What is Fellowship?

I’ve spent the last two weeks in India and Uganda with the current class of Acumen Fellows (applications for the class of 2018 just opened). It is a profound experience to do deep work with our Fellows: no matter where they come from, they are dedicated to a life of social change; they are well-positioned to create that change; and they are in the midst of a deliberate journey to grow as leaders in service of that change.

The foundational design element of the Acumen Fellowship is the cohort experience. While we introduce many powerful leadership tools, frameworks, mindsets and approaches in our Fellows programs – anchored around Authentic Voice, Adaptive Leadership, Good Society readings, Managing Polarities and Systems Thinking – we know that the impact that we can have in 25 days of time together is necessarily bounded. The real learning happens outside of the room, between the time Fellows are together in session over the course of a year and, most importantly, in the long years after they first come together, as they continue to grow as leaders as they do their work.

This is why we believe that the most important aspect of our program is, in fact, “fellowship.” Fellowship, to me, is the weaving together of relationships, common purpose, shared expectations, aligned values, mutual investment, trust, and individual and group accountability to push and support one another. No matter what content elements we introduce and what discussions we have with our Fellows, part of what is happening in every conversation and every moment of silence in the room is an investment in strengthening the Fellows cohort, an investment in fellowship.

As part of this week’s Good Society discussion with our East Africa Fellows, in which we read some of the great thinkers and leaders from throughout history (including Hobbes, Amartya Sen, Martin Luther King, Ibn Khaldun, Amin Maalouf, Eduardo Galeano, Chinua Achebe, and Nelson Mandela), we waded through the first few chapters of Jean Jacques Rousseau’s The Social Contract (which I find to be one of the most challenging of all the readings that we do). The foundational question Rousseau asks is in The Social Contract is: what makes authority legitimate? Rousseau’s answer to this question is the Social Compact.

He describes the Social Compact, somewhat obtusely, as:

The total alienation of each associate, together with all his rights, to the whole community; for, in the first place, as each gives himself absolutely, the conditions are the same for all; and, this being so, no one has any interest in making them burdensome to others….

Each man, in giving himself to all, gives himself to nobody; and as there is no associate over whom he does not acquire the same right as he yields others over himself, he gains an equivalent for everything he loses, and an increase of force for the preservation of what he has.

OK, maybe it’s really obtuse.

What Rousseau is saying is that we create a social compact when every individual (in a group or in a society) gives himself over to every other individual in equal measure, and, in so doing, the rights each person yields to others are the same as the rights she gains.

For example, in fellowship. For example, when 20 people fully give themselves over to each other, creating mutual bonds of trust and accountability.

In so doing, they create something that is stronger and greater than the whole.

In so doing, they are, paradoxically, more free.

These are the cohorts we are building,

As part of our discussion of Rousseau, we explored what kind of social compact this cohort of East Africa Fellows is making with each other, and what steps they have taken to strengthen this compact.

In service of this exploration, I asked the Fellows to reflect on actions that other Fellows have taken that have supported them in challenging moments. In response, one Fellow told a simple, profound story of wanting to learn to ride a horse, and how terrified she was to get into the saddle. She was with another Fellow at the time, and he gave her words of encouragement and support that helped her muster the courage to get on the horse. But he didn’t stop there. As her horse started walking, this Fellow walked alongside her. He kept on walking, matching the horse stride for stride, staying physically present with her as she faced this challenge.

I can’t get that image out of my head: I see one person up on a horse, conquering a fear, and another calmly walking next to her, accompanying her on her journey.

The beauty and power of fellowship is this invitation, willingness and capacity to accompany one another. It happens for our Fellows when the whole group is together in the room while we are in session. It happens individually and in groups outside of the room and between sessions. And, in our best moments, it happens even when Fellows cannot be physically present for each other, as each Fellow grows to realize that they are accompanied by all of their fellow Fellows everywhere they go.

With this realization, the have more strength to take the leadership steps that lie before them, they have more willingness to make hard decisions, they have more fortification to keep walking the path because they know that they do not walk alone.

Here’s to fellowship, and here’s to the brave, powerful, committed people creating it each and every day.

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