Emerging Leaders in Open Space

 Open Space event for the 2012 Class of Leadership Fairfax’s Emerging Leaders Institute Program. This is a group of thirty-five bright young leaders who are in early-to-mid career and looking to make an impact in both their organizations and their community (Fairfax County).

This was the culmination of a 9-month program that involved classroom leadership skills training plus engaging in small team service projects that tangibly contribute to non-profit organizations. The goal of my day with them was to have them look back (capture what they had learned over the program) as well as look ahead (explore the application of this learning, going forward in their careers).

Open Space seemed a perfect fit for this objective. (For more information, go to Open Space.)

  • It pushes accountability over to the group to develop the agenda topics in real time during the day and it allows individuals to propose any topic–anything goes–and commit to lead a discussion around it.
  • It taps into (and intensifies) the energy of the group by allowing them to focus on what’s important or interesting to them.

The umbrella theme I chose for the day was, “Our ELI Year…So What?”

And what a neat day it was! The topics people came up with were wide-ranging and appealing. They were:

  • Conceptual (“Leadership vs. Power” & “Why Are There Poor Leaders and Inefficient Organizations?”)
  • Practical (“Lessons Learned from Our Community Service Project” & “Keeping Our ELI Relationships Alive after We’ve ‘Emerged’ ”)
  • Creative (“How to be the Wolf” & “Is OVI [captain of the Washington Capitals] a Good Leader?”)
  • Career applying (“Dealing with Ineffectual Leaders Who Happen to Be Our Boss” & “Social Media: How to Present Yourself as a Leader Online”)

And coolest of all, five people met to discuss the topic, “When to Lead, When to Follow–Year One of Marriage.”

The participants really got into the day. Introverts felt more comfortable speaking and contributed more. There was a rich free flow of ideas. The small group discussion format where people coalesced around a common interest provided a safe, non-judgmental setting. Some of the less assertive members of the class came to the fore. Several attendees said it was the best day of the entire program.

But discussing leadership was not the sole purpose of the day. They were also learning about leading…in real time. The session required that individual participants step up, propose a topic, and lead the discussion. It was an event that, essentially, began as leaderless. The group had to step in and fill the vacuum. In a debrief at the end, I asked them to reflect on how–and whether–they chose to take a leadership role today.

The Open Space methodology brought this group together in new ways and they got to know one another at a deeper level. Summaries of the content of the discussions were emailed to the group within 24 hours of the event.

I had a blast. The work I do at the middle and executive levels involves me primarily with older people, Boomers and older Gen X. Of course, as long as I don’t retire, my work will increasingly expose me to this younger demographic. I look forward to it!


Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect What I’m Reading

Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect by Matthew D. Liberman

This book has been anticipated in the NeuroLeadership Community for some time now. Lieberman is a noted neuroscientist and professor at the University of California.

He builds on a decade of discoveries about how our brains respond to people in our environment. He challenges Abraham Maslow (of “needs hierarchy” fame), declaring that, in fact, the primary human need is connection, rather than food and safety. He explains how the pain of social rejection, shame, and exclusion from our groups registers in the same brain areas as does physical pain.

Then he shows how our brains have evolved sophisticated mechanisms to secure our place in our social world, be it family, work department, or community group. Leaders would be well served to know something about how they and those they lead are continually striving–mostly subconsciously–to harmonize their connections with their boss, peers, and customers.

Be cautioned, however, that, like last month’s book, Social is not a light read.