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.

A place to practice

The only way to improve performance is through a consistent practice of self-diagnosis, reassessment, and behavior change.

The prerequisites are the belief that we have the capacity to change and grow, and the realization that we have not yet reached our full potential.

This work is sustained by trusted allies who are willing and able to give us astute feedback.

It is steeled by our willingness to hear these allies’ truths, even when they feel like criticism.

And, as we hear these truths, and as we see ourselves and our behaviors more clearly, we must, ever so slowly, start acting differently.

But where to act differently? How to act differently? How does this process actually work?

Part of the answer is within the intentional groups we are part of, ones in which we commit to supporting one another’s growth as leaders. For example, both the Acumen Fellows programs and +Acumen courses are run in groups. We have found, like many before us, the tremendous power of cohorts who embark on a shared journey. A skillful facilitator coupled with a group that is willing to invest in a process of group formation can create a holding environment that can be transformative.

The more obvious tools in this process are the bonds of friendship and trust built in these cohorts. Sometimes these groups also evolve into places where open and honest feedback becomes the norm. Most useful, but often hardest to achieve, is for members to use a cohort as a testing ground for new leadership behaviors.

Cohort groups (or, indeed, any group doing intentional work together) are fertile ground for thoughtful, deliberate experimentation of new behaviors. If trust exists, if recrimination is unlikely, and if you’re willing to be a bit brave, you can (like at summer camp) show up in a new way in any of these cohort groups.

What does this look like? It’s as simple as this: if you’re someone more comfortable jumping to solutions, you can choose to spend your time with the group listening more deeply. If you’re averse to conflict you make the choice to step into the fray. If you like to raise your hands first you can see what happens when you give more space to others. If you’re someone who’s afraid to offend you can work on freely speaking your mind. You start as simply as this, and build from there.

It can help to think of the group as a practice ground, a place to break a new leadership behavior into its component parts and try it on for size. Just as a swimmer would never adjust her stroke at an Olympic qualifying meet, and a tennis player wouldn’t mess with the toss on his serve in the first round of a major tournament, we cannot expect ourselves to be suddenly bolder and more truthful when our salary, or our job, is on the line. Nor should we try to have our first courageous conversation when our bosses’ boss in in from abroad for one day.

Instead, we can jerkily try new leadership moves on for size in our cohort group, putting aside our natural desire for approval, or status, or recognition, or safety in service of learning behaviors we ultimately want to utilize successfully with our teams, our Boards, our business partners, or our bosses.

This is not easy to do. We tend to walk the deep trenches carved by the patterns of our own behaviors, hemming ourselves in with the expectations we’ve created in ourselves and in others about how we are going to act.

The peer groups we are already part of, or that we choose to create, are the best place to start breaking out of these old ruts

How we Support Each Other

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it takes to sustain someone trying to make a difference in the world, and about the kind of virtual contract we need to sign with each other if we are going to do this work together.

Here’s a starting list for what I’d put in that contract:

I will answer your call, even if I haven’t heard from you lately. Because I know that if you’re calling, it’s important.

When we speak, I will be there fully for you – emotionally as well as intellectually.

I will care for you.

I will express support and love.

I will ask tough questions, and I will be willing to search for answers with you.

I will help you hold up a mirror to yourself.

I will always show up in service of your purpose, which sometimes means holding your feet to the fire.

I will be kind, and tough, gentle and strong.

I will remind you of why you do this work.

I will help you to see that you are stronger than you think you are, and that you are stronger than you feel right now.

Additions welcome…

Why we need more and better groups to support social sector leaders

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about leadership development for the social sector, and how best to design programs that create the longest-lasting impact.

The starting question I’ve been asking is: what is it about the kind of leadership required for this kind of work that’s special, different, unique?

One of characteristics of this work is that it is long-term by nature. While it sounds (and is) exciting and motivating to “live a life of purpose,” the secretly difficult part is that when you’re ultimately measuring your success in terms of societal change, it’s easy to feel like you’re not making any real progress. Growing topline revenues is one thing; overcoming systemic bias and exclusion in a national education system is another.  One lends itself to quarterly reports; the other measures progress over decades. 

This is part of the reason that burnout is so common. It’s not because the work can be grueling, though it can be. It’s because the change one is working towards happens at a communal and a societal level, not just at the level of an institution or a company. To counteract the natural sense of alone-ness that this type of work can create, those engaged in social change need to create and embed themselves in strong and supportive cohorts of other change-makers, others who are walking this path with them.

Jonathan Haidt, in Chapter 10 of his book The Righteous Mind, beautifully captures the texture of how groups can transform the experience of individuals. In describing army veterans’ experience in battle, he quotes William McNeil, an army veteran and historian.  “McNeill studied accounts of men in battle and found that men risk their lives not so much for their country or their ideals as for their comrades-in-arms.” McNeill continues:

Many veterans who are honest with themselves will admit, I believe, that the experience of communal effort in battle . . . has been the high point of their lives. . . . Their “I” passes insensibly into a “we,” “my” becomes “our,” and individual fate loses its central importance. . . . I believe that it is nothing less than the assurance of immortality that makes self sacrifice at these moments so relatively easy. . . . I may fall, but I do not die, for that which is real in me goes forward and lives on in the comrades for whom I gave up my life.

This observation speaks to a paradox of social change work: we get into it because of a sense of higher purpose, but we need something beyond this high-minded objective to sustain us beyond the first few months or few years. To pull that off – to succeed at recommitting ourselves time and again to our higher purpose – we need to be part of a collective. The right kind of collective (cohort, comrades in arms…the language is less important) helps our ego-driven selves dissolve into the acts of service that further the objectives of the group as a whole.

It strikes me that the notion of the heroic entrepreneurial leader isn’t helping us here. This isn’t a framing that pushes us to create the kinds of infrastructure that help larger numbers of people develop and sustain their commitment to a life of service. Amazing generals don’t materialize fully formed, they emerge from a collective that has a strong sense of norms, identity, and values as well as a well-honed approach to tackle the problems at hand.   In fact, while it’s certainly lonely at the top nearly everywhere, I’d argue that it’s lonelier still at the top of a social purpose organization that has a multi-decades time horizon to make change.

This is not a path one can or should walk alone.

What this means is that one of the biggest and highest-leverage way to invest in this ecosystem may be to facilitate the creation of the sort of deep and lasting bonds needed to sustain a lifetime of commitment to the work of making a difference.