Post by Patricia J. Gumport, Class XXIV, Vice Provost for Graduate Education and Professor of Education at Stanford University
“Breathe. Walk, One, Two. Stop. Sit. Watch me!” This is how I learned to walk with Zoe, my very exuberant and highly reactive terrier puppy. My goal was to walk her with a loose leash, holding it ever so lightly with only two fingers—Zoe keeping pace by my side.
When Zoe would lunge ahead in an excited state, she had to go back and start over. I couldn’t let her continue in that state of mind—we had to re-set. She was expected to walk by my side (not in front), even in the face of tempting distractions like squirrels, birds, a thousand scents, kids playing ball, and Winston (a stocky 75 lb. white bulldog who propelled himself on a skateboard).
Those first few months Zoe and I didn’t get very far—sometimes no more than 40 feet in an hour. It was difficult to establish and maintain the calm, assertive stance that our trainer advised. I didn’t know a walk could be so filled with tension and frustration!
According to our trainer, mastering the walk required that we both had to start over. First, calm. She said “Give calm to get calm.” Breathe. Release tension. Be totally present. Stand up straight, project to her “I’ve got this.” Show her I trust her. Be loving….This state of energy was required before we could take a step. It took us over a year to master loose-leash walking, relaxing into that peaceful zone they call “traveling together.”
By coincidence or not, what I learned with Zoe came to the fore when I began my journey last April as an ALF Fellow. In fact it became a metaphor for a fundamental lesson I learned in my first year with ALF.
I was honored to be invited to become an ALF Fellow, to have an opportunity to connect with other leaders of local organizations, people committed to public service. As the orientation neared, with great excitement I cleared my work schedule. Our two-day orientation brought us to a serene retreat setting at the Stillheart Institute up on Skyline. The orientation began with mindfulness exercises.
Breathe, be here, notice tension and release it, expand awareness without judgment…
Truth be told, at the time I was thinking, a little bit of this was okay—since we all needed to “get here” from the busy-ness of our lives. But then this took up most of Day One. By the end of Day Two, it became clear that we’d sit in a circle, always; we’d be asked to breathe, and at times sit together in silence. I confess this was not what I had expected. It was like a campfire only indoors, and without the fire and marshmallows. No tables, so I had to balance my notebook on my lap when I took notes. Moreover as I came to see, each time we’d gather as a group, not only would we have periods of silence, but these were followed by lengthy check-ins, as well as check-outs to conclude our sessions. And lots of personal stories in between.
I quickly came to see that my classmates are remarkable people, with very impressive biographical arcs, many having overcome adversity, demonstrating incredible resilience, making significant contributions all along the way.
As we talked more, I was surprised by our candor and vulnerability. But though I was fascinated by our stories, I wasn’t looking for more friends—let alone 24 new friends all at once—since I didn’t even have enough time to see my old friends. And I became a little impatient with the emphasis on “mindful witnessing.” I thought, when are we going to get to the “leadership” content? I can sit and reflect quietly on my own time. I had brought a sense of urgency to this meeting, so the time away from the office would be worthwhile. I was ready to soak in all the ALF folks had to teach about leadership. Where is the material on how to be a better leader? What did I sign up for, anyway? Did anyone else feel this way? This sure is a long “on ramp” to getting the program started.
It was an even longer “on ramp” for me personally, since I had brought along another level of reservations. Okay, let’s call it what it was—resistance. I had an issue with breathing. This wasn’t just one breath like setting up to begin a dog walk. They wanted deep breathing, and it went on for several minutes. And then there was the sitting, not just being still, but noticing, becoming aware of our bodies as well as our thoughts. To be honest, I dreaded every minute. I couldn’t breathe beyond shallow breaths due to a respiratory condition, and I had a deep ache in my legs from osteoarthritis. Both conditions had developed from years of running competitively where I had mastered the mental discipline to detach from pain.
So here I was, 40 years later, at the start of the ALF orientation, asked to scan my body and notice sensations. I somehow summoned the courage in this group of strangers to ask the “mindfulness facilitator” if she had any suggestions for how to do this activity when you have pain.
