Chicago The board of the Organizers’ Forum set aside an entire day for what turned out to be a fascinating dialogue on leadership development and training for community and labor organizations. There were a host of challenges, but in sharing the practices of various networks including DART, WORC, PICO, ACORN Canada, Acorn International, SEIU, and the AFL-CIO, as well as having the advantage of a board guest with experience in community work in South Africa and labor training in Australia, there was just cause for some celebration of the deep commitment social justice organizations still hold for the value for developing leadership as part of the core program.
There’s a lot that was shared but let me go right to what may have been one of the more interesting and informative exchange. Scott Reed, PICO’s Executive Director, had suggested the topic for the board discussion of “how leaders learn.” Without really knowing what Scott had in mind for PICO to share, the planning committee had eagerly added the topic to the agenda.
Gordon Whitman, PICO’s DC-based national representative, and Eva Schulte, director of Communities Creating Opportunity (CCO), PICO’s Kansas City affiliate were with us to raise the hood and let the rest of us look under so we could understand better how PICO was grappling with this question.
The heart of their search was to come to grips with a better understanding in Gordon’s words of “how to think about thinking.” They had established several affinity groups within PICO to delve deeply into this question with the help of some books particularly one by David Rock called Quiet Leadership. Eva also mentioned some other books that she and various leaders and staff had found helpful in reorienting their practice and process with leaders such as Fifth Discipline and Primal Leadership which were also transforming for her.
Gordon and Eva described the process as reorienting leadership – and staff – conversations to require first asking “permissions” for discussions. The request and acceptance of permissions empowers the “learner” to more openness and inward control of the discussion, increasing the ownership and investment in the result of the process and conclusion. I’m probably not exactly doing justice to the whole thing, but that’s close. My synthesis of what Gordon and Eva were describing was a process of admonitions and avoidances of a didactic process as opposed to a deeper commitment to a dialectical process. When I asked Gordon if this was close, he nodded yes, so I’ll assume this is ballpark if not right over the plate.
Much of this leadership exchange involves resistance to an “advocacy and options” strategy with leadership as not producing the best process results. It also involved a redefinition – at least for me – of a primary role of the organizer as being a “teacher.” On that point there was wide agreement from many in the room. My long rebellion with the authoritarian and hierarchical forum of the classroom and the dictatorial pomposity of teachers may have led me personally to eschew such labels and frameworks, though my friends and comrades on the board related that they had found the teacher analogy helpful in the work, so I’ll have to step back and take a harder look.
I walked into the dialogue concerned that the commitment to leadership development was waning in the work, especially because the resources and support for such critical infrastructure development has become virtually non-existent. Certainly unions have been forced to cut the heart out of a lot of these training programs except for those that involve the most basic contract enforcement training, and foundations and funders have become so outcome obsessed that the process that produces victories and power has become boring and uninteresting to them, perhaps because regardless of their non-existent record they have concluded they know best. Nonetheless as the board drilled deeper into leadership development during this day in Chicago I could not help but be inspired at the commitment all around the table still shared to this core value and how high they still held the flame as a beacon for all leaders and organizers to follow.