Challenging our assumptions about leadership
By Margy-Jean Malcolm
Enabling the leadership of everyone to grow and flourish is at the core of community-led development. Research with Inspiring Communities in 2011 helped us articulate some new thinking about leadership as learning amidst complexity. An inquiring learner’s curiosity is at the heart of what we bring to our CLD leadership practice. We used metaphors of tides, waves and rip-currents to convey how we constantly adapt our responses to an ever-changing sea.
Surfing that sea as learners and leaders we work with paradoxes. Like the ebb and flow of a tide, we are always moving in and out between polarities of what seem like contradictory responses: We are both strong and vulnerable. We offer decisive answers at times and more often facilitate inquiry with others to find answers and build shared vision together. We help put structures and systems in place and need to be equally comfortable with the messiness of emerging developments. Leadership in CLD spaces highlights diverse ways of ‘doing’ leadership, as we listen, observe, learn and adapt.
Sometimes we fall off the surfboard, when we encounter ‘shadow’ or dark sides of these polarities, and the crashing waves dumps us. We can drown in rip-currents like dominating egos, self-doubt or our attachment to fixed ways of working or thinking. Alternatively, we can be resourceful and find counter-intuitive ways forward as we learn to work with the unpredictable energy of this complex, moving system. So, where do we focus our attention to enable learning and leadership in ourselves and others?
Our research identified three key conditions we can influence to nurture active citizen leadership learning:
- Create opportunities for people to learn from and reflect with each other as peers, building a culture of ako, where every relationship is a reciprocal learning one.
- Stretch people with opportunities to engage with new ideas and experiences that inspire their own creativity and growth
- Create openings for people to try things out, gain experience and overcome fears, and be there alongside them through the successes, failures and learning from the doing.
I have recently been involved in applying these principles to designing a new course on Developing Responsible Leadership for Otago University students. It’s been a bit like speed dating getting over 80 students into 15 teams designing, doing and reporting on community action projects in a 13 week semester. We have all been learning together to make the most of youthful energy, community expertise and diverse ideas about leadership. Like many CLD interactions, we have sown seeds for active citizenship and we will see what sprouts in the years to come.
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