I was working with a small group of women executives in a peer exchange leadership development program. They had moved through two tumultuous and revealing days together, and had generated some real insights about their unique leadership styles. A capstone activity of the program was to meet with emerging women leaders from one of their institutions to share their learning.
I walked into the room and was disappointed to see a microphone, a podium and 50 women sitting in rows.
My disappointment grew as each of the executives walked to the podium to deliver a technical, formal and impersonal speech. It was so different from the authentic and informal exchange they had been having.
From the podium came descriptions, numbers, and advice. From the chairs came polite attention, fidgeting, and silence.
My quiet disappointment turned to panic when I heard my own name come from that podium. One of the executives, perhaps reading the room (or perhaps irritated at me for including this exercise in the design) was introducing me and inviting me to take the podium. I had nothing planned and about 20 seconds to figure it out.
A phrase from Jane Vella’s Learning to Listen, Learning to Teach, came to me: “I have to get them out of their heads and into their hearts.”
Here is what I did: I said, “You have just heard leadership examples -- women who met considerable obstacles, and figured out how to move beyond those, to make big changes. Think about a time in your own life, when you exercised that kind of leadership. You met with a considerable obstacle, and you figured out how to move beyond that, and make a big change.”
I had no plan, and there was not much time, so I suggested they write a note to themselves and to share the story with partner. I predicted — and I was right — that the polite attention would turn into engagement. I did not predict what came next.
For the next 20 minutes, one woman after another stood to tell a powerful story of personal leadership, stories that their CEO could not have known. Stories that inspired tears and laughter. For that 20 minutes, the women in the “audience” were not talking about leadership, they were leading. The podium — that symbol of power that suggests there is but one leader in the room — remained empty. The learning space was being led from those chairs.
We don’t often deal in heart issues in business settings but they are always operating and leaders, facilitators, presenters, teachers do well to figure out how to get people “out of their heads” and into their hearts.
Three ideas for helping groups to “get out of their heads” and into their hearts:
- Use stories. A story contains so much more than mere statistics, advice and descriptions. The most powerful moments of that leadership exchange centered around the stories they shared. Stories convey information and they evoke emotion.
- Find a way for people to be seen, and to see themselves in the story. Change rarely comes anonymously. Organizations create too many opportunities for anonymity.
- Look for, and study, moments of accomplishment, triumph, and perseverance. Problems are interesting. Positive stories are powerful. They illuminate the assets we have with which to change the world.
What stories do you have about getting groups out of their heads and into their hearts?
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Christine Little (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Partner and Core Consultant with Global Learning Partners.