At the end of July, I was deeply honored to be among the presenters at the Global Followership Conference held at Waterloo University, in Ontario, Canada. It was inspiring and heartening, to say the least, to hear the wisdom, conviction, and clarity emerging from this community of researchers, teachers, and consultants. I shared my organizational model of interdependent leadership and followership skills based on social dance, and I heard many useful methods and real life examples of how to shift the cultural norms in institutions and organizations away from domination and toward cooperation.
It is clear to me that the only way to elevate our capacity for creative solutions, regardless of scale or context, is to elevate the very way in which we interact with one another. It is a change that must happen from the inside out. Many of you reading have likely experienced this phenomenon in the process of learning to dance. It happens in the very same way in corporate, nonprofit, and civil service environments. In the words of Marianne Williamson:
"Shifting the [North] American workplace from a hierarchical structure of domination and competition to a new paradigm system of cooperation and partnership is a spiritual challenge for our generation. From more enlightened work relationships will emerge more enlightened goals; we will no longer abuse the planet when we no longer abuse one another."
I benefited tremendously from the many insights of the other presenters and attendees at this conference. Among my own epiphanies was a new level of compassion for how difficult it is to let go of the attachment to individual achievement, and to replace that with a recognition that all achievement (or failure) is fundamentally a shared event. Despite copious evidence from both scientific fields and spiritual traditions, it is quite a challenge to surrender the need to measure and claim success for oneself. At the end of the day, though, this is precisely what we need to do if we are going to normalize and strengthen our collaborative capacities!
No success is singularly won. Followers are always in the wings, proofreading our dissertations and checking our parachute strings. We all receive help of various kinds that permits us to achieve even the most mundane of victories. I’m composing this article on computer equipment designed by an army of engineers with materials extracted, refined, and assembled by hundreds of hands I’ll never see. I’m sitting comfortably in a house that others built and renovated, using utilities generated and supplied by a collection of agencies, technologies, and individuals I’m completely unaware of. The very ideas I’m sharing emerged from dozens if not hundreds or even thousands of conversations, both verbal and non-verbal, that I have participated in with other bodies and minds not only at this conference, but over the course of my career.
In deepening my work in leadership and followership, the dance of interdependence, I see that there is a distinct surrender of “selfhood” that is required in order to dwell in the creative space of partnership. As potent as that space is, full of brilliant solutions waiting to be plucked from the ether, there is an equally courageous act of letting go required to access it.
Letting go can be a truly frightening prospect, and fear shows up in the body. My work includes physical movement exercises that invite participants to experience collaboration as both leader and follower. I’ve noticed in these exercises that collaboration can feel like a kind shared thinking, or even shared being. Usually it’s a fun, expansive experience, but sometimes it can feel unsettling.
As the leading partner, you realize that the control you wield is mostly an illusion. Instead, it is actually that other person who breathes life into your idea, or doesn’t. As the following partner, your safety is quite literally in the hands of the other. You live in uncertainty, not knowing where you are going next. Ultimately, the paradox is that what appears to be restricting to the reasoning mind is actually liberating when experienced fully in the body.
And if you (or a colleague) is currently struggling with interpersonal dynamics in the workplace, I would love to discuss around how precise and method-based 1-on-1 coaching can help. I offer a complementary 20-minute consultation and a special 2-hour deep dive session for new clients that can often get to the heart of the matter in a single session. Coaching is available remotely via Zoom video conference. Schedule your consultation.
*Photos courtesy of Global Followership Conference