In my eternal quest for powerful frames, I find myself fixated on the notion of courage.
As a concept, courage is loaded in all the right ways. It implies a sense of purpose and strength, and the notion of fighting for something important and meaningful.
This summer my three daughters were all assigned Malala as required reading. I found this to be remarkable since their ages vary dramatically- 15, 11, and 9. But when I read the book to my youngest, I was so grateful that Malala’s story was being shared so broadly. And as we moved through the chapters and incidents leading up to Malala’s shooting, my daughter’s eyes were suddenly opened to injustices and inequities of a scale she struggled to understand. And she was moved to wonder aloud how she would handle such threats, how we as a family and society would respond to such gross injustice.
I yearn for more stories of courage, for my daughters, for myself, for the women around me. More than inspiration, they offer perspective, hope, a tingling sense of being acutely alive, in tune with some higher purpose or sense of clarity. But they also offer a mirror, for reflecting on our own choices, character and strength.
When I travel to Tanzania I marvel at the women, the Sisters running clinics, building schools, working to open opportunities and hope for those who live without. And just recently I joined American Women for International Understanding (AWIU), a group that hosts an International Women of Courage Celebration, honoring women such as Captain Niloofar Rahmani (pictured in this post), the first female fixed-wing Afghan Air Force pilot in the history of Afghanistan.
I will continue to learn from women around the world, seeking out their stories and opportunities to connect. But at the same time I’m ready to celebrate courage right here in our own communities. I am ready to honor the stories of girls and women who are pushing against fear and injustice to expand opportunities for themselves and others.
As we come together to contemplate women’s leadership, empowerment, and all the frames that attract those of us in search of growth, advancement and fulfillment, we need to expand our scope of what is possible and what should be celebrated and admired.
It is with this sense of contemplation that I will be speaking at the Woman Up Conference on September 27th http://womanupconferences.com/. I look forward to joining other Western New York women who are eager to be part of our city’s Renaissance, to lend our collective talents and energies toward something better and brighter.
And beyond the Conference, in the months and years ahead, I look forward to many more stories about women of courage. Stories about perseverance, vision, and righting wrongs. Stories about the amazing women who deserve to be recognized, supported, and emulated. Stories that will help inspire us to reach our potential, and to have those critical conversations with our daughters and the future women of the world.
Having power; wielding power; feeling powerless; being powerful. My head spins with nuances and their implications.
Lately I’ve been inundated with articles, reports, and conversations about women and power. The data are concerning. Although women begin their careers ambitious and eager, their aspirations drop off precipitously, resulting in underrepresentation across sectors and systems. Even women at the very top of the proverbial food chain report feeling uncomfortable with power, suggesting that this currency which has featured so prominently in our collective aspirations is more complex than initially conceived.
Clearly, power remains important, lodged securely within the crossroads of access, influence, and impact, critical to the wellbeing of women and their families but also to the health and vibrancy of our communities and broader society. As a cognitive psychologist I always return to the principles of problem solving and the way we define our most intractable challenges. So often our inability to move the needle on complex social issues lies in a lack of clarity regarding what we are seeking or rejecting in the long and short-term. Without clarity we remain muddled, poking around at the edges, trapped in a state of perpetual dissonance.
If we agree to go deeper, examining our core definitions of power, we confront its most standard form-the notion of acquisition, power obtained by virtue of position, influence or wealth. As one gets closer to power, rising in influence and authority, its attributions become clearer. We see that power is fragile and ephemeral, needing to be maintained and protected at all times. And by virtue of its possession it sets its owner apart, creating distance and otherness as it waits to be used or wielded toward some personal gain.
Rather than attracting us as women, these attributes have a repelling effect, especially for those of us drawn to the virtues of balance, humility, and more progressive notions of success and fulfillment. So although we may hear the call to lean in or power through, we can’t help but pause, sensing, knowing that there is something inherently restrictive or wrong about committing or submitting to this flawed ideal.
