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Developing a Leadership Community

, | February 6, 2024

by Brian McDonald

Today’s Tuesday Reading is from Brian McDonald, Founder of MOR Associates.  Brian may be reached at [email protected] or via LinkedIn.

Every MOR Leadership Cohort starts as a group of people from various roles and places. In some cases, they may share the same employer, yet they are likely not to have met each other. These strangers meet on Zoom initially. Then, with some trepidation, they convene in person with the MOR facilitators, encouraging all to embrace this opportunity.

On the first day, the apprehension is palpable. Some choose to find a seat and seek the comfort of their phone, thus avoiding an awkward stare as others join the table. The more sociable participants reach out to introduce themselves and enjoy meeting these new colleagues.

This day one hesitancy is exacerbated in the MOR Leaders Program, given the Learning Team assignments to do a ten-minute presentation on leadership with colleagues you have only met virtually. Those presenting nervously look at their notes, wishing they had practiced their lines more. One participant, Dennis, told me he had been anxious and preoccupied with his 2-minute segment for the past ten days, reciting it over and over.

Yet, by the end of the first workshop, this group of strangers becomes a cohesive and caring leadership community. In most cohorts, participants feel safe, supported, and encouraged to use this opportunity to stretch, knowing their colleagues are in this with them.

What contributes to the dramatic transformation from a group of individuals unfamiliar with each other to an inclusive, close-knit cohort that genuinely wants to help one another grow?

The design has many features intended to enable participants to connect more readily while building the climate and trust that provides psychological safety.

In the MOR Leaders Program, two activities immediately begin influencing the openness and the climate, signaling that this is a different experience than most training classes. Asking participants to engage in feedback and feedforward within the first hour of the first day requires people to lower their defenses while experiencing that these exercises are constructive and insightful. No one criticizes the person who is upfront, no one has a motive to take them down a notch. People honestly offer their perspectives, sharing what the individual did well and what they could do differently or better.

Another activity starting on day one involves sharing a few leadership lessons. Every participant has had various life experiences that have offered them learning moments. It could be a teacher who encouraged the individual to pursue their potential. Or a parent who, through their life experiences, exhibited the courage needed to navigate difficult circumstances. Or the leader who took credit for other people’s work and exhibited a behavior the participant realized wasn’t what they wanted to emulate.

These leadership journeys, as they are called, are a wonderful part of the MOR Leader workshops. Participants recollect these life lessons, including the positives and the rough patches. As each individual tells their story and highlights the lessons learned, openness, vulnerability, and intimacy transport this group of strangers into this trusting, caring community.

Having had the privilege of hearing thousands of leadership journeys over the years, I know that when someone stands up to tell their story, it can be a transfixing moment. It is a chance to hear about the path they have traveled. It is a window into how diverse our backgrounds and life experiences are. No one is judging. Everyone listens intently and then applauds, for it takes courage to share so openly.

We also get to learn from each other’s experiences. Three lessons are takeaways for anyone on a leadership track.

The first is highlighted by Justin as one of his early lessons. The next morning, Justin was scheduled to attend a tech demonstration with his manager. His boss was going to give a talk to the 200 teachers in attendance at this event. The night before, his manager called to say he wasn’t feeling well and said, “Justin, you’ll need to stand in for me and give this talk.” Justin, in his early twenties, barely got any sleep that night. The next day, Justin somehow pulled himself together and spoke to the group. The lesson Justin shares in his leadership journey is: “My ability zone was far larger than my comfort zone.” Continuing to push beyond one’s comfort zone and learning from reflection can ultimately grow the comfort zone in sustainable ways that are important for development. This may be a lesson for everyone, particularly those in any MOR program.

Another lesson several participants and visiting leaders offer is to learn to “Say Yes.” Opportunities will come, and you may be too busy, reluctant, or unsure if you could do whatever it is, so you decline. Taking on a new project, stepping in as the interim, applying for a new role, helping out with a complex problem, and taking a lateral position when asked to contribute in another realm are all opportunities where leaders can gain invaluable experience, better positioning them for the future. It is easier to stay in place, to remain in your comfort zone doing what you do. It takes courage to “Say Yes.” If, when opportunities come along, you learn to say yes, you will continue to grow.

When Marissa Kelly, President of Suffolk University, was asked what made the most significant difference in her career path, she responded two things: having the confidence to say yes to many growth opportunities and strong mentors.

Gary, who participated in MOR early in his career, was busy building the technology infrastructure in embassies worldwide, working for the USIA with the State Department. Meanwhile, back in the States, it was a presidential election year. Gary was aware, though not particularly focused on this, as he was in the middle of Africa fulfilling his mission to outfit these embassies. Little did Gary realize when the new President was elected, all the senior roles, including at USIA, were subject to appointment by the incoming administration, and the environment changed dramatically. Gary soon was advised by colleagues to look for other work. The lesson Gary and others share as leaders is that we all need to have a Plan B.

What lessons have you learned from your life experience that influence your approach to leading? Reflecting on the people, events, and experiences that have taught you lessons about leadership will reveal what informs your leadership philosophy.

Last week, we asked what existing habit you can use to stack a new habit onto.

  • 36% said daily walk to maintain work/life balance (and get some fresh air)
  • 27% said intentional defensive calendaring
  • 19% said reflect daily for 10 minutes instead of weekly
  • 18% said practice gratitude in the morning and at dinner with family

As discussed last week, one approach to creating sustainable change is to modify our processes or habits. The premise of stackable habits is building a new habit on an existing habit. It is so wonderful that so many of us have the habit of a daily walk, defensive calendaring, reflection, and gratitude so firmly in place that we can consider stacking a new habit on each of them. As with any habit, intentionality is key. What is the change you want to see and what are you going to do to make it happen?