1/15 – Giving birth to Authentic Leadership in Action

Michael Chender

Michael Chender

Michael Chender

Michael Chender

Authentic Leadership in Action — ALIA — had its first program in 2001 as the Shambhala Institute, subsequently named the Shambhala Institute for Authentic Leadership. It has operated continually since then, and in November 2014 merged with the Authentic Leadership program at Naropa University to create Naropa’s Authentic Leadership Center. What follows are my own views on some of the things that we have learned on this journey.

ALIA began out of an ongoing conversation among a group of students of the Tibetan Buddhist meditation master and social visionary Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. A number of us had been involved in the beginnings of what is now Naropa University, in Boulder, Colorado, an outstanding innovator in contemplative education in the mid-1970s. Some of us had since moved to Nova Scotia where Trungpa Rinpoche had felt the traditional teachings of wisdom and compassion could contribute to the long-term development of the kind of sane society the world was desperately going to need.  Twenty-five years later, we were looking for how we could recreate the freshness and creativity of Naropa in a new context.

A few of us who were business consultants and entrepreneurs, as well as Buddhist teachers were inspired by reading Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline, an early and very practical book that applied “living systems” perspectives to business and organizations, based on Senge’s work at MIT on what makes for the most effective leaders. The practices he espoused, including dialogue, systems thinking and scenario planning, seemed to have their root in a view of openness, interdependence and untapped human potential that fit well with our understanding of Buddhism, and we felt could be enhanced by, meditation practice. We were experienced at putting on large gatherings so Ken Friedman, Joe Litven, David Sable and myself decided to put on a one-off conference that would mix these collaborative organizational practices with meditation, and with the contemplative arts (as Naropa had pioneered two decades before).

Our first challenge was that collectively we knew hardly anything about these collaborative practices. We began to learn together, and invited our friend Susan Skjei, who had already been doing some of this work, and a few other friends into the conversation. The form and power of the circle was new to most of us, having come out of a hierarchical spiritual tradition. There was a lot of excitement about the project, which was amplified as we got Mr. Senge and a number of his associates on board for the first program.

Creating the Program and Learning Environment

Then we came to what has been for me an enduring and pointed lesson:

The need for flexibility to move between (the collaborative) circle and the (hierarchical and action-oriented) triangle method of organization.

The use of the circle is a key to the openness and inclusivity of ALIA but early on we became stuck in disagreements about details -the wording of our brochures and basic marketing–and a few individuals essentially stopped the process. We ended up postponing our first program for a year and then going through a traumatic reorganization. Here we experienced the potentially fatal attraction of overreliance on the circle. We learned that the period of implementation or “campaigns” with very specific goals, rather than exploration, demands a different energetic quality — one geared to action, with ultimate decision-making vested in a trusted individual. This demanded a maturity and trust in the operating group to not overly identify with specific roles and relationships as we switched hats back and forth between the eye-level open exchange of the circle and the task-oriented accountability of the triangle (or pyramid).

 Walking the talk of authenticity

At the same time, we couldn’t just go crazy in the name of expediency. We realized early on that we would need to faithfully embody in our internal processes the principles of authentic leadership that we were presenting in our programs. Specifically, we couldn’t “lose our minds” in frenzied speed behind the scenes and then come out on stage smiling (a common experience of putting on big events); it would undermine the authenticity and power of the environment we wanted to create. Of course this is an aspiration and a journey since we are all human and creatures of habit. The metric for success was that relatively little “back channel” gossip and politicking would take place outside of meetings because people would feel they could speak honestly in front of each other in the meetings themselves.

Encouraging creative tension

One of the aspects of “authenticity” (which we have never tried to tie to a specific definition) is the willingness to be in a state of uncertainty or ambiguity — not to narrow things to black and white for our own psychological comfort.

Appreciating diversity, we started with two very different co-directors, Susan Szpakowski and Bob Ziegler, in order to create a leadership dynamic that was both detail-oriented and generative. It worked quite well for the first few years, however we moved to a single director (Susan) when we found that tension began to stifle creativity. I think this was at least partly a leadership problem on my own part. As the chair at the time, I didn’t give enough attention to the staff to be able to work with this more effectively on an ongoing basis. It seems to me that the underlying creative challenge of “authentic leadership” — of holding opposites in an ever-changing balance — needs to have this dynamic well reflected in leadership and management.

