Sunday, December 07, 2008

Replacing Advice with Curiousity One Room at a Time

Engagement is the means by which there can be a shift in caring for the well-being of the whole, and the task of leader as convener is to produce that engagement.

---Peter Block, Community: The Structure of Belonging, p. 87.
Engagement precedes problem-solving, persuasion, commitment, accountability and responsibility. It’s so powerful in its manifestation that the term “engaged” enjoys a permanent place in our hearts. If it’s alive, things are good. If not, we are just putting in time. Creativity and innovation either thrive or fail to grow. No wonder organizational and political leaders want to “engage” employees or the electorate.

Yet, most struggle with how to engage. Like a chameleon, it comes and goes but does not seem to stick around. Engagement can’t be hurried because it requires dialogue. Engagement doesn’t do well in the face of “I know best” by a leader or manager. Engagement doesn’t take root when it’s difficult to voice an opinion because of the structure of a meeting. Engagement doesn’t get to “first base” if respect isn’t in the air.

We have reached a time in our society and organizations where we crave engagement. Generation Y won’t have it any other way. Generation X and the Boomers have no trouble agreeing as they have wanted more engagement for decades. Long ago they recognized that the challenges are far too complex for formal leaders to tackle without a helping hand from all concerned. Fortunately there is an upside to the interesting times we are experiencing--- democracy of the “kitchen table”, “Main Street”, “street corner” and “water cooler” variety is back in fashion.

Although percolating in millions of places around the world, we’ve seen its renaissance most recently with Barack Obama. Besides his rapid rise from “nowhere”, he demonstrated through his grassroots approach to fundraising and organizing volunteers that he has a firm grasp on engaging others.

His ability to engage comes from who he is, how he relates and how he organizes structurally to enable dialogue. His curiosity and depth of caring for “Main Street” (who he is) underpin his solution-finding. Like Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile barrier, Obama has set a new high for civic engagement. The principles are equally valid to organizational life.

How that came about is well-described in Dreams from My Father. Framed by his quest to make sense of his identity within two stories---“white” and “black”---Obama’s self-reflections shape and evolve his values and beliefs, his way of being and relating and his acumen at bringing people together to achieve something worthwhile.

After a successful stint at corporate life, becoming a community organizer beckoned. The pull of his mother’s advocacy for the “oppressed”, his father’s Kenyan roots, and his largely Hawaiian upbringing where hierarchy is less dominant likely played roles in his desire to do something at the community level. Fortuitously, that experience set the stage for his know-how in organizing “room by room”.

Peter Block offers some concrete guidance to organizing “room by room” and “convening” engagement. Using the small group (often within a larger group) as the prime way to enable dialogue and create accountability and commitment, he suggests that leaders convene by:

--Coming from a context of possibility, generosity, gifts (of others) and the importance of relationships

--Asking powerful questions that invite people to co-create such as “What is the commitment you hold that brought you into this room?” “What is your contribution to the very thing you complain about?” “What are your gifts….?”

--Listening and being present (no ego).

Barack Obama discovered these guidelines as he literally went around interviewing people to find out what the community wanted to do. His mentors were a multitude of ordinary people trying to survive, raise their families, and exercise their freedom. One gave him a useful piece of advice—not to take himself so seriously. Good advice for all leaders.