the Athena Group

Athena Bulletin

Convening as Leadership | CoResolve Leadership Program | January 16 & 17, 2020

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As a leadership and organizational change professional, I enjoy reading and thinking about different modern definitions of leadership. My favorite definition of leadership is from author and consultant Peter Block. Block says,

“Leaders create the conditions for engagement. They do this through the power they have to convene, focus attention and define the conversations for people when they gather.”

One noteworthy thing about this definition is that it has nothing to do with where you sit on the hierarchy. Instead, it encourages leadership at all levels, since people in many different places in an organization or system have the power to convene.

So, why do we convene or hold meetings in the first place?

Obviously, we call meetings because so many of the challenges we’re trying to solve can’t be tackled by one person alone. We need to collaborate with others.

Ultimately, whenever we collaborate with others, we’re trying to get things done that matter to us. Whether we’re looking for long-term solutions to challenging issues such as homelessness, improving youth educational outcomes, revitalizing our downtowns, or creating more resilient organizations and communities, we choose to collaborate because we understand that no one individual or single organization has the expertise, capacity, or, in fact, the mandate to tackle them alone.

However, as most of us know, simply bringing people together (holding a meeting) doesn’t always result in good engagement or results. We’ve all experienced our fair share of bad meetings where some or all of the following have occurred.

  • Certain individuals dominated the discussion and there was a lack of genuine exchange and engagement
  • Discussion tended to cover well-worn topics and there was a lack of creativity and innovation
  • Issues went around and around (or were ‘discussed to death’), or past decisions were revisited without resolution and little or no apparent progress was made
  • The emergence of inevitable tensions or meaningful differences of opinion derailed the process
  • There was a lack ownership and accountability

I often hear people say that we need to stop meeting and just start doing. In my experience, this has less to do with the need for the meetings than how the meetings were conducted. People are justifiably frustrated by too many bad meetings. It turns out that the Dutch actually have a word for this phenomenon – Vergaderziekte, which translates to “meeting sickness”.

It would be natural to pin the blame for this meeting sickness on poor meeting design and/or poor facilitation. And to be sure, good leadership requires good meeting design (getting the agenda right) and good facilitation. At a more fundamental level, however, the cause of so many less than optimal meetings and collaborations may have something to do with the narrow view we have of meetings in the first place.

We often think of simply holding a meeting, with tight, tactical agendas, and with the idea of getting to a set of concrete actions in the least amount of time. In too many cases, only certain individuals participate fully, and the silence of others implies tacit approval. What would it mean if rather than holding a meeting, we were instead “hosting” a meeting or a gathering? What would it look like? What would that feel like? What might it produce, create, or lead to?

As Peter Block says, a hosted gathering “is the product of an act of hospitality”, rather than something that is merely scheduled and held with the expectation of production or getting people to buy-in to pre-determined goals or ideas. Hospitality also implies actually caring for the experience and the well-being of others.

Block says that “each gathering serves two functions: (1) to address its stated purpose and (2) to be an occasion for each person to decide to become engaged as an owner.” In this sense, a task of leaders at all levels is to ensure that both purposes are attended to.

The important conversations of our time, whether they are about tackling climate change, addressing poverty, making sure our communities are safe, or figuring out our organizational priorities, require a level of engagement, ownership, and accountability that goes well beyond mere “buy-in”.

How might an orientation towards hosting gatherings be different? It’s clear to me that it would mean more diverse viewpoints and genuine exchange (rather than simply giving lip service to diversity). It would mean ever increasing comfort with uncertainty and not “knowing”. It would mean increased skillfulness in working with inevitable tensions and conflicts. And ultimately, it would mean more creative and resilient solutions.

As organizations become more diverse and complex, leaders are increasingly called upon to skillfully handle complicated interpersonal and team dynamics. CoResolve training increases leaders’ capacity to succeed in turbulent times by offering practical tools for working with differences in a group and turning destructive conflict into creative tension.

During this 2-day intensive training, Paul Horton works with leaders, managers, consultants and facilitators who want to dramatically increase their skills at handling of interpersonal and team dynamics and to take your meeting planning facilitation up a notch. Early bird pricing open until November 8th!

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Paul Horton is a leadership and strategy coach and organizational change professional with 25 years of experience working with the public, private, non-profit, and higher education sectors. He sees his work as helping leaders navigate complexity and change, lead with clarity, and achieve internal alignment and coherence. Paul specializes in using dialogue-based, participatory approaches to engage diverse perspectives, build social capital, and improve organizational outcomes. He is skilled at facilitating meetings where there is a high degree difference or divisiveness, and tha t generate personal insights and uncover innovative