Content of the Program

 Importance of an overarching view

In our context we talk about this central challenge of leadership as joining reflection and action. We need to recognize the appropriate time for, and have the courage to engage each when appropriate, so that the result is wise action, rather than the expression of a habitual allegiance to either impulsively acting or overly deliberating. This is a difficult and often unarticulated challenge of leadership. When we are exploring, listening, contemplating, inquiring, we are open to and saying YES to our experience, to looking directly at whatever arises. Once we decide on a next step, the moment of clear action is saying NO quite definitely to all the other possibilities, second thoughts, hesitations and fears that might crowd in on us. The sequential dance between reflection and action ideally continues as feedback arises and consequences unfold. As individuals we tend to be more comfortable or skilled in one rather than the other; we need to learn to wield both. There are similar challenges/opportunities in joining masculine and feminine styles, in working with the balance of yielding and stubbornness, and so on.

So the opening talk at the beginning of the program, which establishes a perspective for everything that follows — has been about “holding ambiguity,” including our own simultaneous clarity and confusion, as a key starting point for engaging these challenges of authenticity and of leadership.

 Creating the container

From our training with Chogyam Trungpa, we were interested more in creating environments where insight and connection would occur than we were in downloading information—although we had plenty of the latter. Just as sitting in meditation with a dignified posture, a strong back and an open front invites our minds to relax and deepen, so a few “simple rules” about organizing the learning environment can give birth to an enormous flowering of individual and communal insight. There is a lot to say about the idea of creating containers, and lots of subtleties. It needs real attention to detail —aesthetics and the physical environment, as well as the details of time and schedule and the participants’ predictable up and down journey over a number of days.  The various aspects of the content — organizational practices, meditation talks and practice, and creative process exercises need to naturally resonate in a common view so it’s a beautiful meal rather than an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Meditation was presented in the penetratingly pragmatic style of Chogyam Trungpa, and we made sure that four teachers with very different styles led the daily meditation and gave talks on different aspects of the personal journey of bringing mindfulness and awareness to leadership. The creative process sessions joined perception and expression, and sparked direct, non-conceptual experience. Lots of people seem to have had major Aha! experiences in these sessions.

To be effective, our container needs to be both porous and have definite boundaries around what choices the participant can make. We could say it needs to be wide open for certain things and impenetrable for others. This choicelessness and even slight claustrophobia helps discourage participants from being seduced by their/our own occasional impulses to hide from the “learning edge.”  This is particularly the case as the length of the program is designed to ensure plenty of opportunities to get bored and irritated, which we feel is quite helpful to the transformative process.

We also refer to the “qualities of the container” as both being and promoting hospitality, inquiry and nowness.

 Welcoming diversity.

The integrity of the container allows it to host and nurture all kinds of different expressions, with no pressure for anyone to conform to a “party line.” Another way of saying this is that ALIA provides a big tent with lots of different people and traditions holding the poles that support the tent, standing on a common ground. That common ground is both definite — rooted in a particular tradition — and very open; capable of being expressed in many languages and idioms. And indeed in its early years ALIA served as an incubator and amplifier for a number of new movements and approaches, including World Café, Art of Hosting, and Theory U, and they in turn became key aspects of ALIA.

Broad intergenerational participation

We learned that broad intergenerational participation was critical if we were to build for the future that younger people would inhabit, and also benefit from the lived lessons of history. We experienced this in our second year when we were sponsored to host a dozen “emerging leaders” from around the world and they brought incredible further life and energy to the program. In fact we found that the cohort of every decade of life brings a different view, a different need and a different gift to our gatherings. Year by year we have had varying degrees of success making sure both younger and older people are well represented in our programs, and younger people in our governance. Some of the difficulty has been tied to the financial challenges of raising scholarship funds for youth.

