This Sunday morning I had a leisurely coffee at my favorite Barnes & Noble hang out place, reading a fantastic article: "When Leadership Spells Danger" by Ronald Heifetz & Marty Linsky (2004). As I read the article, I focused on the following excerpt:
"Most of us most of the time pass up these daily opportunities to exercise leadership" (Heifetz & Linksy, 2004, p. 34).
As I thought of these "daily opportunities" I considered a critical decision I made on Friday night: I chose to end the "syllabus discussion" (a long conversation about the syllabus, in which students attempted to come up with a "syllabus consensus"). My rationale: It was getting late (9:45 pm), people were getting frustrated, the pressure was building up - not "too" hot yet, but possibly getting there. I had run this "rebuild the syllabus" exercise several times in the past, and folks always reached some sort of conclusion in about an hour. Yet there we were, 1 hour and 30 minutes into the discussion, and no end in sight.
My solution probably pleased most people (I say probably because now that I come to think about it, I really didn't ask...). I basically told the students: Go ahead and write your name on the syllabus. Keep what we have or change it - it's up to you. Great, right?
Well... maybe. On the one hand, there's nothing wrong with choices (even though I could be in for a wee bit of a messy result...). Also, it's true that the time was advancing and it's true people were tired. In my mind, we were passing the "Productive Zone of Disequilibrium" - in other words, things were getting, well, unproductive.
As I took a seat at the "Balcony" to reflect on my decision, however, I considered the following:
- The group had a problem to solve. As I solved it, I may have inadvertently sent the message that I had to step in. I embraced the full-blown role of the "expert" with the answers.
- Thing is... did I really have to step in? Couldn't students have come up with a solution the following day - even if that meant an increase in class frustration?
Perhaps not in a "typical" class. However, this class is different. This is supposed to be a leadership laboratory... a metaphor for the real world. The real world begs for collaborative team work. Therefore, team work is a strong need within this class. In other words: we're not working so hard on "building a community" just for show and tell. Instead, we're all learning how to build a community - from scratch and under less than ideal circumstances.
Working as a team requires team accountability and team commonality in goals. That's hard work. It's also work that could result in losses - and risks. One major risk is the fact that a classmate could be responsible for a significant part of a colleague's grade. Another risk is the discomfort of giving meaningful feedback (feedback that counts) to a colleague. Thus, if I am correct, my "solution" helped the group avoid its challenge (and its risks) entirely.
When I spoke to the class the following morning, I acknowledged that I had stepped outside of the "leadership" world. I suggested that I had acted within the scope of my authority (no one could doubt that I do have the authority to create and enforce a syllabus). I also argued that as "the only person at the balcony" during the discussion, I came to the conclusion that the container was getting too hot and equilibrium had to be restored.
Only... I realize now that I wasn't at the balcony. Not really. I was on the dance floor with everyone else. I was dancing on my own and in silence... but dancing I was. Here are some of my unspoken thoughts at the time, rescued during this morning's time of self-reflection:
- Are they going to transform this into a "one grade" deal? Uh-oh... this is a wee bit too risky. It's always nice to have more than one grade in the mix.
- Where''s that deal of "we all get an A" coming from? I am not a tough grader necessarily but I don't think I want to commit to "everyone gets an A." I am responsible for assigning fair grades, after all.
- But... if you're all planning to do amazing graduate level work, then why are you all so concerned with whether you're getting an A or not? (of course amazing work deserves an A... I ain't crazy...)
- Are we reducing the scope of this project? Is it going to become a rather shallow "here's a power point," deal with no citations, no real data? So not what I had in mind (oh boy... I'm in trouble).
- Are my supporters getting frustrated? Are students going to start thinking that "I'm not acting as a leader" and making a decision already?
- Oh no... are they going to start fighting with one another now?
* * * * * * * * * * *
I write this at the end of the day - ready to stop working, turn off the computer, and enjoy a nice evening with my family. At this point, I'm not as worried with my own loss (I'm sure I can come up with a reasonable technical solution to the due dates issue). Instead, I am thinking about the learning opportunity for the class. Indeed, I believe I should share with the class (through this blog) my honest perceptions and reflections.
A few questions for discussion:
- What is the group's adaptive challenge? Do you agree with my diagnosis? Would you offer alternative explanations?
- Did you personally step up as a leader? When? How?
- What were your best moments during the discussion? What are you proud of? (remember appreciative inquiry - some things went really well! don't fall into the trap of ignoring them...)
- Looking back, what do you think you personally could have done to help the group reach a consensus?
- What did I do that you totally supported at the time?
- Upon further reflection, what do you think now I should have done? (same thing? something different?)