What can you learn from spending five days having conversations with people who are not obviously like you, and who know and do things you may not understand or care about? Quite a lot, as I found out when I went on a leadership journey organized by Leaders’ Quest. I have been home, physically, for two days, but in my mind I am still on the road. I need more time to digest what I saw and heard. Meanwhile, here are five things I learned:
1 How milking with Paul beats sitting with Mary
‘Sitting with Mary’ used to be how one learned to do a job. You sat, you listened, you observed, and you asked questions. And sometimes you got to practice, too. Last week I was given the chance to ‘milk with Paul’. Cows are very large animals, they poo and pee a lot, and they don’t like strangers in their milking parlour. This means you need highly developed skills and awareness to have someone shadow you when you are milking 187 cows in a confined space. Paul, the cowman, who looked after me, demonstrated phenomenal technical, spatial, communication, time and risk management skills. I learned a lot about how to lead from Paul.
2 Collaborative Inquiry not Interrogation
The conversations that worked best for me were the ones where the people we met had questions for us, too. Let me try to explain. If you tell me what you do, and then I tell you what I do, then we both know, what we both know. Whereas, if there is time, and the conditions are right for dialogue, new questions will emerge, and quite possibly we will discover valuable learning points together. Firing questions at people may result in a diminished learning for all, because the thing you think you need to know, may not be as valuable as the knowledge or experience your interlocutor was going to share with you. If only you had let them.
3 Ditch your titles
We are conditioned to recognize people by their role, and job title. When you meet someone for the first time, hearing a job title may help to understand who you are speaking to: Banker, Consultant, Entrepreneur, Ex-Offender, Husband, Finance Director, Mother, Piano Tuner, Student. Husband, Mother, and Newly Redundant don’t work so well. If you want someone to remember who you are, it is essential to say something about yourself that will help them understand what you do, and, hopefully, arouse their curiousity.
4 Leadership and Learning
‘Leadership and Learning are indispendible to each other’, as John F Kennedy has said. For me, the people we met who were consciously learning from their challenges and opportunities, tended to be the most inspiring leaders. I’m thinking of a manager at a social enterprise who knew everyone by name, a school student in a new Academy, a probation officer who always took the difficult path, a banker who wanted to be a painter, Jimmy Mizen’s family, a piano tuner whose home is London, and who has no home.
5 The Kindness of Strangers
Perfect strangers can be exceptionally kind. Again, and again, we met people doing difficult things, who were patient, open, thoughtful, generous, compassionate, funny, and respectful to us, and to each other. With leaders like these, seizing the opportunity to tell them how great they are at what they do, was a privilege and a pleasure.