three colleagues and I traveled to the Poconos of eastern Pennsylvania to deliver a multi-day pilot program--our "Leader-as-Convener" workshop.  We worked hard, laughed a lot, got great reviews and came home feeling deeply fulfilled.

Reflecting on that experience, I flagged a few highlights and reminders on leadership and facilitation that seemed worth sharing.  I hope some or all will have meaning for you.

Clear Roles Release Brakes 

During the design process for this event it became clear to me that for the bulk of the content I was the least experienced presenter on our team. I found myself feeling anxious, thinking that either I wouldn't be pulling my weight or, in an effort to do so, would be teaching content that I hadn't mastered or internalized.

We began talking through this challenge in our final design meetings. During our drive to the site we checked-in about roles until each of us had clarified, claimed and committed to a role that would serve the group while drawing from our strengths.  My role emerged as the one who would attend to the group--or groups: the participants, our host team and our team of four facilitators. That gave me plenty to do: facilitating our daily debriefs, monitoring the participant group's engagement and energy levels, offering "kinetic interludes" (as one participant dubbed them)--mini-breaks that got people to change channels and connect with their body; generally, watching over the flock.  

In stark contrast to my earlier worries, I was fully engaged, contributed with ease, and felt called to be at my best.  

Reminder for Me: When I risk naming my anxiety it can prompt the team to clarify roles and allow me to lean in fully and contribute my best.

Question for You: Where in your life could you and others benefit from a conversation about roles?


Teach to Learn    

We designed our program to have the participants begin practicing the methods we were teaching in real time with their fellow participants. To insure the greatest benefit to both the individual practitioners and the group, we assigned one of ourselves as a mentor to each practitioner. This was another opportunity for me to move from anxiety to contributing fully.

I was anxious because I had never taught the skills I would be teaching; though I knew them like the back of my hand--which was the problem and the gift. In having to teach/mentor, I got to see that something I have come to do with unconscious competence I actually do have a "method" or a model for--and one that I was able to communicate to folks who were facilitating for the first time. This, in turn, deepened my sense of competence/confidence in what I do. Seeing that there's a method behind my sometimes spontaneous-looking facilitation showed me that I'm not just "lucky" when it goes well; it goes well most of the time because I have a method that's sound.

Reminder for Me: Teaching what I know deepens my knowing--my organization of, confidence in, and ability to communicate what I know (Stephen Covey taught this years ago).

Question for You: Where and with whom is there an opportunity for you to serve others and deepen your knowing by teaching what you know?


Put Your Skin in the Game

The second day of our workshop we taught a process called "Open Space," which allows a group to create a spontaneous conference on topics they care about.  We didn't just teach the concepts, we had the group engage in the process.  We set up two breakout sessions with four mini-workshops occurring simultaneously in each.  As in a traditional conference, people got to choose which sessions they would attend. Most of the sessions were proposed by the participant group, with a couple thrown in by us facilitators.

I held back an offer I had in mind until the final moments of the proposal period.  In part because I wanted the participants to experience both offering and choosing; and in part because I was a little shy about putting out what I had in mind.  I nudged myself over that threshold and offered a walking meditation outdoors.  It was a gorgeous, sunny day--the first after several days of rain--and we were surrounded by exquisite gardens (learn more about Grey Towers).  I offered it for both breakout sessions so as to compete less with the other offers.  I figured I would get a few folks for one or the other.  Over 60% of the group ended up joining me--including a special request for a third offering before dinner.

My session was very simple: a brief introduction, a few minutes teaching a walking meditation based on Tai Chi, a self-guided walk in nature, and, lastly, a brief sharing about the experience, gathering "gems" to share with the rest of the plenary group.

A few things stood out for me: how effortless it was for me to lead the activity with virtually no preparation; how many people chose it; how little I "worked" during the session; how much impact it had on the participants; and how enlivened and rooted I felt bringing this activity to a group of leaders.

Slowing down, getting present and connecting with nature are deep values in me.  One of the very first workshops I offered--about twenty years ago--was essentially a series of activities designed to open the senses and get folks present in nature.  One of the most beneficial activities I currently engage in is walking in the woods (sometimes with camera).  For over twenty years I have been practicing one or another form of mindful movement (Tai Chi, yoga).  So my offering sprang from a well of meaning and passion.

Reminder for Me: When I risk sharing what I most care about it attracts and inspires those who share that interest and leaves me feeling whole and alive.

Question for You: If you took the risk of sharing what you most care about, what would you share, with whom and when?


Life-Long Learning

I seem to be drawn to disciplines in which mastery is more a horizon than a destination--yoga, playing the piano, writing, and leadership/facilitation.  I hope my most recent lessons and reminders have some relevance for you, too--whatever forms of leadership you practice.