Further Reflections on Participatory Leadership Training In Zimbabwe

My previous blog from our late September training on the Art of Participatory Leadership told part of the story.  A week later, further reflections came clear that I want to share as well.  This is a more critical reflection on my work in Zimbabwe.

I woke in the early morning from the first night’s sleep in my own bed after returning from Zimbabwe.  Suddenly things that had been churning in my stomach all week were clearer.  I’d like to share some of my observations.

We delivered the Art of Participatory Leadership and in many ways it was excellent.  In fact, just this week I proposed to colleagues in Durban that we offer a very similar workshop to community activists in the INK townships.  However we missed some important opportunities in part, I suspect, because we got trapped within our own form.

I left our meeting last Monday disquieted.  The evaluations were a bit of a shock.  After years of teaching in formal as well as informal situations, I usually take evaluations as indicators rather than prescriptions.  But in reviewing these evaluations, my body knew that something was out of kilter – even if my head didn’t want the information!

We offered what I believe we were asked to offer.  Unfortunately it was only minimally valuable to most of the participants and didn’t justify the investment of a full week of their time.  We saw the challenges on the first day, and chose to continue with the training we were asked to deliver.  If we had been able to fully discern the field, we might have made different choices.

Participants came to the workshop for many reasons.   Most had little to do with participatory leadership – even though more participatory leadership in their organizations can open up a wealth of wisdom, capability and resources.   Some came because they wanted to better understand their work as organizational leaders.  Others came because they wanted to know more about how to manage people and teams.  Some came hoping to gain perspective on confounding issues within their organizations.  A few came hoping for conceptual engagement around issues of leadership.  We did not work well with the needs and hopes present in the room.  I’m not sure we could have – but I woke this morning with a few ideas.

I wonder if we might have broken the group into tracks?  While we wanted to get to participatory leadership, perhaps we might have gone about it quite differently.  Especially with the addition of Chiku to our team, we had both the resources and the time.  Chiku brought  indepth experience working with African proverbs and stories about leadership as a way to engage others in thinking about their leadership.  What we might have done is spent some of our time together as a single learning community about participatory leadership and some of our time in separate modules or tracks.  With our available personnel, we might have offered three; perhaps:

  • Working with Community Based Organization Issues – Marianne
  • People and Teams in Organizations – Bob
  • Hosting Conversations that Matter – Simone

We then might have offered several plenary type sessions for the whole community:

  • What is Leadership Anyway?
  • Traditional African Perspectives on Leadership
  • Creating Meaningful Change in Turbulent Times
  • Unlocking Capacity in Organizations

We could have used our Participatory Leadership Methodologies to offer these sessions and done a knowledge café giving people further information on these approaches.

I suspect this is a more major redesign than we could have done on the spot.  But I wonder, what held us back?  I suspect there were several things:

  1. Deeper conversations, beforehand, with Sabi Consulting might have revealed more, but at some point this workshop got defined as one on Participatory Leadership.  Our pre-workshop materials said what we would do, but participants came for all sorts of varied reasons.
  2. We were held back by our own knowing and preconceptions.  Based on meetings with the Program Design Team we made a commitment to offer a particular training and we stayed with the plan.
  3. We operated with a certain level of determination, convinced that we knew what the participants needed rather than really listening to them.
  4. While we know the aspiration, when working with Participatory Leadership, is to work with what is present in the room, we had our own blinders and limitations in terms of really doing so.

I’m not sure what comes next.  As I said on a number of occasions, this is a fine group of people doing important work.  I want to support them in any way possible.  I hope that what we were able to share will continue to work with and on people and will ultimately be valuable.  Some of what we were presenting contradicts models and practices of so-called modern culture and it takes a while to digest.  The methodologies we offered are sound and used successfully in a wide variety of settings.  I hope they can be of value here.

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Profiles of Courage in Zimbabwe

More than a thousand years ago, they came from the north of Africa, leaving the violence and seeking peace.  They came and they settled in an area that became known as the Great Zimbabwe, a kingdom from 1200-1500 AD which is estimated to have had a population of more than 10,000 and famous, today, for its unique stone architecture.  Little is known about Great Zimbabwe.  There was no written tradition amongst the people who came to be known as the Shona.  Some speculate that perhaps somewhere, lost in the archives describing the travel of Arabic traders across the African continent, there might still be records and more information.

