Leading in Complex Times

March 27th, 2008

In Praise of Messiness

Today is Just-spring (to quote e.e. cummings) and I am very much delighted by my neighbor's weeping cherry tree. Last week it was a small, rather sad looking stump with long bare sticks drooping toward the ground. This morning, miraculously, it is a rioting cloud of white blossoms - a seeming tumbleweed of lacy popcorn. Wow! And our old trusty mockingbird is back. I noticed him a couple of days ago - with his ability to echo the mourning doves, goldfinches, and car alarms. I'm so glad to hear him - I've been waiting for his voice.

Beautiful spring. Yet, yesterday marked the 5th anniversary of our war in Iraq. 150 protesters were arrested in San Francisco. Our federal monetary system is crumbling. California spends more on prisons than schools. The ice at the poles is melting faster than even anticipated.

And, we still keep going with purpose. My partner Kim and I just bought our first house. A good friend of mine's cancer is in remission.

These are tricky times, and in a dominant culture that demands black-or-white, polarized thinking, it can be very challenging to lead, given all the complexities. Occasionally I hear folks lamenting the "good old days" when things were predictable and orderly (did those days really exist?) We now live in a time when what we thought to be true yesterday is not true today, when we cannot predict what will happen next week, let alone next year or decade. It makes planning quite difficult.

And yet, in this uncertainty, we must lead - with vision and hope. Even if it's messy, it is essential that we do so. The world is calling us to assist in the transformation of our families, organizations, communities and nations. In order to do this, we must be steadfast in our purpose, to know why we get up in the morning, to have a strong vision for our work. Not an easy thing, but necessary.

And we can't do it alone. It takes collaboration. It takes a bunch of us, holding on to each other, reaching across boundary, border and political stance. It is risky, messy, unpredictable, fun, frustrating, exhilarating, requires a lot of courage, and is sometimes, very satisfying. In other words, the best game in town. It is kind of like a massive square dance where the tune and words vary depending on where you stand and who your partners are. Sometimes we step on toes, sometimes we move with ineffable grace.

So this is a time to grab your honey(s) and join the dance. Your particular cadence is necessary in order for the whole to work. I invite you to step in -- even as the bombs drop, even as the goslings tumble from their nests as they learn to live. Thank you for who you are and the work you do.


March 2008

BIG VISION PODCAST: Interviews with 30 Social Changemakers

Rockwood's co-founder and senior fellow, André Carothers, was recently interviewed as part of the "Big Vision Podcast," which features individuals and organizations creating positive change.

"One of the graduates emailed us the other day and said, "I thought that leadership was about cranking out my agenda, and what Rockwood did for me was pull back the other seven veils of what is required for me to get my social change aspirations made real in the world."

I think what he meant by that is that if we are to win some of the policy issues we are challenged by currently here in the beginning of the 21st century, there needs to be a new way of organizing ourselves. That new way is based significantly on what used to be called "people skills", or "soft skills." And what I say when people say, "Soft skills?" I say, "Yes, the hardest stuff you can do is the soft skills."


Of the 30 social changemakers selected for this this second anniversary edition of the Big Vision Podcast, many are Rockwood alumni, both individually and from organizations that have graduated from our programs.

On this podcast, one of the first leaders (and Rockwood alumna) you'll hear from is Alli Chagi-Starr, Art and Media Director of the Ella Baker Center, Event Chair of The Dream Reborn (Green For All), and Founder of Art in Action, Dancers without Borders, and the Radical Performance Fest.

"I think there is a challenge for all of us in our movements to change the world, to keep going and to stay inspired when we are witness to the devastation of our planet and the oppression and neglect of so many people worldwide.

I think one of the things we really need to do is build cultures of appreciation. We're so good at criticizing -- especially in progressive movements -- because there's so much to criticize and we see things that could be better.

I had an ex-Marine come by my house to put in some eco-insulation and he -- it turns out -- co-hosted the Green Fest, this eco-business event that Global Exchange and Co-op America puts on every year in the winter. He's an ex-Marine, has two sons in Iraq, is a arch Republican and right winger. We sat down and had organic tea together and talked about, you know, "What did you think of the President's address?" He's like, "Oh I don't know if I should go there because I don't know what your politics are." And I said, "Well, let's talk about it. We don't have to agree on everything, and that's what it's all about, and I bet there are a lot of things that we actually hold in common."

So I think being at a place where you are grounded enough in yourself that you can extend and embrace people who are would-be enemies and turn them into would-be allies instead... that's our work. And if we are not really interested in movement-building, we don't have to do that. We can just stay in our little camps and be right and everyone else is wrong and just be more and more right every day, but I think the challenge is, how do we build movements outside of our own small communities and bridge to other communities in ways that are respectful and meet people where they are?

It works when you look at everything as a potential blessing as opposed to a curse, or challenge, or controversy all the time and say, "What's the blessing in this moment and what can we learn from this moment and what new possibilities are here?"