Leadership is not about the leader. Management is not about the manager. Teaching is not about the teacher. If we think the people we’re working with need to learn a lesson from us, that’s a sure sign that we’re thinking about ourselves rather than about them.
Here’s a cautionary tale.
At a conference on experiential education in the corporate sector, a trainer named Melinda presented one of her intervention techniques that she thought we could all learn something from. It was a disaster.
Melinda asked us to bring something of ours that we cared about; jewelry, journal, photo, whatever, though she advised us not to choose something too fragile. She arranged us in a circle and invited us to put our objects together on the floor in the centre. She asked us to look at them and think of why we care about them. She asked us to write out the story of our objects, how they came to us, how we have held them, what they mean to us, how it feels to be separated from them.
Melinda engaged us in this appreciative reflection for several minutes, building up our connection with our objects, and then in the middle of our writing, she suddenly stepped into the centre and started kicking the objects around, stomping on the ones that wouldn’t break, trashing everything.
We were all outraged, insulted, hurt. We felt set up and betrayed.
Melinda explained by asking, “What so-called precious thing do you need to destroy to liberate your potential for the future?” She uses this with corporate clients, those she has worked with for a while, when she feels they are stuck in old ways.
Whatever our reaction, we had to admit that Melinda’s technique was powerful. The exercise was real, visceral and mind-stopping, and allowed us to see very clearly for a moment our emotional attachments. We all knew of course the importance of looking at how emotions can get in the way of innovation in the business world.
The problem was, our anger at Melinda completely distracted us from the lesson she wanted to teach. She had made herself the focal point.
She might have invited us to try throwing our objects into the trash can (if just for a moment), or we might have given them away to each other, or she might have asked us to imagine destroying them ourselves. But Melinda deprived us of making the experience our own by putting herself in the spotlight. By forcing her lesson on us she made herself the agent of change. She gave us no chance to practice changing our attitude ourselves.
This meant that rather than learning something about how we might be stuck in our attachment, we couldn’t get past feeling angry at her. It was all about her.
When we create a learning situation for a group we must stay out of the centre of it. The participants are in the centre, and it’s their territory. If after the exercise they remember us more than their experience of learning, then we have failed.
As leaders, or teachers (and the difference is small), our mantra must always be, “It’s not about me.”(For more on leaders who know how not to get in the way, click here.)