What the World Needs Now

(This morning I received a message from my dear British friend Andrew Campbell, expressing frustration with a couple of people he looked up to, and riffing off the anti-expert, anti-‘leader’ tone of my post yesterday on coping with complexity. Here is how I replied.)

facilitator-graphicOver the years I’ve met a lot of ‘leaders’, from senior business executives in large corporations to revered authors to senior government officials. A lot of them have the act right: the charismatics, the leaders that people expect to have all the answers, act as if they do (though they proffer few if their speech-writer or editor hasn’t vetted them). The good speakers know how to use the right words with the right inflection while still not really saying anything except to reassure you that you are right. The good writers know how to take their one interesting new idea and build a $20 book or $1000 seminar around it, and some of them even know enough not to talk about it without rehearsed scripts, because generally they don’t talk as well as they write.

The business leaders, some of whom are astonishingly dimwitted (in my observation, people are promoted because they match the image of those doing the promoting, not on merit) just give orders and aren’t foolish enough to try to justify them (they have staff for that). What’s funny to me is that when ‘leaders’ admit to being unextraordinary, when they dare to be authentic, people are usually bitterly disappointed. They believe their adored leader just had an off night, and will be ‘themselves’ again when they put the make-up back on (and may it please be soon). ‘Leaders’ can’t, daren’t, take the costume and the greasepaint off.

As much as our world is built on hierarchy and the acceptance that some people are just meant to be leaders and the rest just meant to be followers, my experience is that intelligence and practicality and judgement and emotional wisdom and imagination and creativity are pretty evenly distributed across the global gene pool, and the ability to articulate or otherwise apply whatever one is good at is mostly a learnable skill. That’s why I have no use for leaders, and believe the future rests in the hands of facilitators — people who are able to skillfully help a group of ‘ordinary’ people do their best collaborative work. Facilitators are not teachers; they are from the unschooling school of encouraging people to learn how to learn for themselves (or relearn how to learn if they are victims of the education system, the workplace system and/or the media).

active-listeningI hold mentors in equal esteem to facilitators. I mean mentors in the sense of sounding boards and active, empathic listeners for individuals. The word ‘mentor’ is not quite right, since it connotes smarter-than; the best mentors in my experience only speak to help clarify, or to offer advice if it is asked for (and that advice is usually more like possible avenues of exploration or questions to ponder than “what you should do”, since no mentor worth her salt would presume to know what someone else should do). 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”.

I confess I am a terribly facilitator (I even took a test that confirmed this). I can’t retain my objectivity and refrain from proffering content. But thanks to my imagination and years of reading and thinking about a broad range of subjects, I’m often a pretty good content provider in a well-facilitated group.

I am not much better as a mentor, in the sense I describe above, since while I’ve learned to be a better listener, I often can’t resist throwing out unsolicited ideas and advice, and I’m not terribly empathic (too unclear, still, about my own feelings, and often incompetent at conveying them, quietly).

What I am, alas, is a visionary — someone who excels at imagining what is possible. Not a very useful skill in an age when we are utterly preoccupied with fighting dragons.

(Image of facilitation from NCSU; image of mentoring from UConn)

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6 Responses to What the World Needs Now

  1. Brian says:

    Power without merit triggered my memory. Silly poems sneak up on me sometimes.

    Isn’t it proven that what keeps us movin’ is not intellectual, not dreams ineffectual, however analytical or grandly political? No! We’re invincible if based on the principal there’s motion from ocean to ocean, reaching and catching, comparing and matching, in faith and with fearing, with sweat and engineering, with diligent facts in solvent pacts. If anyone will share it, let’s base it on merit. This is the trend to level the bend, to smooth the tension in cash flow and pension. To recover our know how, get out and show how.

  2. Dave Pollard says:

    Brilliant Brian, thanks. The rest of Brian’s amazing composition is here. And just for good measure, here’s Brian’s rant on capitalism:

    When the rich steal from the rich, it’s Good Business.
    When the rich steal from the rich for the poor, it’s Noblesse Oblige.
    When the middle steal from the middle, it’s Corruption.
    When the rich and the middle steal from the poor, it’s Fiscal Responsibility.
    When the poor steal from the rich and the middle, it’s Crime.
    When the poor steal from the poor, it’s Tough Luck.

    Brian, I’m guessing that Chris C sent you?

  3. Brian says:

    Well, hello to you too. :-)
    Not Chris. I’ve followed both of you for years. Community renewal. Justice. We need that. The best work at any wage. Your candor is brave. Paradigm quarterback and a’that. Kudos. These days I’m green fuel and patent snarls. I call it the Intermodal Multinodal Yodel. Mundane tools for enlightened leaders. HA!

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  6. Siona says:

    What I am, alas, is a visionary — someone who excels at imagining what is possible. Not a very useful skill in an age when we are utterly preoccupied with fighting dragons.

    Perhaps not a useful skill, Dave, but oh, it’s a necessary one, in this world so profoundly lacking in vision that all it seems capable of imagining are various versions of doomsday.

    I am an incorrigible facilitator, so much so that I’ve had a hard time dampening the impulse when asked to work in more traditional leadership roles. And even without this bias I’d like to imagine I’d agree with you–I’m convinced our world is far too complex for any one mind to design a path forward, and that the future, thus, must be emergent, and arise through all of us. Unfortunately facilitation, in my experience, takes far more discernment and strength than leadership. Even a poor leader can lead people somewhere, and at least move things further along a path. A poor facilitator, though, is worse than no facilitator at all.

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