I’ve just finished a week at the Great Zimbabwe, in the company of a little more than 30 passionate, committed, insightful and experienced Zimbabweans who are the leaders of a number of nonprofit initiatives.  My colleagues Marianne Knuth and Simone Poutnik offered a four-day training in the Art of Participatory Leadership under the guidance of Sabi Consulting, which is the steward of a network of nonprofits called Profile. When I arrived in Zim a little more than a week ago, it just felt good to be home as the spring Jacaranda trees release the majesty of their purple blossoms against the African sky.  I realized that I’ve been to this country more than any other in the last decade, except my own.  Zimbabwe has been a great teacher for me.  It has shown how people can come together to develop resilience in times of collapse.

My mind makes up stories when I don’t know what to expect.  I try to stop it – but it has a will of its own.  I arrived not knowing what to expect of this week.  Will the political stasis of Zanu PF and MDC hold a grip over this training?  So many have fled from Zimbabwe in the last decade, who is left that will come to this training?  Will they be eager to engage and learn or will they be reserved and cautious?  Who will they be?  Especially given that my work these past two years has concentrated in Japan, will I be able to speak and host in this culture in a way that is useful?  What will happen?

I’m just humbled and amazed.  WOW.  What an incredible group of people.  Each day as I learned more of their stories and their work I just felt deep gratification.  They are the people who are tirelessly working with what they have to build resilient communities.  AND, much of their work is confined within somewhat traditional structures where hierarchy is the only organizing pattern and where the priorities of the donor dictate many of the parameters of their work.

It was a difficult and demanding week.  They came expecting to be trained in participatory leadership, and found themselves sitting in a circle.  Some of them arrived wanting to know our definitions and expecting us to be carefully articulating frameworks and theories.  Instead, we invited them into exploration and questions.  Some wanted us to give them answers – we said good questions are more important.

In the Art of Participatory Leadership, we believe that a participatory experience is the key component of the learning field.  By the end of the first day, some of the participants were asking is your only theory one of keeping us confused??

 As our time together continued, there were many times of push back:  people here learn by being instructed – they are not asked questions, they are told answers?  People want to be delegated clear tasks with clear performance measures.  We’re not all that free, ourselves, to ask questions:  our donors tell us what they want us to do and how to measure it or our funding will be revoked.  In Zimbabwe’s crises, too many of our staff are just here because they need a job – they are not that committed and some are not all that well educated.  What is motivation for participation when the Director is paid eight times as much as others on the staff?

But beneath these questions was a yearning, and a knowing.  Some of our language didn’t make all that much sense, but as we hung in there together, there started to be a listening beneath the words.  I think the participants were beginning to connect what we said was possible with their own sense of yearning.  And the listening wasn’t all one-sided:  I certainly came to understand more and more how thoughtful, careful and strategic people will need to be in implementing more participatory learning processes in organizations.

In many ways part of this is the continuing burden of colonialism where people here were told that their own indigenous knowing and their own ways of building and maintaining community were woefully inadequate.  The white experts from the north would organize things in a proper sort of way.  They brought with them burearcracy for organization and new ways to measure, control and account for progress. The colonialists also brought a view that the resources and bounty of the world were there for the use of the most intelligent and powerful.

These views have been super-imposed on top of indigenous knowing and don’t fit. But formal education in Zimbabwe is based on learning from someone who stands in front of a classroom and tells them day-after-day that the world is mechanical and predictable.  Someone has to be in charge and tell others what to do.  Policies and procedures will guide actions under which people will use the authority delegated to them by the person at the top to achieve pre-determined results.

We worked in this dance between the really old – indigenous knowing, the old – traditional leadership from the colonial and modern era, and the new – participatory leadership to co-discover what would serve Zimbabwe well, now.  Each offer insights into ways of seeing the world and ways of being in the world.  The chart I drew, above, is pretty dichotomous chart and can lead to either/or thinking.  That’s not really useful for many reasons.   What is useful, I believe, is seeing how participatory leadership can be brought in to organizations to open up new insights, new possibilities, and new patterns of accountable action.

Those who came are more than able to work together to create a new Zimbabwe.  They have the fire and the will.  I suspect that many from this past week will take some of our ideas, structures, processes and tools and begin to adapt them for use in their own organizations.  I hope they will continue to find ways to support each other in stepping into this area of practice.  I know they have dedicated their lives to their work.  And I know they have perseverance!