But clearly this version of power is not the only available form. Instead of acquisition we can choose its manifest state, being powerful instead of possessing it. This deceivingly simple variation yields dramatically different attributions, stretching the space around us as we expand our reach and impact, radiating positivity and purpose. Unlike having power, being powerful is not tied to a position or wealth, or inherently limited to a particular sphere or domain. We can be powerful in all aspects of our lives, as mothers, leaders, friends, or professionals. And the state of being powerful is not given to us and cannot be taken away. It is neither ephemeral nor limited, but instead lasting and contagious, spreading to those we touch and with whom we interact.
It is time we finally get comfortable with power. But in doing so we should resist the urge to simply accept the old and limited version that we know is neither fulfilling nor sufficient. Let’s take the time and effort to clarify the type of power that we seek and need. It is ultimately through this process that we will forge a new and better path forward.
Certain states of being are natural. Growth, for example, is written into our DNA. From the moment we’re conceived we stretch and move outward, engaging with the environment, learning, and developing our skills and understanding toward a higher state of mastery. Ironically, entropy is an equally natural state, an inherent tendency for things and systems to break down over time, losing focus, strength, relevance, accelerating toward a place of disorganization and eventual obsolescence.
In contrast, the act of standing still is neither natural nor sustainable. Upon scrutiny it is merely a fleeting moment in time before either growth or entropy kick in. And as such, it is a particularly precarious place to rest or hold onto as the world changes and thrashes around us.
And yet despite its inherent dangers and limitations, the notion of standing still continues to factor prominently in our plans and decision making. When faced with the overwhelming and often competing challenges, threats, and demands associated with our lives and work, our systems and structures, many make a deliberate decision to stay where they are, steady, constant and secure.
Efforts to stand still look different with varying players and contexts, but universally they consume large amounts of effort and focus. Because the dichotomous forces of growth and entropy serve as magnets with opposing fields, the cost of resisting and remaining braced in a neutral position can be depleting. Any movement in either direction must be corrected immediately before momentum builds, ricocheting people and organizations forward and back at an often dizzying pace.
Why would anyone or any organization choose to stand still? When forced with a categorical choice between growth and dissolution all would claim to embrace the former. Indeed most publically extol the virtues of innovation, generativity and growth. Organizations post job descriptions calling for leaders who can think outside the box, who are entrepreneurial and collaborative. Meanwhile individuals fantasize about new jobs, new adventures, and opportunities to spread their wings and soar.
And yet when push comes to shove we gravitate toward the middle, seeking comfort, shelter, and security, implicitly defending and supporting the status quo. How ironic that a place that is not really a place at all can keep us so collectively stuck.
What is it about growth that seems so scary? Perhaps it is simply a fear of the unknown or the risk of losing our footing. Maybe it’s a need to feel the ground beneath our feet or under our nails. After all, growth is about expansion and generativity, elevation and brilliance. To many, these concepts feel foreign and suspicious, too airy and nebulous, too risky and uncertain. But once we begin to unpack the notion of growth, revealing its facets and structures, giving it shape and texture, we can start to develop a sense of comfort and familiarity, ways to chart our progress and find the sense of stability we crave. Maybe then we can finally allow ourselves to go for it, leaving behind the false sense of security that we’ve come to associate with standing still.
Of course you feel restless. You’re underutilized and undervalued, and you’re clearly not alone. Every day I meet women who are yearning to grow and stretch themselves, to use their gifts and talents to somehow make a difference. Whether searching for security, a better job or promotion, or simply trying to get their foot in the door, we are all collectively waiting, waiting for opportunity to present. But the trouble with waiting is it’s hard to stand still. Over time, frustration and disappointment can build, eventually wreaking havoc, damaging our careers and lives, leaving us wounded and weak.
This is what I worry about. Over the years I have seen countless women- competent, hard-working women- self-destruct around me. Ironically, their demise is often facilitated by the encouragement of their colleagues and friends who urge them to stand up for themselves, to assert their value and self-worth. Although well-intentioned, such advice can serve to amplify the damage that can come from feeling stuck, fueling the narratives of victimization and fragility that ultimately do us in.
