Friday, February 09, 2007

Open Space on the Balcony

One of the models I reference in Deeper Learning in Leadership is that of Dr. Ron Heifetz' at Harvard University. Dr. Heifetz has been very influential in the leadership studies world. His insights as an artist, M.D. with a focus on psychiatry, and an organization consultant have shed very significant light on the most important dynamics of leadership, a specific form of leadership that he calls "adaptive leadership." The latest book to be published about Dr. Heifetz' work and his teaching method, called "case-in-point" teaching, is described in Sharon Daloz Parks' Leadership Can be Taught. This book is a remarkable account of a style of teaching that takes students to a much deeper level of learning about leadership. As I launched into rereading this book a month ago, I've become captivated by his methods and I'm beginning to use them in some of my interactions and work with students.

One application on which I'm working is the "Open Space on the Balcony" non-credit seminar with students in the Scholar Leader program at Miami. This is a residentially based program of upperclass students who have a special interest in leadership, service, and creating healthy communities. The open space part of the title indicates that anyone can come, anything is fair game, and all are free to come and go at will. The balcony part of the title uses Dr. Heifetz' metaphor of "going to the balcony" from the dancefloor in order to gain perspective about the organizations of which we are part. We've only had two meetings of this group but the process promises to be extremely informative. Witness to this is a post to the Scholar Leader listserv by one of the participants, Brendan on 2-6-07:

I just wanted to take a few minutes to share with you guys some of my thoughts about the open-space discussions that we've begun to hold at 8PM in the Stoddard living room on Monday evenings (right before the community meeting). Having the discussions has become a relaxing yet reflective time of day. It is certainly a light atmosphere in that nobody is obliged to be there, can participate in the discussion at their will, and is slightly free of strict parameters. At the same time, they are incredibly serious and meaningful conversations that we have, so far focusing on three general themes: leadership, service, and purpose.

I've participated in the open space discussions very willingly so far, and feel that through engaging in them learn so much more about myself, and yet the same about everyone else. It is an excellent time for self-reflection, -discovery, and -evaluation, while it also allows you to learn so much more about the other community members. I feel that this may be one of the most powerful ways that we as community members can interact to build community and relationships amongst each other. I'm excited that by the end of this semester, I feel that I will have developed myself in many ways, as well as built personal connections with some community members that may prove to be stronger than many of the bonds that have been created with other people at Miami University.

I think that the open space discussions truly are an excellent activity that all of us in Stelliott can participate in and benefit from and I'd encourage anyone and everyone to just pop in one time and attend - you'll find that by the time 9PM rolls around and it's time to leave, you wish there was more time. Although it hurts the discussion, having a time-frame is useful for most of us who have already extremely busy schedules.

Those who are considering coming next week, Denny asked that we bring some piece of writing that we find very important and meaningful. This could be anything from poetry or prose, to song lyrics, to an essay on...anything! Just bring a writing of some sort that you have found meaningful to your life.

Thanks for reading, Stelliott,

We will use the readings students bring to creat the "holding environment" that allows us to learn about leadership. A key factor in this is that leadership is not something we exercise or impose on others. Adaptive leadership involves all participants actively engaging with other - expressing, responding, engaging, risking - to truly encounter one anothers' ideas and greatest aspirations. As college students, these aspirations may seem tentative and small but to begin to explore them is what is important. Brendan told us at the conclusion of last week's meeting that he felt he hadn't yet discerned big and important things the he held sacred. I tried to respond compassionately by saying that to not have a deep commitment was not the problem. Instead, the problem is that so many of us are unwilling to explore the possibility of having a deep commitment. Not exploring our deeper purposes is a terrible waste of talent and possibility.

We'll see where next week's Open Space on the Balcony takes us...


MJ said...

I liked your blog update, especially to hear about the discussions in the scholar leader community.

After facilitating at the Greek Leader's ADVANCE, I've been thinking a lot more about Heifetz's idea about going to the balcony and how I can help students explore that idea as well.

It also never really occurred to me until just now that "getting off the balcony" is essentially what Farber suggests in The Radical Edge. He uses a "WUP" or "Wake Up Pad", which he describes as a way to record what you observe in everyday human experience, and then talk about it with others on a regular basis. I'm not sure if you've read the book, but the two ideas are very similar. Farber has some info about WUPs on his website:

It also occurred to me that Dayton Days meetings at Kettering are essentially practices in "going to the balcony" and using a "WUP".

Hope all is well in your world,

Denny Roberts said...

Matt - The additional connections you've made with Farber's WUP and the Kettering Foundation's Dayton Days reinforce the core truth of what Heifetz and others propose. When a particular dynamic or problem is echoed elsewhere, it leads me to think that we're dealing with something that is systemic.

The challenge is that the world in which we live, especially the world of young adults, is so full of "stuff" that there's no room left to go to the balcony. If we know this, what are the options? Either we have to help students (and others) find coping strategies or we have to change the systems - or both. As I think of Kettering's mission, maybe this hurried and crowded world we live in is one of the reasons that the public seems less and less engaged. What do you think?