LG11: Onward

I hope that your holidays were restorative and that your 2021 is beginning as well as it can. In addition to spending this morning getting myself rebooted for the upcoming semester, I’m posting the final section of the draft of Leading Generously. I spent a fair bit of time over the break thinking about the path forward, including a number of keywords I want to add and a number of people whose input I want to seek. If you have thoughts to share, please let me know, either here or via email at kfitz @ kfitz.info. I’ll look forward to posting further updates here as they emerge.

Previously:

* * *

What’s next.

Ordinarily, this is where I would present a conclusion that might serve to put together the pieces of what you’ve read to this point. In the case of this guide, however, concluding is hard: there isn’t one overarching argument to be reiterated, and there isn’t a definite outcome to be highlighted. It’s all but impossible to conclude, in fact, when the work is just beginning.

So what’s called for here, at the end of this book, is less a conclusion than a benediction of sorts: a blessing for your path ahead. Because this is where I hand the project over to you and your collaborators. You know your on-the-ground situation far better than I ever could. You know where the opportunities for change lie, and where the resistance sits, and you know the colleagues you can work with to develop the best collection of ideas for moving forward.

What remains is just a few last words of advice for the road, things to bear in mind as you plan the work in front of you.

1. Be patient — but not too patient.

Change is slow. Building coalitions is time-consuming work. Listening to those around you, really trying to understand where they are and what they need, and developing the trust necessary to working together — all of this requires deep patience, and a willingness to take the time to put together something lasting.

On the other hand, as you no doubt know all too well, stalling is a time-honored practice of those resistant to change. Delays, slow-walking, and more and more meetings, all can serve as a means of frustrating those who are seeking to transform an institution, who are suffering under its status quo.

Finding the balance between patience and insistence can be a challenge. The goal is to maintain momentum, and to ensure that you don’t wear yourself and your colleagues out over the long haul. There will be progress, and there will be setbacks, and keeping focused throughout requires the right combination of hard work and stopping to breathe.

So be patient with yourself most of all. Recognize that you might be learning how to navigate new systems and new relationships, and that learning can be exhausting. Taking some time to recharge in order to return to work at full strength is not a delay; it’s a necessity.

2. Be prepared — but stay nimble.

The terrain you’re navigating has some features that are well-known. There are undoubtedly processes for getting revised policies and structures approved that you should be familiar with, such as how you get a proposal on a committee’s agenda and where it goes from there. There are also personalities involved, people who are likely to respond to proposals in ways that are more or less predictable. Preparing for both the processes and the personalities is crucial.

However, you don’t want to prepare so thoroughly that you can’t cope with sudden changes or take advantage of new opportunities as they present themselves. The business world has come to think of this in terms of agility: the ability to change course, to pivot, to innovate. And there’s something important that I think we can learn from that notion of agility, if with a bit of caution: changing course on a dime, innovating for innovation’s sake, can be more destructive than constructive.

If you think about adaptation to circumstances less in terms that sound like blowing with the wind, and more in terms that focus on accurately reading the terrain in front of you, you might begin to develop a kind of nimbleness that will allow you to use your preparation even under changing circumstances. I’m totally not a rock climber, so I may blow the metaphor here, but my understanding of climbing is that it’s a constant process of reading the path in order not just to find the next handhold but the next three after that.

Nimbleness and preparation go hand-in-hand: having a clear plan will allow you to keep an eye on the changing terrain.

3. Play the long game.

It’s easy to let short-term setbacks discourage you. It’s also easy to let short-term wins make you comfortable. In order to avoid getting too caught up in immediate gains and losses, it’s important to keep your eyes on the long term. How are the actions you’re taking today not just helping everyone through the current crisis, but helping create a foundation for a better institution ten years from now?

Playing the long game — recognizing that some changes you make today won’t pay off immediately, and that some immediate improvements will have long-term costs — requires thinking strategically rather than tactically. Tactics are the expedient on-the-ground moves you can make right now in fighting for a goal. Tactics can be crucial, especially for creating change that begins outside conventional power structures, that grows from the grassroots. But tactics in the absence of a strategy to guide them and build upon them can wither.

Strategic thinking requires a focus on long-term goals. Your strategy should describe the path to those goals; your tactics can then become steps leading you along that path.

4. Work in the environment you want to create.

This one comes down to a kind of institutional “Be the Change”: if you want to build an institution that is structurally capable of living up to its duty of care, you need to ensure that you’re living up to that duty of care in the ways you go about that transformation. That is to say: everything you do in the process of creating values-based policies and processes must itself be values-based. Building a more just world requires ensuring that justice is centered in your actions.

It sounds obvious. And yet’s it’s awfully easy for movements for change that are operating within at times hostile environments to get sucked into the ethos of those environments — to allow their desire for transparency and openness to be infected by the secrecy and suspicion surrounding them, for instance.

Check in with yourself and your colleages frequently. Remind yourselves why you’re doing what you’re doing. And explore ways that you can build a local environment that works the way you’d like the institution as a whole to work.

5. Take care of yourself, as you take care of others.

It’s all too easy for people committed to creating a better world to wear themselves out in the process. Transformational change is exhausting work, not least because of the obstacle course you’re having to run over and over. Your commitment can keep you going up to a point, but after that burn-out can set in, making even the smallest actions feel like running in knee-deep mud.

Taking time off — time to allow yourself to recuperate, time to re-center and re-ground — feels self-indulgent. It is not, however, a waste of time. In fact, attempting to power through when you’re exhausted is counter-productive: you worsen your own exhaustion, not least because everything is three times harder than it ought to be.

Finding means of self-care that can help you maintain a sustainable commitment to the change you want to create is a necessity. That might mean protecting your time away from work by shutting off your email and unplugging from the other ceaseless flows of networked demands. It might mean taking a few days off to focus on things that you find restorative. It might mean saying no to requests that don’t help you further your own goals.

The key here is to take care of yourself in the way that you would try to take care of the others around you.

6. Find other guides and sources of support.

This guide and its keywords have in some ways been more conceptual than practical. I haven’t told you how to run your meetings, or given you drafts for revised policies. Rather, my approach to thinking about leadership relies heavily on your own ideas as prompted by the issues and examples I discuss. What I suggest or describe won’t work everywhere, though. You know your own situation far better than I ever could.

I’m compiling a list of recommendations for further reading, which I’ll include at the end of the text; if you have things you’d like to suggest, please leave them in the comments!

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