When I see women self-destructing I yearn to yell STOP or SLOW DOWN, urging them to tackle their growth through a different lens. Of course I want to acknowledge their pain and frustration, to listen to their stories and affirm their worth. But more importantly I want them to realize that the very systems and organizations that they long to lead or contribute to are inherently insensitive to their own needs and talents that they’re trying to assert. To put it clearly, our systems are not about us or what have to offer. They are about limited opportunities, expectations and access. Virtually insensitive to talent, they are driven instead by changing priorities and parameters which are largely outside of our understanding or control. Opaque, complex, and riddled with roadblocks and dangers, their successful navigation takes wicked skills and composure, accessible only to those who have the social and economic capital to master their intricacies or endure the ride. Within these systems are nuanced rules that can change at any time. But almost uniformly, any hint of perceived weakness or fragility can shut opportunities down, leaving us feeling marginalized and victimized without even knowing what happened.
This is clearly bad news, and I’m sorry to be the one to deliver it. But frankly, I’m tired of going to women’s leadership conferences or reading books that suggest we must simply toughen up, lean in to the challenges, or set our aspirations higher. It is time we admit that the challenges and roadblocks that threaten our growth, both individually and collectively, are increasingly complex, subtle and nuanced, calling for sophisticated tools, frameworks, and support.
In addition to being smart and competent within our respective areas of focus, we need to be strategic, flexible, and resilient. And of course above all we need to be likable and pleasant to be around, regardless of the conditions or expectations we are expected to endure. These qualities are necessary for us to be successful, to be given opportunities to work and support our families, and to cultivate spheres of influence through which we can eventually (collectively) steward institutional change and community impact.
This last piece is absolutely critical, although many continue to suggest that our own individual security and needs must come first before we can set any larger humanitarian goals. With recognition that I approach these thoughts from a position of financial stability and privilege, I would like to test this assumption, suggesting that the act of expanding our lens beyond ourselves and our own immediate needs is a necessary ingredient for the type of growth and fulfillment that we crave and need. It is also a necessary ingredient for being strategic, nimble, and an effective leader- and indisputably necessary to save and change the very systems that threaten our collective future.
Despite varying levels of realization, the status quo is no longer an option. The new frontier is about ideation and generativity- expanding opportunities and creating new spaces and models toward greater impact and opportunity. In forging our new pathways we can draw from diverse disciplines and frameworks, cobbling together a new more comprehensive toolkit with which we can empower ourselves and one another to be more mindful, strategic, and resilient. The tools exist although it is up to us to recognize their value and commit to their utilization.
At the end of the day one simple truth continues to drive me; the indisputable fact that the world needs every drop of our collective talent. Talent remains THE natural resource, bubbling up around us waiting for us to recognize its value and applications. While I continue to look forward to the day that our systems are designed to develop, harvest and leverage talent in its most varied and resplendent forms, I know that it’s up to us to make it happen. Yes, the work ahead is more complex and challenging than we may have realized, but the benefits are also exponentially more profound.
Towards a Practical and Scalable Solution for Saving our Most Precious and Vulnerable Community Systems
If we accept the premise that non-profits are both highly precious and vulnerable, then the obvious question becomes how to save them. Based on responses to my last post, https://marabhuber.com/2015/01/11/why-stability-isnt-always-a-good-thing-nonprofits-as-complex-dynamic-systems/, the complex adaptive systems approach appears to be a useful paradigm that resonates for both the modeling and theoretical community, and those in the trenches involved directly with board governance.
Towards the goal of pushing this notion further, I offer a general analysis with recommendations that are both highly practical and scalable. And although this process should apply to any non-profit system, I will focus primarily on public education since it is particularly complex and urgent with regard to community health and sustainability.
Step 1: Identify the major points of system fragility that require our focused attention and support. A review of “A Mathematical Theory of Sustainability and Sustainable Development” by Ricardo Alvira (2014) suggests that the following might be particularly salient:
- Organization of the system– the interacting parts that distinguish the system from its environment
With regard to non-profits this refers to the organization’s programs, structures, and processes that together comprise its unique identity. Alvira notes that adaptive systems move toward dissolution over time, and while there is a need to adapt and change to respond to changes in the environment, systems must maintain some internal stability in order to evolve. How non-profits “hang together” in terms of their various components represents a particular area of concern since they tend to become increasingly complex and rigid over time, due largely to diversification of funding sources and associated expectations.