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Design of Four Days:   Day One; Day Two;Day Three; Day Four

Many thanks to Simone Poutnik for the photos and for the design day depictions!

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Bootcamp is Over

Bootcamp is over. Those are the words that came to me last month when I was working  in Phoenix with people from the St. Luke’s Health Initiatives.  My trip to Phoenix came right after I returned from almost a month in southern Africa.  What I heard and saw in Phoenix fit into the same pattern as my experiences in Africa.

My sense is that I, and many others, have been in deep training for this past decade.  We’ve been learning how to see our world, our selves, our relationships and our work in new ways.  The learning didn’t start ten years ago, and it won’t stop now, but I’m feeling like this is the time when we need to move on.

On a phone call yesterday my friend Chris Corrigan used three phrases which really caught my attention.  He said we are not yet a community that practices and we are not yet a system that influences.  He went on to speak about the work that needs doing now is practical decolonization.

  • A community that practices… My friend Robert Theobald used to always talk about how we needed to listen to the music, not the words.  We’ve heard and used many words in the last decade.  And they are powerful:  presencing, hosting, healing, zero-waste, appreciation, feeding ourselves sustainably.  The list goes on and on.  Many of us have learned how to dance with words like power and love, warrior and midwife.  The dance is good.  But it is time now to practice, practice and practice.  It is time to hear the music with our bodies.  It is time to embody these practices.  It is time to practice together as if our lives depend on it.  They probably do.  No, I don’t know exactly what this means.  But I sense it means now is not the time to feel satisfied and complete in what we’ve done and learned so far.  Now is the time to push our edges more than ever before.
  • A system that influences… Together we have a chance to create a new era, a step beyond the era which is disintegrating all around us.  Many of us have been pioneers, engaging in promising experiments with new forms, processes and ventures which carry the DNA of the era we might create.  Much of this work has been powerful, rewarding and exciting.  And, it is not enough.  We must find ways which allow this work to easily and naturally spread.  I’m not talking about going to scale, I am talking about creating systems of influence.  Systems of influence require the creation of eco-systems which are larger than our individual work and which connect that work so it can GROW.  Communities of practice can create systems of infulence, indicators can create systems of influence, scenarios can create systems of influence.  In South Africa I saw a reality TV show create a system of influence.  What else?  How do we help this work grow.
  • Practical decolonization… I love the phrase, simply because it hasn’t yet been overused!  Decolonizing is the process of shrugging off the shackles of domination that have controlled our lives.  We’ve all been colonized.  Certainly the colonization and extermination of indigenous peoples all over the world has been the most obvious and most brutal.  Many of us have been victims and perpetrators of practices of power over which has separated us individually and collectively from our selves, each other and all other life on this planet of ours.  Now is the time for us to step out of our roles as colonized and colonizers — practically, clearly, irrevocably.

We know how to do this!  That’s the good news from our work of the last decade.  No, we don’t have a road map.  Hell, we don’t even really know the destination.  But we do know enough to continue, to deepen, to go to a next level.  But we have to move.  Part of this is, I am sure, learning how to be comfortable working with the Alchemy of Opposites.  All of it, I know is done collectively in community, not individually in isolation.

A lot of my own thinking about this over the last couple of months has been influenced both by Adam Kahane’s new book Power and Love and an essay from Barry Oshrey that grew out of a conversation he and Adam had, also called  Power and Love.  I’m personally a little leery of both these terms — power and love — but they have been an important doorway into my current learning.  Oshrey speaks of the need to develop robust systems which combine power and love and I think he’s got it right.  I think that I’ve spent much of the last ten years working on relationships and harmony and listening.  I think the focus of the next ten needs to be more on getting real work done.

Many blessings as we end the era of the “oughts” (aught 1, aught 2, …) and come into the era of the “tens” (inTENtion)  <grin>

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Alchemy of Opposites

Alchemy of Opposites

I thought when I headed off to southern Africa in early November, I would have a spacious time for reflection, learning, and writing here.  That wasn’t the case.  I was engaged in pretty much non-stop work in various systems.  AND, because I went with the intention of reflecting and learning, I carried that spirit into […]

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A New Zimbabwe Emerging

I arrived in Zimbabwe several days ago, my first visit this year.  Since before Kufunda Learning Village was a glimmer in the heartmind of its founder, I have been journeying here.  When people ask what I do at and with Kufunda it is often with a typical assumption of people in the global north that […]

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