I‘ve spent many hours over the past four months rehearsing for a choir performance, a benefit for our local food bank. The world premiere concert was last night and played to a sold-out crowd, and it was a huge success for the works’ composer, my friend Brian Hoover.
As our chorus of 25 rehearsed, I was reminded of the incredible sense of community and joy that learning and singing great music together brings. I haven’t performed music publicly since my high school days, and the rehearsals brought back some of my finest memories. There is just something about such collaborations — working personally and collectively towards a common goal where everyone’s work has to mesh. What’s amazing is that this sense of community arises despite the fact most of the chorus members are not personal friends, and are probably unlikely to ever be. I have learned from such collaborative work that you don’t have to know, or even particularly like, your fellow collaborators to get astonishing joy from the experience, and end up feeling towards them what can only be described as love. And of course, nothing can compare to the exquisite pleasure of being in the middle of 25 voices blending skilfully and harmonically into a wall of gorgeous sound.
We have been collaborative creatures, as much as we have been social creatures, since our prehistoric emergence on this planet. Collaboration is evolutionarily selected for: Before the recent advent of scarcity driven by technology, overpopulation and our perverse modern industrial economy, we were inherently collaborative, and only competitive and individualistic in rare moments of extraordinary stress. That’s easy to forget when everything in our indoctrinated, conditioned modern society has been made into a competition.
The experience got me thinking about the roles in collaboration. In our modern hierarchical culture every collective activity we pursue is imbued with the cult of leadership, with the idea that things only happen under great leaders. Despite the pro-hierarchy propaganda to the contrary, there is absolutely no evidence that leadership, in the sense of extraordinarily gifted people telling others what to do, actually works in our or any society. My experience in nearly 40 years of business, with organizations of every size, was that what gets done that is of value in these organizations occurs when front-line people do what they know is best, despite instructions from self-proclaimed or anointed ‘leaders’ who are generally removed from contact with customers and no more experienced or skilled at the hands-on work needed to accomplish the organization’s work than anyone else. In fact, in many cases the best work in organizations is done despite the ‘leaders’, as employees have to find workarounds that contravene the directives from the ‘top’ and the policy manuals, a politically challenging and sometimes even dangerous act, to do what they know needs to be done. Many others have told me that is also their experience, including more than a few purported ‘leaders’.
But surely, I thought, recalling the many hours of patient guidance, instruction, correction and repetition that Brian, our organizer, composer and teacher, and Alison Nixon, our indomitable conductor, had to endure to hone our work to the point it was ready for last night’s performance, these are the kinds of situations that really require exceptional leadership, aren’t they?
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that, despite the appearance of teachers and conductors ‘leading’ a group, what is actually happening is nothing of the sort. Unlike ’employers’, Brian and Alison were drawing on a pool of volunteers, and our entire participation, attention and energy was voluntary. What they did so brilliantly was to elicit those three qualities, and impart their own experience as a suggestion for us to draw upon. They did so without the kind of command and control that so-called ‘leaders’ can exercise from a position of power. And therein was the magic of our work together, and perhaps of all true collaboration: A group of disparate individuals voluntarily came together and worked very hard and diligently together, paying attention to each other as well as to Brian and Alison. We were, including Brian, Alison and the others who contributed to making this happen, a substantially self-organized group, participating and supporting each other for no other reason than because it gave us joy. That’s collaboration.
I’ve said before that what I think are the two most important skills for the 21st century are facilitation and mentoring:
Facilitation is the process of skillfully helping a group of ordinary people do their best collaborative work. Facilitation includes supporting the group, process stewardship, watching and helping manage the vibe and flow, and ‘holding the space’ for the group to achieve its goals. Tree Bressen describes the role as akin to that of a midwife, enabling delivery without being the actual producer of the ‘product’.
Mentoring is active, empathic listening and providing a sounding board for self-directed learning. Sometimes a mentor’s gift is just to be present, to listen with compassion and appreciation. Sometimes it’s to demonstrate, a suggestion of “you might try this”.
This is far from the textbook definition of ‘leadership’. But these two roles are, in my experience, the only ones that actually work, enabling self-management rather than trying fruitlessly to impose management.
The etymology of director and conductor is substantially about ‘keeping straight’, not about giving expert instruction. As our educational systems have endlessly proven, instruction is not the way to impart knowledge or learning or to get anything accomplished effectively. Leadership and instruction are anachronisms of the industrial era where those in power felt obliged to impose their will to prevent disobedience and to demonstrate their own importance. This has never worked.
When we listened to Brian and to Alison, and paid attention to their movements of direction (what might best be described as impassioned suggestions) and to their facial features, we were acknowledging their enormous competence as facilitators and mentors — as co-creators of the amazing work we heard, movingly and confidently, last night.
I thank them both for showing us how collaboration, at its best, works, and how such collaboration is the essence of community. Last evening, right up to the final sounds of applause, we were all — facilitators and mentors, singers and audience — collaborators, and we were a true community.
I will post the video of the performance when it’s edited and published, here. I would also like to thank the musicians, soloists and crew who made every moment of this experience so delightful and rewarding.