- Co-evolution with the environment. Since environments are also systems that change over time, interactions between the system and its ambient environment can have significant effects on efficacy and sustainability
For non-profits, changes in the environment have significant implications for the work that is done. With regard to education, mandates and programs required or incentivized by state and federal agencies and/or funding sources can have major effects on the operations of school districts and the associated student experiences. In fact, if powerful enough, such mandates can result in entire school systems reorganizing to respond to their changing expectations. How these systems interact and influence one another is a major source of fragility and concern.
- Directionality- Adaptive systems move toward some desired state
Although non-profits are influenced by changes in the environment to which they must respond, they are ultimately steered by some aspirational vision set by their leadership. On paper, boards are often responsible for setting the vision and stewarding movement toward the desired state. And yet many boards abdicate this responsibility and control to executive directors or other paid leaders. The relationship between the vision setting and implementation for non-profits is another critical point of fragility to consider and address.
Because these three components interact in complex and unpredictable ways, any meaningful support must address all aspects simultaneously, helping the system move toward an optimal state through which it can achieve stability, nimbleness, and directionality in the face of ongoing uncertainty and change.
Step 2: Identify existing frameworks and/or processes that can offer support related to these specified structural focus areas. Because complex adaptive systems are found across so many domains of study and application, and because we have developed specialized toolkits and frameworks within these individual fields https://marabhuber.com/2015/01/03/unstuck/, it stands to reason that usable framework already exist and can be adapted and brought to scale for our current purposes.
Based on my own experiences in higher education, I would suggest that self-study frameworks associated with program accreditation offer the type of support that we are seeking. Specifically, I would suggest that the original TEAC (Teacher Education Accrediting Council) framework represents a particularly robust and useful paradigm to be explored.
In general, self-study involves a comprehensive examination of system components to evaluate and improve overall efficacy and sustainability. While different professional programs and associated accrediting bodies call for specific learning standards and competencies, they all guide organizations in the self-study process, setting standards for evidence of programmatic efficacy and quality, and offering related support and assurances.
I am particularly drawn to the TEAC framework as it emphasizes the very aspects of complex adaptive systems that we have identified through our analysis. Although these relate specifically to education related programs (associated with teacher education and educational leadership), they seem to hold for non-profits in general and certainly the public education systems that we are addressing. Specifically, the framework examines:
- Program rationale- how the program “hangs together” with regard to their various components, processes, and assessments. Programs are asked to provide a comprehensive cross-walk connecting all components both conceptually and statistically to demonstrate cohesion, stability, and relevance with regard to environmental contexts. In order to do this successfully, systems must make sense of their respective complexity, unifying programs around common philosophies, themes, and constructs toward greater clarity and stability.
- Institutional capacity- whether there is sufficient institutional buy-in and support to sustain the program. TEAC auditors meet with institutional leaders to ensure that the vision and mission of the program is supported, and those who are responsible for stewarding and implementing the program have capacity to do so even in the face of ongoing uncertainty and change. This aspect of the process gets at the “directionality” of non-profit functioning, and could address whether boards have sufficient understanding and capacity to effectively steward these complex adaptive systems.
- Quality control systems- TEAC requires that all programs have functioning quality control systems that allow them to ensure a high level of quality and consistency while effectively addressing any challenges or exceptions that should arise. A required audit forces programs to check the clarity and fidelity of their systems, identifying any issues and making appropriate changes. In the end, the quality control process cuts across all aspects of complexity that we have identified. Unless the system can consistently produce the outputs that it is designed to produce, regardless of the degree or type of variations that might occur, the system cannot ensure fidelity, efficacy, or sustainability.
As someone who has participated in the TEAC process at multiple levels, including co-leading an institutional self-study, participating in a program audit, and serving on the accreditation review process, I have witnessed the impact of the process on the organizations themselves. By simply going through the process, organizations change and tighten their programs and related functions. They become more cohesive, nimble, and effective and better positioned to select the right leaders and staff. If the process is clear with appropriate support mechanisms and staff, virtually any program or system can work through it with minimal cost and disruption, making it a highly practical solution for strengthening and ultimately saving our most complex and vulnerable non-profits.
