When the world around us is as complex as it is, the most powerful response to this complexity in the outer world is the ability to achieve greater clarity in our own inner world.
But when we turn our attention inwards, we find ourselves struggling to avoid living in a constant state of being overwhelmed, distracted, or simply lost and bewildered amidst the tidal wave of information we must all navigate daily.
So we must ask ourselves: How can we cultivate stronger connections within ourselves, to each other, and to the wider environment in which we work?
At City Year, we’ve taken an innovative approach to leadership development that we think addresses this question.
As an education-driven nonprofit focused on a large-scale effort to address the high school dropout crisis, City Year engages nearly 3,000 young adults of all backgrounds and 800 support staff in full-time service in 26 cities across the U.S. We are tackling the complex task of keeping high-need students in school and on track to graduate from high school.
When confronted with outer complexity, our initial response may be to strive to understand and control all that complexity by working ever harder, expanding our network, and reading everything we can.
But at some point we must recognize that none of us can truly understand or control the full complexity of the world around us.
The challenge, then, is to turn our attention inwards, sift through all our questions, ideas, instincts, and intuitions, and get clearer within ourselves about what matters most. Once we’ve done the often-difficult work of achieving greater inner clarity, we find our ability to navigate the complexity of the world outside of ourselves to be greatly enhanced.
At City Year we’ve created an exercise designed to intentionally and systematically build our individual and organization capacity to cultivate that inner clarity. Here’s how it works:
A small group of six to 18 individuals is given a consistent opportunity to come together for the sole purpose of stepping away from their work to reflect deeply on their experiences. Intentionally cross-departmental groups have the opportunity to meet for 90 minutes once a month. It’s a rare space in which Mary from IT, Sean from Marketing, and Nicky from Development get to sit down together and have a substantive discussion despite the fact that they are not working on any shared projects.
Within this space, the group engages in two types of reflection: personal, and practice. The personal reflection involves exploring questions like “What is your Personal Leadership Mission?” “What are your core values?” and “What are your own personal goals for the year ahead?” The group has a chance to connect with these personal sources of meaning and purpose and then think together about the challenges of engaging in that kind of inner work.
Practice reflection works like this: Prior to each session, one member of the group goes through a “Question Finding Process” that involves identifying and distilling the essence of a work-related question that he or she finds personally compelling. The individual presents that carefully crafted question to the group, which then spends a substantial amount of time thinking deeply about a work-related question that has been identified and brought to the group by one of its own.
This is not a working group, a task force, or an ad-hoc committee. It is not responsible for generating any solutions, producing any deliverables, or meeting any deadlines. It is a space that is unconcerned with efficiency, accountability, or execution. The sole purpose here is for the group to experience consistent opportunities to step away from their work, pause, breath, and deepen their connection to what is happening within themselves, within the organization, and within the environment in which we are working.
The results are exciting. According to our evaluation data, participants overwhelmingly agree that this process helps them to think deeply about both their own development as leaders and the challenges that we encounter every day in our work.
It helps them to stay focused on the bigger picture beyond their daily responsibilities, learn from their peers, feel more connected to colleagues, feel more connected to their own sense of purpose, and feel more supported by the organization.
It’s an innovative approach with the potential to respond to several of the greatest challenges that organizations are struggling to confront today.
—Dr. Max Klau serves as the Vice President of Leadership Development at City Year, an education-focused organization fueled by national service that partners with public schools in high-poverty communities to help keep students in school and on track to graduate. He received his Doctorate in Education from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2005, with a focus on leadership in complex living systems.