Reflections on Tamarack’s Gathering in Kitchener

It’s late afternoon in Kitchener Ontario where I am attending the Tamarack Communities Collaborating Institute (Tamarack CCI). In less than two days, I have had my mind challenged by the thinking and experience of Tim Brodhead (former CEO of the McConnell Foundation), Paul Schmitz (advisor to President Obama), and Meg Wheatley (author and teacher). I have also been fortunate as a “pod leader” to spend time and share reflections with nine colleagues from around the country. And of course, there have been a number of hallway huddles, some great exchanges over a beer or two, and on it goes.

Based on all of my experiences so far, here are a few reflections about the types of range of changes our communities and organizations require to move forward toward a future where poverty, dis-ease, and polarization are problems of the past.

We need more leaders. We need more leaders everywhere in our community, from all walks of life, of all ages. The challenges we face will not be met by old notions of leadership as a position held by a few. Leadership is action and, as Paul Schmitz reminded us, everyone leads. One of the calls to action voiced by Paul was that a priority of all leaders is to help others be leaders, whether in our organizations, our communities, or our families.

What are the attributes of an effective leader? We all know there are thousands of opinions on this one, but I have to say Paul’s view is worth thinking about. Leading requires vision but to lead one must be able to nurture others to lead and act, must be able to mobilize people, ideas, and resources in ways that are aligned to vision, and also provide the type of analysis that clarifies understanding while promoting further action on what we have learned.

Tim Brodhead urged funders and community organizations to work together as authentic partners. In my experience funders and organizations frequently use the “P” word but when it comes right down to it, our practice all too often smacks of the old hierarchical relationship where organizations craft proposals to get the money and funders are preoccupied with ensuring compliance to a plethora of rules and reporting hoops.  Instead, I inferred from Tim’s presentation that true partnerships require time to form real relationships that are focused on solving problems and producing agreed upon results. To do so calls for risking trust as well as sharing the risks that accompany innovative approaches to making our communities better places.

What I especially appreciated about Tim’s analysis was his observation that such partnerships need to accept the iterative nature of the work and the relationship around the work. This means that funders and organizations must be prepared to learn together and make changes along the way that further our chances of achieving successful results.

Meg Wheatley’s session this morning had its dark side. She admitted that up front, but made it clear she was sharing some unpleasant and troubling observations in order to impress upon us the importance of our collective work across our communities. She spoke of the steady dissipation of government resources and how despairing it can be to see community efforts producing clear impacts wiped away from a community because of a politician’s apathy about the issues being addressed.

We talked about rethinking what we say yes to – as organizations but also as individuals. Why do we keep saying “yes” to governments and funders who do not wish to fully fund initiatives and who somehow are comfortable paying community workers substandard wages?  Sometimes, she said, we have to “walk off” from what we are doing in order to “walk on” to another, better place where we can achieve our potential and add increased value to our work.

Not everything that happens at any conference is wonderful stuff. Sometimes what I like others don’t. In the case of Meg Wheatley (whose book, Leadership and the New Science, is still one of my most influential readings), I felt there was too much darkness in her perspective and at times she slipped towards an us and them portrayal of the world, which is too simplistic in my view. I wish there had been a better connection between the darkness she felt was important to convey and the pathways to hope and change I know she wanted to provide but failed to fully execute.

Nevertheless, what a great two days. Great food. The music of Michael Jones lifts my spirits, leads me to a peaceful place, and sparks my thinking. The energy in the rooms we work in is palpable and the sincerity of all who are attending is inspiring.

I am glad I am here. I am glad all of us are here.

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