Step 3: Identify mechanisms for bringing solution to scale.
Even if I could convince people of the value of guided self-study with regard to the stewardship of non-profits, the ultimate challenge is how to bring such frameworks to scale. To be honest, the primary (and perhaps only) reason higher education embraces these processes, is because they are mandated to do so in order to remain accredited or receive important designations that are tied to enrollments or growth. We would be delusional to think that non-profits will voluntarily embrace accreditation or self-study as a means of self-improvement. Nor should we look to regulatory bodies to mandate such processes, hoping that they will get it right and/or utilize these frameworks in an appropriate or idealized fashion.
Instead I recommend that we begin by making these frameworks available to those who naturally see the value, working with foundations that support board governance and community development and who understand the complexity and fragility associated with these areas of focus. By starting as a pilot, we can begin to study the impact of such frameworks on the efficacy of non-profits and the communities they serve.
When we are ready to bring participation to scale we can encourage the active endorsement by key funders, employers, and governmental agencies that offer resources and support on which the non-profits rely. Just as complex dynamic systems inherently re-organize to address changing environmental constraints and opportunities, so too will our community organizations as expectations for internal cohesion, nimbleness, and capacity for stewardship begin to increase.
Ultimately, we as communities and a collective society set the directionality and expectations for our non-profits. Only when we understand the inherent complexity and fragility of their work, and the preciousness of the communities they serve, can we begin to truly support and steward their potential through solutions that are both practical and scalable.
I have a fairly expansive belief policy. My kids will tell you that I believe in anything that is good. Santa Clause and Guardian Angels, yes…. evil monsters and zombies, definitely no.
This may seem like a joke, but I assure you that my policy is well thought out and quite sound.
It is grounded in the existence of infinite diversity, and the knowledge that virtually anything is possible, especially when we focus on the greater good.
From an implementation standpoint, my policy is highly robust, transferrable and scalable to most domains and settings. It allows me to scan for the positive, picking and choosing perspectives and teachings, remaining open and determined to find something of value.
From an impact standpoint, it serves many functions. By espousing such a policy people always know where I stand, especially my children who I am most interested in influencing. My policy also affords a certain protective functionality- preventing me from getting bogged down in the endless negativity and defeatism that threaten us at every turn.
To be clear, I want to be known as a dreamer, an optimist, someone who believes in infinite possibilities and potential. And so I let my curiosity and openness guide me, feeling my way forward toward new adventures, relationships, and the magic they afford.
In some ways my policy has high discriminative validity. If it resonates strongly with the policies of others, I can usually tell right away. There is a certain synergy that ignites, catalyzing collaboration, innovation, and excitement that is too apparent to be ignored.
But interestingly, my belief policy does not have the opposite repelling effect on those with more cynical tendencies. Although I have been known to madden my staunchest and most empirically minded colleagues with my openness to the worlds of the unknown, they seem to be drawn to my sense of wonderment, even if they would never admit it.
Let’s face it, the opposite of openness is not very inviting, even for those who are trapped inside. The Land of the Cynics, Skeptics, and even Realists can feel dark, desolate, and shrouded in fear. And clearly, it’s growing more crowded by the minute. Conversely, the Land of the Dreamers is infinitely inclusive and open, with endless room to stretch and explore the landscapes that continually change and reimagine themselves.
You might ask whether my belief policy is somehow counter to my training as a researcher, but I would argue that the two go hand in hand. Data and research allow us to be thoughtful and reflective, pushing the boundaries of what we know and can do. But ideally, they should be grounded in theories and world views that are strong and powerful, guiding our questions and interpretations, scaffolding us higher and further.
I concede that my approach- and associated policy- may be unconventional, but I can assure you of their inherent appeal. And since the Land of the Cynics isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, I encourage you to take a little vacation.
I will leave my door ajar, just in case you choose to visit… and stay.
