Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Leadership from a position of weakness

Tonight, I was part of a "workshop" whose goal was to develop a set of criteria and priorities for a proposed road construction project. The meeting was packed by members of a local golf club, because a couple of the proposed elements would encroach on their golf course. Feelings were high, and they all had a single agenda, focusing intently and almost solely on the elements to which they objected, although those were fairly minor components of the overall project.

Thus, I found myself at a table where I and one other person were the only 2 out of 12 people who were not members of the golf club. The meeting planners had developed a structure within which we were to work, and each table was supplied with a facilitator. Our facilitator did a great job, but at times was almost overwhelmed with the spate of emotion pouring from the club members. I found myself acting as a mediator, and to some extent leader, trying to help her guide the discussion along the planned lines.

Our first goal was to brainstorm evaluation criteria for the project -- that is to decide what measurements of success were important to the group. The club members, for the most part, were having trouble moving from "I don't want X to happen" to criteria that would be satisfied if X did not happen. But we did manage to get there eventually. I think that my examples and explanations helped that movement, that I helped motivate the group to move from focusing on their joint desired goal to producing a set of criteria, a list of reasons, if you will, that supported their desired goal.

I used a number of tools. I used, truthfully, statements such as "that's an important point" and "I think I see what you're saying". Usually, that would be followed by restated what they said in my own words. For example, one person said "I don't want any trees cut down", and I might have said "I see that is important to you, so one of your criteria would be preservation of existing vegetation?" It sounds almost hokey when I write it down, but it worked in practice.

The facilitator thanked me for my assistance at the end of the evening. So I think that I did help lead the group. In order to do that, I had to be able to see outside myself, to at least partially understand their motivations, and to work with their motivations to help them change "I don't want" into "this is what I want and why."

Have you found yourself in a situation like this, perhaps at work or church or school? How did you deal with it? What might you do differently next time?

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