Tragedies like terrorist attacks, school shootings or natural disasters create indelible bonds between the people affected. Lifelong friendships, based on deep empathy and profound trust, can be forged from a catastrophe. Unexpected chaos can spur intimacy in a split second.
Social entrepreneurs increasingly recognize that the only way to have the kind of impact the world needs on increasingly complex and dynamic problems is to create this type of trusted network from all segments of society.
But how do we accelerate trust and intimacy among strangers to address problems that unfold less dramatically, such as poverty, climate change, or discrimination? This was the focus of a workshop at the Ashoka Future Forum led by Kemp Battle.
In this workshop circle, we came to explore the "alchemy of leadership.” Rather than listen to a lecture on, say, the five tools for authentic leadership, we practiced developing trust simply by being present to one another for an extended period of time.
“What we focus on determines the state we are in,” Kemp reminded us. “The more aware we are of our internal state, the less likely we are to punish the group with it!”
If I were to have joined a circle preoccupied with my job or my child’s welfare, the group would have felt an aspect of that preoccupation. The challenge to any group is managing the fear, anxiety, impatience, excitement, curiosity of individuals—all can be present but invisible, felt but not known.
This law of group life is too often ignored. A group will always mirror the internal space of its participants. When that internal space becomes more explicit—when we better understand what deeper feelings are present—a sense of trust develops and the quality of the work accelerates. Only then is collaboration most effective.
Our workshop group moved through the usual distractions: we focused on what the circle was not; we queried the lack of structure, the unspoken outcome. We offered advice, criticism, questions. Were we wasting time? What was the purpose of all of this?
Near the end of the workshop, Kemp challenged us with a question: how fast would we come to trust one another if we were stuck in an elevator together with bombs exploding outside? Someone responded that such a moment would accelerate intimacy. Another said we would quickly seem like family. Then Kemp quietly answered “But we are in the elevator and there are bombs outside—what are we going to do?”
We envisioned the world outside the Newseum in D.C. and began sidling toward a profound truth: if we want to scale trust and leadership, we must start with ourselves.
Gandhi preached the power of self-control as the true meaning of freedom and turned a political initiative into a spiritual movement. And Martin Luther King, in his famous “Letter From Birmingham Jail,” wrote eloquently about the relation of the one to the whole:
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.
During our time together, the group moved toward one another, and got steadily braver. We started to trust ourselves deeply enough to trust one another. A small, uneven experiment, for sure, but the lessons were transformative. Our job as leaders is to make a practice of feeling this “network of mutuality” and providing space for others to practice this feeling as well, whether in a workshop or elevator ride.
In the center of our judgments, certitudes, fears, and furies is the origin of our own leadership. Manage that personal cauldron on behalf of the whole and the whole will flourish.
We can wait no longer for teachers or gurus, lectures, programs and tutorials. We must start where we are, within the vast and unruly circle of ourselves. If our internal council is a mess, we can be of no true use to the world—how can we be expected to lead others?
Article originally appeared on Forbes.
Photo Credit: Flickr