I’m a sucker for vision. When a bold leader lays out a plan that is clear, compelling, and resonant, I find myself tingling with anticipation. But when the moment of visioning passes and the focus shifts to implementation and administration, I always sigh with disappointment. Another missed opportunity to commit to the standards of quality and integrity that we so desperately need.
As a person who works in the vast spaces between vision and outcomes, I could use a little help. For once, I would love our leaders to dig just a little deeper, clarifying commitments and standards in addition to goals and objectives- a value, a promise, a commitment to something real and authentic, something that we can hold on to, that will not shift or move.
Of course I can understand their reticence. In a world that is constantly changing with new threats and obstacles emerging by the moment, any promise of quality seems risky and naïve -especially in the world of higher education, with systems comprised of diverse campuses, programs, and faculty all prizing their respective freedom and independence.
So when visions are set, it is the highest and broadest metrics that are employed, essentially inventorying and counting impacts, highlighting stand-outs, while implying consistency and quality through messaging and story-telling.
To be clear, I’m not some accountability or assessment freak. Nor do I inherently like being told what to do. But I know that the very act of defining quality in a way that is meaningful and clear is often the most powerful part of the visioning and leadership process.
If we turn to the world of manufacturing, this point becomes clearer, with the specific widget or commodity dictating the design of production. Ultimately, it’s an insistence on consistency and fidelity that refines the internal mechanisms, calibrating and realigning, until the desired product is not only achieved but guaranteed.
But when we look at our own system of higher education with its disparate campuses, programs, and teaching faculty the challenge of consistency and fidelity become both daunting and critical. When a leader boldly sets a vision for the entire system, it- by definition- has the potential for great impact, but only if it is clear and consistent enough to be implemented with fidelity.
Without this assurance from the very beginning, we will continue to define quality through our own respective lenses and tendencies, failing to leverage our full potential as a powerful engine for change.
As someone who designs courses, programs, and initiatives I know that virtually anything is within our reach, especially when we have compelling and resonant goals to help inspire and guide us. But for once I wish we would just go for it, setting a high standard for quality and fidelity to which we can aspire and rise. Not only will such a standard ensure consistency and impact, but it will help us to be a better, stronger, and more relevant system, thus ensuring our sustainability for decades to come.
Today is my birthday, and I couldn’t imagine a more wonderful present than the exciting adventure that awaits us in just a few short days.
In partnership with Global Explorers and Nardin Academy, I will be heading to the Four Corners region of the US Southwest along with 18 middle graders and a phenomenal Social Studies teacher for 9 days of hiking, rafting, cultural exploration and service.
I first learned about Global Explorers (globalexplorers.org) at an education conference over 5 years ago, when I was captivated by their mission of “providing transformative journeys for students and educators…inviting you to unleash your potential to do good in the world by sending you on a mindset shattering expedition that will encourage you to live a life that matters.” Browsing through their portfolio of destinations- Tanzania, Peru, Cambodia, Candian Arctic, and dreaming about opportunities to share such experiences with children, including my own, has consumed more of my time than I should admit.
But when I began working with Nardin Academy (as both a parent and trustee) on their strategic planning process and saw their dynamic new mission statement taking shape, “helping students to develop their individual talents and cultivate their intellect, character and courage to make a difference in the world,” it seemed that Global Explorers could be a wonderful high-impact partnership. I am so grateful that Nardin leadership embraced the concept and that the trip resonated with students and parents. The notion of a 9-day adventure, sleeping outdoors without the amenities of home while being removed from all social media and technology, is a big ask for 12, 13 and 14 year olds. But the students have courageously accepted the challenge, and our adventure awaits. I should note that in addition to Nardin students, we will also have several students from City Honors High School, including 2 of my own children. These dynamics of differing grades and school cultures will add richness to the layers of experiences and lessons that will impact us in exciting- and still unknown- ways.
When I think about the missions of Global Explorers and Nardin Academy, and my work at the University at Buffalo cultivating Experiential Learning opportunities for undergraduate students, I am struck by how closely these align with my own sense of mission- as a parent, professional, and community member. The idea of utilizing our talents to make a difference in the world necessitates that we get out of our comfort zone, explore different cultures and ways of life so that we can live our own lives with purpose and impact. The more that we can engage young people in these types of high-impact experiences, the more our communities and world will ultimately benefit.
