Tuesday, October 15, 2013

How I came to work in leadership development and why I love what I do

Originally published on the Owl, Fox & Dean Blog. 

People often ask me how I got into this work, here's how (and why I love it).

I've worked on many different kinds of projects throughout my career. Real estate, start-up business ventures, economic development initiatives, rural community building, collaborative story-telling... meaningful projects that I believed to be viable, and knew that if successful, would help to make the world a better place

Though so much time, energy and money was invested in these projects, many broke down, fell apart, or failed to launch.

One day, during a stakeholder meeting as I watched those involved argue and fail to understand each other, I realized that one reason these projects were breaking down was because of poor communication amongst those involved. People did not understand each other nor were they being understood. I saw them grow frustrated and resentful until they ultimately couldn't work together.

I was inspired to figure out what the issue was and how to solve it. I knew that is breakdown must be happening to meaningful projects and ventures all over the world.

What was lost? What opportunities were not seized? What potential was not actualized?

I set out to understand the science of communication. I studied and developed my own ability to communicate effectively both one-on-one and broadly to large groups of people by paying attention to the subtleties in my behavior, my energy, the language I used, how I told a story, what resonated, what influenced people and my ability to listen and be heard, to understand and be understood.

As I continued to focus on communication, I noticed that there was something special about the projects that did get off the ground, something unique about the people involved.  I realized that it had to be more than the variable of communication that caused some teams to succeed and some to breakdown and fail. I wanted to understand what allowed some teams to thrive, certain people to understand and be understood, and some people to resolve conflict and inspire those around them. There had to be something deeper going on. While communication is critical there was yet more to learn.

Was it something external? Was it the viability of what they were working on? Was it a natural chemistry between the people? Was it luck?  Was it that some people, some personalities, had the natural ability to succeed?

I found and studied the discipline of systems thinking and systems design as a way to illuminate all of the moving parts in a system, how to identify leverage points for change; how to get to the bottom of things and design better systems, projects, and businesses. I also studied my own behavior, beliefs, and emotions, becoming hyper aware of my own actions and abilities to communicate, understand and be understood. I learned to use my voice, resolve conflict, build teams, and inspire those around me. I experienced myself and the people around me stretch and grow as humans and develop as leaders.

All projects and organizations, at a human level, are manifestations of the good, the bad, and the ugly of all those involved. It became so obvious that more meaningful projects and businesses would be successful if people had the leadership ability to inspire and creatively lead those around them. More ideas and more potential would be realized if people understood that they always have the opportunity to grow and develop as leaders, and make the projects they touch and those they lead more successful.

Every system, however complex or simple, has a set of variables that if left unchanged will continue to allow the system to function. For better or for worse.

Humans are innately developmental. Physically. Mentally. Emotionally. Spiritually. We are not hard wired to handle every situation the same way every time we're faced with a challenge. We grow, we stretch, we learn, we adapt, and we evolve to become more skilled at survival, at being successful. We've been doing it for hundreds of thousands of years. It’s how we've changed the natural systems around us and the systems we've created.

Everyone... every single person, working on anything, in any aspect of their lives has the ability to develop their capacity to understand themselves better, use their voice, negotiate and resolve conflict, and inspire and creatively work with the people around them.

Everyone has the ability to increase their capacity to develop as leaders and because of this, leadership development is the ultimate leverage point to change a system.

Leadership is the ultimate leverage point for positive, productive, and creative change in the world and I have the privilege and the honor of helping people realize their leadership potential and create bad-ass ventures.

That's why I love what I do.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Can technology save us all?

It seems that everyday I hear about a new technology that is going to save the world. Whether it's a new clean tech solution to help us meet our energy needs or materials that can "think" and adapt to their surroundings, there are incredible minds inventing incredible technologies that will no doubt change the world. So, can these technologies save us all from the monumental challenges we face?

No.

Well really the answer is more nuanced, and perhaps if I slightly rephrase my question we can begin to delve into why.

Can technology, alone, save us all?

I recently traveled to Cambridge and Boston (MA) with my friend and colleague, Ben, and among other things, attended the MIT Sustainability Summit hosted by the Sloan School and held at the Media Lab. The Media Lab is arguably, the "Mecca" of innovation and technology and represents the East Coast academic hub of the maker movement. Think, 3D printing, 4D printing, and cars that drive themselves, for a start. Along with an admirable speaker lineup, the venue was one of the main attractions for attending. The conference was impressive, as was the venue. With views of the Boston skyline, surrounded by innovative design, and among passionate intelligent people, it was hard not to be inspired.

Stark white, modern, and thoughtfully designed, the interior of the Media Lab welcomed close to 300 people convening to talk about innovative solutions and sustainable business applications that address the world's most wicked problems. Just two days prior, Ben and I were welcomed into a much more humble space that is aiming to do a very similar thing. 

Industrial, gritty, and built with purpose, Greentown Labs is a 17,500 square foot incubator space with the mission of providing space for clean tech entrepreneurs to "get dirty, bend metal, and make noise." Located in the Fort Point Channel neighborhood in Boston, Greentown Labs is home to 26 clean tech start-ups, many of which have come out of MIT and other local institutions. From high altitude, helium filled, portable wind turbines to dirt batteries, this space serves as home to many companies that will surely make in impact. Again, it was hard not to be inspired.

What these experiences, these spaces (along with the "Sustainability Unconference" at the Cambridge Innovation Center we stumbled upon) each demonstrate, are the power of collaboration and deep human desire for community. The outcomes, the tangible products of these spaces are technologies that we may all use someday,  technologies that may change or even help to save the world. Not always apparent and somewhat intangible are the sparks of collaboration and the inspiration and support of a community built on purpose.

It is because of the inherent power of collaboration and our deep desire for community that the technology, alone, cannot save us. Technology helps us meet surface level needs, very real needs that allow us to thrive while collaboration and community help us meet our deeper level needs, those that allows us to be inspired and imagine and those that hold us accountable drive us to make ourselves and the world a better place.

Can technology save us all? No.

Can technology imagined and inspired by a supportive community and made possible and durable through collaboration save us all? I hope so, because really, what are we trying to save if not the communities we are a part of and the world that supports us and allows us to thrive?