As youth have become empowered in our governance structures, there has been some impatience with the older leaders “hanging on” to power and to (perceived) fixed ideas.  And on the other side, the atmosphere of constant innovation that younger creative people have grown up in may seem to the older cohort to sometimes blend imperceptibly into neurotic speed and a lack of sufficient respect for learning from history

These are of course age-old dynamics and another great opportunity for challenging dialogue and for all of us holding things, “not too tight, not too loose” — as the Buddha famously instructed a musician in how to relate to their mind in meditation.

 Organizational Review

There is an organizational life cycle

After our strong success of the first few years, we continued to tweak the program but left the major elements in place, and focused on the same learning disciplines. While attendee satisfaction with the program remained extremely strong, our rate of returnees, high in the first few years, fell steadily; our overall numbers also fell in recent years. We resisted changing for the sake of trying to stay on the leading edge; at the same time we slowly became victims of our own success. We found ourselves on a hamster wheel of paying off old debt with revenues from the next program, which didn’t allow us the mental space to truly innovate.

In recent years we have been receiving increasing interest from ALIA alumni in creating ongoing “hubs” of ALIA activities around the world, but haven’t had the financial and operational base to really do this justice.

In my opinion, we had gotten stuck in an over-focus on the collaborative — one part of leadership, and certainly a necessary corrective to the conventional view of leadership fifteen years ago—to the exclusion of the individual, the alone quality of leadership. This element I feel is increasingly ready to be reclaimed from being tarnished with the brush of “command and control”.

 Evoking clarity for the next move on the ground of “no retreat”

So our twelve person Governing Council (Board) decided in 2013 that ALIA needed a refreshing that couldn’t be accomplished simply by tweaking — we couldn’t get “there” from “here.” We weren’t sure where “there” was but our community was asking for more than we were providing.

We decided not to schedule any more programs, which meant that a debt snowball would hit us and we would either find the right partner to give ALIA financial and operational stability to powerfully move forward, or we would enter a phase where we would attempt to “die with dignity,” — find a way to pay off as much of our debts as we could and bless all our friends to carry on with the many current and aspiring initiatives associated with ALIA. Cutting off retreat routes in this way for your own troops is “fighting on death’s ground” — it makes for some very inspired fighters!

The Governing Council came together this summer to create a new executive committee, including a new chair (the previous one, our third chair, had reached the end of their term) to take us through this transition period. It was quite unclear where we would end up. The friendship, good-heartedness, and mutual respect that had been built up through years of transparency and deep dialogue with each other allowed us together to cross in two days of meetings what might otherwise have been an unbridgeable gap. We spent a long time telling our individual stories of ALIA, and building a shared view of our history, and this provided the common ground to take the next step. We all agreed on the same people to take us forward, and they graciously took on a tough mandate. Behind this we felt the support of a wide network of committed volunteers and friends that wanted ALIA to continue and expand.

In November of 2014 we very happily concluded an agreement with Naropa University that will see the authentic leadership efforts of both organizations combine into an Authentic Leadership Centre under Susan Skjei, one of the founders of ALIA and also the founder of Naropa’s Authentic Leadership program. Naropa, a recognized pioneer and leader in contemplative education has been also developing a focus on building leadership capacity for social change, and we are looking forward to what we can do together in this new and powerful incarnation.

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About the Author

Michael Chender has been a dedicated student and teacher of Buddhism since 1970 and later the companion secular teachings of Shambhala under the social visionary Chogyam Trungpa. In 1973 he gave up his dream of being a translator and took over his father’s mining and metals industry consulting business on the latter’s untimely death, and in 1981 founded Metals Economics Group (MEG), which became a recognized leader in competitor intelligence and strategic information products and services for the global mining industry. This seemingly unlikely combination, leavened by raising three powerful daughters with his wife Julie, may have opened his mind a crack, and the idea of founding the Shambhala Institute (now ALIA) entered in 1999. He was the chair of the Institute until 2007, and continues to serve on its Governing Council, which has just taken on an advisory role following ALIA’s recent joining with Naropa University.

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1 Comment

  1. andrew on February 20, 2015 at 12:45 am


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