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Leadership and Joy


Three things have converged to inspire a post on Leadership and Joy this week. 1). An amazing vacation 2). A serendipitous airplane conversation with a seatmate from the Center for Positive Psychology on my return flight and 3). A first day back Transforming the Work meeting (a group organized by Odin Zackman) facilitated by Eugene Kim and Rebecca Petzel introducing a very cool Groupaya change tool.

After taking a long overdue, real (as in 3 week) vacation that was fabulously relaxing and fun, a friend asked if I had any insights from the experience. I am sure that my vacation reflections were quite ordinary. Like many others, the benefit of pause and serious relaxation did have me scratching my head about why I continually have way too much on my plate. Especially given the costs to my own well being and the ways in which I would like to work…more time to think, more meaningful time for people, and more time to really sink into the work without rushing from one task to another. I was especially aware of how a frenetic pace undermines these good intentions. I vowed to make a concerted effort to slow things down, all the while suspecting I would lose that battle, that is until an interesting conversation and provocative change exercise sent my thinking in a new direction.

So perhaps it was serendipity that on my way back from vacation I found myself sitting next to Bob Szybist from the Center for Positive Psychology. The conversation was at first unsettling as he explained the impetus for the center, an alarming increase in episodes of anxiety/depression among people in the US (1 in 5) and the earlier onset of such cases from 30 year olds to 14 year olds today. We found ourselves immediately converging on the intersection of leadership and positive psychology. The purpose of the center is to support the strengths and virtues that allow people and communities to thrive. They focus a lot on resilience. This is also an important theme in community leadership work and is a strong underpinning of the Bush Foundation’s works including “Advancing Community Solutions”. Mary Emery of South Dakota University Extension Services was invited to a Bush Foundation meeting in South Dakota to share a community asset mapping tool that she has developed with colleagues. This tool helps communities to identify their assets along a number of critical dimensions of capital e.g: cultural, political, social, human, natural, built, and financial.

There is little doubt that current realities and the media market are increasing financial anxieties, fears about the planet’s viability, concerns about personal safety, and health concerns. Today’s environment of critical problems can be a wakeup call for choice and action or at times can be paralyzing. What role can leadership programs play in helping people move from debilitating despair to greater resiliency, increased efficacy, empowerment, and hopefulness? We talked about the importance of asset based leadership approaches like appreciative inquiry that focuses on helping individuals and groups build on their strengths. The Gallup Leadership Institute has developed a Strength Finder tool that got rave reviews from participants in the Strong Field Project’s Leadership Program run by Compass Point and funded by Blue Shield of California. The Center for Positive Psychology has a tool that they have been using called the VIA Survey of Character Strengths. I plan to take it and saw that they have a number of interesting surveys. It’s free so you may want to check it out for your own leadership programs as well.

This was all still very much on my mind the next day when I looked at my schedule and saw that the Bay Area Transforming the Work Group was meeting and that Eugene Kim was going to be sharing a change tool with the following teaser link to a wiki . I was crazy jetlagged but with just a quick look at this site, I was hooked. Eugene and Rebecca had us start by putting 3 values that we thought were critical to our workgroup on post-its that we collectively grouped. Not too many surprises: learning, transformative change, transparency and then there was the outlier that captured our imaginations: Joy. For the purpose of the exercise we decided to start with joy. Even though I can’t take credit for putting it up it was front and center on my mind after the positive psychology conversation on resilience and my own desire to hang onto that joyful vacation glow.

Our leads, Eugene and Rebecca asked us to think of a time when joy was expressed in the work (or time when it was clearly impeded) to work with for the purpose of the exercise. I shared a story from the Strong Field Project Institute held last May. By way of context the SFPI brings together people working in the field of domestic violence who are supported with leadership development, organizational capacity grants, and convenings. So to the example, one portion of the SFPI was a talk show styled panel. Bess Bendet, Director of Blue Shield Against Violence was the panel host and did a perfect Ellen DeGeneres take off down to the music, outfit and dancing (and the woman can dance!) All of the joining panelists followed suit by dancing their way to the stage. As part of the design team, I looked over the evaluations and almost every single person talked about how much they loved the Ellen and dancing bits. There was no doubt that Bess’s playfulness created a tone that allowed us to deal with serious issues while having fun and bringing our full selves forward. I wondered about the power of a sponsoring funder making herself a little vulnerable in giving others permission to have fun.

So what did we do with this example? Eugene asked us about the mindset that would support or inhibit joy. We agreed that the tagline for a mindset that gets in the way of joy or fun might be: “This is serious business”. The mindset that supports joyful behavior might be that enjoyment or fun deepens relationships and learning. When building relationships came up as an important outcome of joy, I was reminded of my conversation with Bob from the Center for Positive Psychology. An important finding of the center’s research is an association with resiliency and meaningful relationships with others.

We kept working with the mindset exercise because it’s not as easy as it might first appear to understand all of the mindsets that support or inhibit the behavioral changes like working in ways that produce more joy. Eugene also pointed out that when you begin to identify the behaviors that are associated with the change you are trying to produce whether its manifesting more joy or time for learning you can measure those behavioral changes, e.g. are you promoting fun in your ground rules for an event, are you including it as a measure in your evaluation? It was a pretty interesting exercise that I have probably not done justice too but if you are a little more curious I encourage you to check out Eugene’s site. For my part, I am now wondering how I can use Groupaya’s tool to understand my own mindsets and adopt post vacation behaviors that are more conducive to reflection and connection. Stay tuned….

Image Source: Groupaya 2012