Among other things, she said that pain doesn’t have to be suffering. Just because you have pain doesn’t mean that you are pain, or that you have to suffer. You can just be aware of it. And it does not have to be all-consuming—it may be easier to appreciate other parts of the body as you scan to “feel where you are.” You need to be gentle with yourself, practice this. She was asking a lot—an invitation to return to the body, as a way to get grounded and be present. It was possible to unite body and mind, instead of persisting in my mind-over-body conditioning. Well, even if I didn’t learn about leadership, I thought, this is a gift. Step One.
During orientation, we learned that ALF offers a model of collaborative leadership that will expand networks to work together for the common good. First, we need to learn how to be in deep relationship with each other and with the larger world. We do that by learning how to be present, to expand our capacity for witnessing, to listen without judging others—or ourselves, to embrace not knowing, to accept and move through discomfort, to engage in inquiry together so that we hold complexity within our dialogue.
This is all possible if we are open to a future that’s distinct from the past, and where we trust that collective wisdom will emerge. The result is that, with each ALF convening, we experience firsthand what it is to create community, and consider how it’s possible to do that in all segments of our lives—convening by invitation rather than mandate, by generosity of spirit, by focusing on gifts rather than deficiencies.
The ALF approach to collaborative leadership seemed to align with my values and longstanding commitment to social change, and it resonated with my ideals of servant leadership. All of it except for the “not knowing” part. And they made such a clear point about that, as if they were holding up a signpost just for me: Problem-solving and analytical skills not valued here! Hmm. What could I possibly bring to our convenings?
Reflecting on the principle of not-knowing, I had developed a love of complexity and a high tolerance for ambiguity. But I knew my academic training had hard-wired my habits of mind to problem-solve, and to use different kinds of data and analytical skills to advance decision-making.
I practiced this over 25 years as a professor. How could this be limiting? Was all my academic training and scholarly expertise of no value to ALF dialogues? Why is it essential to come together in a space of not-knowing? Step Two.
Over the next several months a lot happened, during and between ALF sessions, and I saw how essential it is to Stop, and Sit. Bonds deepened among classmates. We became clear about and comfortable in our interdependence, and celebrated it. Practicing this mode of being with them opened the door for me to turn the compassion inward—without judgment, expanding my comfort with the parts of myself that I still struggled with, honoring my gifts, which aren’t simply—or ultimately—those cultivated in my academic training. It also inspired me to act from this place with others.
I began experimenting with all that I was learning at ALF, especially leading through inquiry and mindful convening to build community. I do this in my work at Stanford, both with the team that I lead and other relationships in our collaborative projects throughout the university. In all my relationships.
I’ve always had an ethos of service. I knew how to build trust in relationships, and knew that doing so was the first step for anything to be accomplished. But now, in ALF, I’ve gained a deeper understanding of strength as a much more dynamic quality of leading and facilitating. What’s asked of me of a leader? I came to see that it would serve me well to ask this question of myself often—even from moment to moment. It was so simple, but profound. I saw my classmates asking themselves similar questions.
As a class, how did we get here? We belayed and rappelled and climbed a mountain. We shared more stories about our journeys, fears, purposes, passions. We laughed a lot. We sat in silence. When we lived together for a week on a wilderness retreat, it deepened our bonds further. In that context, the overnight solo was a great opportunity to clarify my deep purpose—and declare it. I saw in a new light how that sense of urgency I felt at orientation, the unwavering passion for my work—how it could be harnessed to the greater good in even more powerful ways. I learned that “if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” I had heard this quote before. But now I believe it. I think we all do.
So if Step One was to breathe and be open to the possibility of uniting body and mind, and Step Two was getting comfortable with not-knowing and the power of asking questions, I came to see the enormous value of “Stop, Sit” in a community to cultivate shared understandings. Similar to what I learned with Zoe. Re-set, rather than launching full speed ahead to a predetermined destination.
Read more of Patti’s reflections here
Full post here