“Everyone gets the experience. Some will get the lesson.”
This is one of my favorite quotes. I first heard it spoken by my friend and colleague, Mike Murray, who I brought in as the lead trainer in a leadership academy that I began in in East Texas. I had arrived in Tyler, Texas at the beginning of the Nineties. The community needed to diversify its leadership pool beyond the long established families of this city. A number of us made application to the Pew Charitable Trust Foundation for funds to begin a number of initiatives that would broaden the scope of leadership, including arts, healthcare, economics, and race relations. To our surprise, we were the recipients of a grant aimed at mid-sized cities. Like the dog who caught the car that he chased, now what?
My piece of the work was the founding of the New East Texas Leadership Foundation. I conceptualized its beginning as a kind of MBA of leadership in communities. We were attempting to link two disparate communities, Longview and Tyler, who in the past lived in competition with one another. With differing demographics and cultures, we hoped to embrace a more regional identity that would enhance both cities, and present a unified image to world.
We sponsored a nine month program, notably following the human gestation period, with a monthly meeting, lasting all day on Saturday, quite an investment for our participants. It was intentionally a diverse group of Hispanic, black, and white folks from a variety of constituencies. Our promise to our participants was to assist them in clarifying their personal vision and mission, and then help them in pursuing it within our community. We intentionally designed the program to introduce them to some of the disciplines that inform the practice of leadership. The phrase that emerged in my mind was the aim of “developing the capacity” of citizens to make a difference in their communities.
I brought Mike Murray in to help me design the nine months. I had heard of Mike when I was on my way out of Atlanta. Dr. Charlie Palmgren, a noted expert in the dynamics of change in organizations, had helped me to try to manage the major change of leadership at the Cathedral of St. Philip, as a new leader arrived, replacing a long-time Dean. Charlie helped me to conceptualize the process of change and prepare for the challenging transition. Charlie’s framework was so helpful in seeing a messy transition through to completion.
As I was departing to begin my own change process, assuming the leadership of a Diocese of Texas parish, Charlie mentioned the name of a colleague who lived in the Dallas area, Mike Murray. What a surprise, indeed a fortunate gift, that the leader of my first training at an interfaith organization in Tyler, was Mike. It began a thirty year relationship that still blesses me.
As Mike and I conceived of the nine month process, the training would involve learning about the nature of leadership, specifically servant leadership. We would address the nature of collaboration, communication, designing change initiatives, project management, creativity, and even a lick of time management. Additionally, we brought in some world class trainers to add some specialized teaching.
One was Ernie Cortes, the famed community organizer in Texas, also of international renown, to teach the principles and methods of the Industrial Areas Foundation. The key notion here was that every person has power that can be used, and multiplied by collective action.
Another was John Scherer, a lauded expert in the work of leadership. John brought the insight and inspiration of the power of being present, of showing up in the fullness of one’s passion. John’s work of developing the inner life of the leader continues to inform my work, as well as the persons in the wake of his influence.
Harrison Owen brought a method of bringing forth Spirit from within the community by creating an Open Space in order to evoke innovation. I later used his method to lead planning processes in a variety of parishes. Most significantly, we used this method to gather the Diocese of Texas as it began a new day of mission, sponsoring a new spirit of engagement. We gathered the members of the diocese in Houston with an open invitation to all to join us in a planning process. I remember the “old guard” who predicted that this radical notion of engagement would crash and burn. Just the opposite occurred as people from throughout the Diocese of Texas came up with a host of new initiatives that would drive our work for years.
After our initial flush of success in Texas, I was asked to employ this methodology of bringing together the bishops of the Episcopal Church, which we did with a gathering in St. Louis. In fact, we were able to bring Harrison back in to use his Open Space Technology to gather the City of Tyler to initiate new projects that would better the community for ALL people.
With these amazing contributors, the Leadership Foundation had an embarrassment of riches in terms of input. But the key ingredient was the willingness of these seasoned leaders to learn new material, to open themselves to learning a new trick of the trade in leadership. It’s the proverbial reverse of the adage “can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” We learned that you can IF the person is willing to take on the beginner’s mind, that is, looking at the world with fresh eyes. We were incredibly blessed to have eager learners, willing to engage the process, leaning into the material out of a deep desire to lead well and effectively, producing results.
The main “take away” for me was the role that self-awareness plays in effective leadership. Is the person aware of what motivates him/her to do the work? Are they willing to wrestle with the mixed motives that are a part of any leader’s soul? Are you open to investing the time and energy in tracking your emotions and reactions to things that have happened in your past? Are you ready to explore the internal images of how you think the world is, and how you should be in it? Might you be willing to examine the narrative or “story” that you have brought with you from your family that guides how you see yourself? And finally, are you brave enough to come clean as to the “self” that you present to the world to get what you want and need?
All of these pieces form the whole “self” that you bring to leadership and to the life you live. By examining your “self”, you are in a better position to not be blindsided by internal forces that are hidden under the surface of your personality. The real surprise is that, not only is this real “self” hidden from others, but that it is often hidden from YOU. Self-awareness allows you to focus your energy and passion in a way that does not get siphoned off by side hustles that are a part of your personality.
I would note that Self-Awareness is one of the central dimensions of Emotional Intelligence, a way of engaging in leadership that is the most effective way I know of making a difference in the organization that you are serving. I am currently serving on the board of an organization founded by the legendary Roy Oswald, a congregational development guru, that is attempting to promote and equip the church with the insights and challenges of Emotional Intelligence.
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To restate my point, everyone gets the experience, but only those that take the time and put in the energy are able to get the lesson.
Experience is not the best teacher….EXAMINED and DIGESTED experience is. Take time to PAUSE in order to reflect, and process what’s been going on in your busy world.
The experience just happens, the lessons are waiting for the student to come and learn from it.
Again, everyone gets the experience. Some will get the lesson.