Friday, April 2, 2010

What's the Value in Following Rather Than Leading?

By John Esterle

How do we make following sexy? This question has stayed with me since Katherine Fulton, President of The Monitor Institute, posed it a few days ago at the Annual Meeting of Northern California Grantmakers. It probably stuck because I think it's an important question to address if more foundations are to move in the kind of collaborative, networked ways Fulton advocated.

If we're honest, when many of us (I include myself here) think of collaboration we tend to think in terms of getting others to support what we're doing: our idea, our initiative, our grantee. Our initial orientation isn't usually the other way around. Yet, as funders, if we're to operate cooperatively with the kind of "ecosystem" understanding and approach Fulton recommended we need to be far more open to following others' leads, more open to seeing how we fit within a system of giving and willing to follow (or fill gaps) if that's what the situation calls for.

Exploring how to successfully navigate the changing context for philanthropy, a context quite different from what has gone before, Fulton highlighted the importance of trust, humility, and deep listening. These qualities mapped across a range of themes Fulton raised, from moving beyond "either/or" to "both/and" frames, to learning to creatively balance tensions, to taking risks and learning from mistakes, to pushing beyond our comfort zones, to engaging with diversity of all kinds. And that map led me back to thinking about TWI, the work of our grantees, and the central role trust, humility, and deep listening play in dialogue.

So, as I continue to mull over how to make following sexy, other questions spring to mind. What's the relationship between leading and following? How does that relationship change depending on context? Depending on the ecosystem we see ourselves operating in? In a networked world, are traditional notions of leading and following becoming increasingly cumbersome? And finally, when we think of individual or organizational leaders how many model qualities of trust, humility, and deep listening?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Sit There and Listen

By Pia Infante

Listening is such a simple act. It requires us to be present, and that takes practice, but we don't have to do anything else. We don't have to advise, or coach, or sound wise. We just have to be willing to sit there and listen.    
(Margaret Wheatley)

This quote brings to mind the quality of presence that John has cultivated over the years at the Whitman Institute. I’ve often reflected that the space here - simple, humble, open, with big glass doors that overlook trees and invite sky into the room - is now infused with the quality of Listening.  

Listening is often described as an act. Perhaps it is also a quality in a person, a room, a gathering, or an approach.

Deceptively simple, listening is not always easy. The Coaches Training Institute identifies three levels of listening: internal, focused, and environmental. Internal listening gives attention to the ongoing discussion within our own person – observations, plans, anxieties, and questions. Focused listening refers to giving attention to a person, absorbing without responding (much like Margaret Wheatley describes above). Environmental listening is expanding our attention to everything – the sounds, the energy in the space, and the flow of the world - in and around the conversation.

It seems to me that high quality relationships, gatherings, and approaches often integrate focused and environmental listening with ease, while creating space for any necessary self-disclosures about internal listening.  

I wonder how a
Listening Indicator (note: I just made this up, but please educate me if it exists in a parallel universe) could be of use, particularly for those in the practice of meeting and conversation design. 

Listening Indicator might ask the following questions:

What was the quality of Listening in that conversation or meeting? 

What is the quality of Listening in this partnership?

What is the quality of Listening in this organization?

A potential scale for the
Listening Indicator could be: 1 (Sparse – Evident that very little Listening has actually taken place. Distraction. Lack of Attentiveness. No Demonstrated Curiosity.) to 5 (Full – Evident that Listening has taken place. Attentiveness. Checking for understanding. Engaged Presence.)

Writing this post has me wondering about the quality of my own listening – whether on a conference call or at the dining table. And wondering, for all of us who design meetings and scaffold dialogue, how do we co-create the conditions for the highest quality of Listening in every setting?

As always, your reflections and questions are welcome here.  We are listening.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Andy Goodman and Stories Vs Data

By John Esterle

Continuing the story telling theme from my last post....

Free Range Thinking is a monthly newsletter written by Andy Goodman for "public interest communicators who want to reach more people with impact." In this December article he cites intriguing research that explores the persuasive power of stories vs data. In this contest, the research he cites shows a clear winner: stories move people to action (in this case donating money) in a way data doesn't. Why? Because they engage people emotionally.

No news here, but the research offers intriguing findings about what happens when you compare a stand-alone story with the same story plus statistics that put the problem in a wider context. Somewhat surprisingly, introducing statistics into the story prompts a reduction in giving. As Goodman points out though, the type of statistics employed may make a big difference.