I am hopeful that this will be the first of many more Global Explorers trips to come. But for now I plan to enjoy every moment of this exciting adventure and I look forward to sharing some stories and reflections upon our return. – Mara
I guess I have issues with organized fellowship of most kinds. I blame it on being raised by parents who are intellectually suspicious of group-think and all the trappings of conventional conformity. So when I was asked to help start a Lean In Circle it was my love for making things happen rather than my endorsement of the model that led to my initial enthusiasm.
Surprisingly, I bought the book and made it through the first couple of chapters before I had enough. It’s not exactly that I didn’t like it or agree with its basic premise. It just didn’t seem sufficiently profound or complex to warrant the numerous chapters, examples, and associated exercises. So when my colleague and I invited some women from across the University to come together for our first Lean In session, I was mildly curious but not especially optimistic about the potential impact.
What transpired over the subsequent six or more sessions is noteworthy not in its earth-shattering outcomes, but instead in the rarity of what we quickly created. Our circle was comprised of women from various sectors of the University, all with varying levels of expertise, job security, and organizational influence. Although we loosely followed the Lean In model for the first few sessions, we focused primarily on sharing experiences, challenges, and news all with the promise of confidentiality and unconditional support.
In hindsight it’s perhaps surprising how quickly the trust and intimacy developed, with the two hour sessions flying by. Although not everyone could make every session, we all admitted to looking forward to our time together, and benefiting in unexpected yet meaningful ways.
Personally, I appreciated the opportunity to learn about other units, getting an up-close view of the complexities and pressures that were different yet related to my own. I also enjoyed hearing from young professionals who were more idealistic and less jaded than I, with so much commitment and possibilities still ahead of them. But perhaps most beneficial for me was the expansion of my own professional network. Within the first few sessions I was able to contact my fellow members as trusted colleagues and friends, gleaning their experience and wisdom, enabling me to be more effective while gaining more satisfaction from my time at work.
When the year was coming to a close the question was posed as to whether we should continue with our circle. For me, the formalized meetings no longer seemed necessary since the members had now become my friends who I would naturally seek out for conversation, support, and collaboration. So it was suggested that perhaps we should scale up our efforts to support more women who could benefit from the type of experience and discussions that we had come to enjoy.
This was the most interesting part. What should have been an easy email inviting women from across the University to come together to explore peer mentoring and related support, instead felt somehow risky and dangerous. All of us who sent out personalized invitations reported experiencing the same trepidation upon reviewing our contact lists. Suddenly, we worried about reporting structures, interpersonal politics and dynamics, and unanticipated consequences that our efforts might invoke.
This sense of danger and foreboding stood in such stark contrast with the natural collegiality and comfort that we had quickly found within our own Lean In circle. On one hand what we had created was exactly the type of environment that filled a significant need within our own professional and personal lives. Without any formalized changes to our respective job descriptions, reporting structures, or compensation packages, we achieved significant gains in satisfaction and a renewed investment in opportunities for growth and expanded impact. These are exactly the type of outcomes that Sandberg emphasized with regard to advancing women toward positions of greater influence and power.
Clearly, all women deserve safe spaces in which they can explore challenges and frustrations, gain perspectives and advice, and experience the support that comes with being valued and appreciated. From my own experiences I know that work feels completely different when you are surrounded by friends who are always happy to collaborate, support, and assist you regardless of the circumstances or changing environment in which you find yourself. In this type of culture you need not expend all of your energy on being strategic and preserving your own sense of security in the face of ever-changing threats and dangers. Instead, you can enjoy your work, finding satisfaction in your contributions, while exploring new opportunities for growth and challenge.
While Lean In circles are obviously not the only way to cultivate such a culture, they are certainly worth exploring as we consider our own growth or the dynamics within the organizations and structures that we lead. While I maintain that the affordances of Lean In circles shouldn’t be viewed as particularly radical or complex, they are unfortunately not as ubiquitous as we might think or even hope. Accordingly, any discomfort or trepidation should be interpreted as symptomatic of an obvious and compelling need.