2020 Reflections – Finding Fellow Travellers
This week I spent three hours with my friend and mentor, Al Etmanski. Al is a social activist and innovator extraordinaire, author of the recently published book Impact (see the weekly read below), world leader and connector in social innovation – and he will be with us for the 2020 Social Impact gathering on October. I have known Al since 1986 when I was a naïve but earnest public servant working as the Provincial Coordinator for Deinstitutionalization. Al was a larger than life and passionate leader in the disability movement that had, with others, raised awareness about the state of institutional care, painted a picture of positive options, and successfully poked, prodded and inspired the government to close the three institutions of the day and develop a community-based care system. Our working relationship was difficult at times – me being in the middle of a government bureaucracy with limited resources and high expectations, and he being a progressive leader in the community and a passionate parent. I often didn’t know what to do or how to do it, but Al was a good teacher and there were lots of amazing people involved. We figured some stuff out along the way. However, as is often the case, I didn’t really grasp the depth of the learning until much later.
Fast forward a few decades and I am the ED of the Federation. Al calls to invite me onto the Premier’s Advisory Council on Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship. I am sceptical of government’s intentions – is this about offloading responsibility or unrealistic expectations for the community sector? We talk and he understands my fears, and I trust him and his intentions. What happened on the Advisory Council is an interesting and positive story for another time, but what has been most important to me is re-kindling a relationship with Al, and in the process learning to give voice to ideas, fears and questions.
What Al does brilliantly is listen, question, connect and reflect. He readily admits that he wasn’t always this way, and that in the past he fractured some working relationships, but he intentionally cultivates these practices now. He has learned that it is critical to creating positive social impact. He has an immense depth of knowledge and experience, but he never makes you feel anything but interesting. He asks wonderful questions and seeks to understand, and in so doing, has helped me give shape and form to some of the ideas and questions that I carry. He is also humble – willing to share stories of his own crises of faith and in so doing has given me permission to share my own doubts and frustrations. This is not done just to feel better about ourselves, but rather to think bigger about ourselves. To his core, he, and his wise partner Vicki Cammack, believe that the tough, complex, and intractable social, economic and environmental issues that we face can be addressed. And they don’t just talk about it – they are out in the world wrestling with the work, generating and testing action, failing, floundering and trying again.
In 2020 we talk about great leadership being participatory, and I gained a more nuanced understanding of this after my conversation with Al. As leaders and change-makers, we need to be skillful engagers and collaborators as we cannot do this work alone. However we also need to create bonds with people who are, as Al says, ‘wise travellers’. These are the people who: can challenge and disrupt our thinking and practice; who can accept us in the times when we are excited and flushed with the delight of seeing an idea come to life or some good happening in the world – and make it even better; who accept us when we have fears, anger and doubts, and can craft a safe container for exploration of it all; who connect us to our ideas and to others and their ideas. He notes that innovation often arises from and at the margins – with people who hold different views and have had different life experiences and are not often welcomed into the centre. This is one of the key teachings in the final residency of 2020 – as leaders in this field we have both an opportunity and a responsibility to set the table for diverse views and perspectives in order to co-create social impact. It has been interesting to consider who the wise travellers are in my life, and who I need to ‘set the table for’ to challenge my thinking in these times. What about you?