Evidently, this article sparked so much interest Goodman decided to revisit this theme in the February issue. It's worth reading as well as he explores "sample bias" and the power of a single story to shape opinion. The whole research literature around cognitive biases is fascinating -- but let's leave that for another post.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Social Innovation and Democracy

by John Esterle

The Deliberative Democracy Consortium and The Democracy Imperative have released a thoughtful, comprehensive report on the conference they hosted in New Hampshire this past July. Having attended that gathering, I appreciate the effort to synthesize what was learned and to share some things that have happened since. It's worth checking out.

The appendix highlights two overarching themes/questions that animated the conference:

1) How do we move from diffuse democratic experiments to more just, comprehensive systems?

2) How do we educate and prepare citizens to be more effective participants in a just and deliberative democracy?

One innovative approach to answering those questions is found in a new article by Luz Santana and Dan Rothstein, co-directors of The Right Question Project (a TWI grantee), that appears in the latest issue of The Philadelphia Social Innovations Journal.

The article highlights RQP's microdemocracy concept, a framework I think holds much promise for addressing how we weave skills and processes essential to democratic practice -- listening, inquiry, thoughtful decision-making, self-advocacy -- into the fabric of our individual and community lives. I really like how the article uses a concrete, personal story to illustrate the power of an educational, skill-building approach that "meets people where they are."

In doing so, it brings to mind something I continue to think about a lot: the importance of incorporating storytelling into civic engagement efforts right from the start if we want to leverage those efforts to affect a broader public discussion. Anyway, I'd be interested to hear from folks on that theme as it's one I see us continuing to explore here at TWI.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

If it Bleeds it Leads?

The Politics of Attention in the Tenderloin

By James Tracy

The power of story and different conceptions of leadership are two themes we continue to explore with our blog. Today, we’re pleased to present this post from guest blogger, James Tracy, who runs the Community Housing Organizing Project of TWI grantee Community Housing Partnership. The Community Housing Partnership was created as a partnership between formerly homeless individuals and housing developers. The Community Housing Organizing Project, led by James Tracy, provides structure for the organization’s community-building work, improves advocacy, and strengthens the leadership development pipeline.]

Did you hear about the rose that grew from a crack in the concrete?

Long live the rose that grew from concrete when no one else ever cared. ...

Tupac Shakur, North American Major Poet

Last month, Community Housing Partnership joined our community partners the Boys and Girls Club of San Francisco and the North of Market Community Benefits District in a celebration of community safety. With over 200 people in attendance, the event was a chance to educate ourselves and public officials in attendance about what everyday people in the Central City have done to make their neighborhood a safer place.

In this neighborhood, the Tenderloin, community safety is like affordable housing or decent healthcare—it can be hard to find and harder to hold on to. However, just like in Tupac Shakur’s song, roses in fact do grow in the concrete. The event celebrated two cutting-edge community driven initiatives—the Safe Passage and Safe Havens program.

Both are radical in their simplicity. In the Safe Haven program, a project began by Community Housing Partnership, a network of small businesses, non-profit housing organizations and churches provide “fifteen minutes and a phone call” to anyone who feels they are in distress. Safe Haven sites have helped over 125 people find their way to safety through various emergencies. Community volunteers staff the project, and oversee outreach to the sites.

In Safe Passage, a project housed by the Boys and Girls Club, local teen-agers walk young children home from after-school programs and bus-stops. Many of these teenagers are themselves often the target of race, class and age stereotypes. Yet, these youth put themselves on the frontlines protecting their neighborhood by walking their younger neighbors home.

With the diversity of the Tenderloin in attendance, there was one notable absence: the media. One reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle told asked an event organizer “Was there a shooting recently?” When she replied no, she was told that the reporter considered it a non-story. Another reporter at the SF Bay Guardian reacted in much the same way.

This leads us to an uncomfortable conclusion. If a teenager shoots someone in the Tenderloin, the media will show an interest in it. If a group of teenagers get together and create a way to make the community a safer place, they get ignored. Likewise, if there is a stabbing in front of a small business, it is front-page news. If a small business owner provides Safe Haven to a community member, and violence is prevented, then it is not.

At Community Housing Partnership, we think that building a successful community rests on two pillars: recognizing the strengths that already exist, and honestly reckoning with the realities that face us. Through the three years of the Safe Haven program, we have watched people with seemingly little in common work together to improve the neighborhood we live and work in.

The Safe Passage folks quietly and humbly show a completely different picture of youth in the Tenderloin. In both situations, the leadership, logic expertise and volunteer hours came from low-income communities of color. While the realities of violence and poverty are all-apparent here, we believe that the solutions will continue to come from the grassroots.

This quiet change doesn’t sell newspapers. It doesn’t grab television ratings. What it will do is save lives, and build the kind of community cohesion necessary to collectively tackle the even larger problems we face.