“I basically decided to be Robin Hood between the Circles and the Squares.”
“Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.”
“For the last time, I’m NOT the Mafia– okay, fine, I didn’t want to do this, but…I’m the Prostitute.”
These were among the many memorable lines I heard over Martin Luther King Jr. weekend in the Wonderland Conference Center in Sharon, Massachusetts. (Just to put doubts at rest, the last one was the result of an accusation in the classic role-playing game, Mafia, with a twist– other fake characters were added, like the “Prostitute,” who serves as an inspector of the Mafia. 🙂 ) The Center, a wonderfully home-y lodge with double rooms, a blazing fireplace in the lounge, and the most delicious, freshly-cooked food, is nestled in this vast wooded area that overlooks a gorgeous lake– the very picture of serenity. It was in this setting that I experienced the indescribable space, time, and event that is MIT’s annual LeaderShape Institute.
As a back story, the LeaderShape Institute was developed at the University of Illinois in 1986 and came to MIT in 1995. The curriculum of LeaderShape may have changed since then, but the overall vision of LeaderShape– to create a just, caring community in which people can identify a leader within their true selves– has definitely not.
The first thing you should probably know is that everything about what I’m about to describe is completely cliche and completely original at the same time. Cliche– because every leadership conference, when you get down to the details, essentially has the same content (though I will still argue that this was a bit different). Original– because the structure of LeaderShape content, the personalities of the students participating, and my own personal experience of reflection and introspection are never reproducible.
What LeaderShape gave me (and why, if you are a college student, you should not miss an opportunity to participate):
1. Space to reflect- Before LeaderShape, if you were to have asked me which is more important, time for yourself or time with other people, I would have very clearly said other people. With the stress of academics and a new collegiate environment, I had become extremely dependent on the people around me for my mental and emotional sanity. I didn’t recognize those times when I would just feel so overwhelmed that I’d shut myself up in my room until I figured everything out as my need for “alone time.” But two things about LeaderShape– the lack of significant internet/phone connection and the verbal, spatial, and temporal encouragement of reflection– suddenly grabbed a hold of me and forced me to just think, alone. There’s something very powerful about lacking technology and a substantial way to communicate with people who are not physically present. It’s almost a relief, an excuse to not have to be always present, always responsive, always accountable. Most significantly, in those 6 days, I did something I had not done since coming to MIT but which had always been a significant part of my life: journaling.
2. Structure: Family Clusters- There were 54 MIT students participating in LeaderShape, and in addition to that 15 more student co-facilitators (students who had participated in LeaderShape before), cluster facilitators (faculty and administration of MIT), and directors of the program. Fifty-four is not an enormously large group, and most of the activities we did probably could have remained in that size. But they didn’t. In fact most of the activities involved a different subset so that by the end, I found a way to interact with every single person there. Still, this can be intimidating, and the winning characteristic of LeaderShape is the idea of a Family Cluster. Each Family Cluster consisted of about 9 students, 1 student co-facilitator, and 1 cluster facilitator. We met at least once in this group each day, sometimes more than once. Because of the smaller setting, the explicit space in which I could feel comfortable, and the inherent understanding that everyone here wanted to share themselves and hear your own story, the clusters became a family. I know, it’s incredibly cliche to believe that I somehow suddenly understand these people, having only been with them for 6 days, but I know the level of my own experiences, opinions, and insight I shared with this group over these days was probably the same as what would take me several months to share with someone I am just beginning to get to know. The fact that on the very first day we each shared “our stories,” everything we wanted each other to know about us, on a flip chart suddenly brought everyone up to speed– it gave us all a context to know and appreciate each other. We joked around for the rest of the week that if only we could carry around the “flip charts of our life” everywhere when we meet people, it would be so much easier to break that initial barrier.
These Family Clusters are powerful things. I saw people I know do things they never would have done: a shy, quiet student firmly expressing her opinion, or my deathly-afraid-to-sing-in-public-even-though-she-has-a-gorgeous-voice friend provide most of the musical background for their inspirational skit. Even in my own case, as we wrote down and shared our GAG for the week (“Going Against the Grain”- essentially a statement of how we were going to push ourselves outside of our comfort zone this week and how our family clusters could help us achieve that), I didn’t think that I would actually achieve mine. I wrote down that I wanted to not only learn the names of everyone there by the end of the week, but that I wanted to introduce myself and make my own self memorable. This stems from the fact that my easy way is to simply learn based on observation, by sitting in the background. Yet this does nothing to further a relationship. It might seem weird to many of you that introducing myself is one of the hardest things for me to do, but it’s true. In a way, it’s putting myself out there– it’s inherently making a statement that it’s worth getting to know me. If I enter a group, it’s taking the time away from someone else’s discussion to emphasize my own presence. And that to me is scary. But knowing that there was a group of 10 other people who were keeping tabs on me throughout the week, who knew that this was my goal and wanted to help me achieve it made it easier, possible, and so completely worth it.
3. MIT-ness- The most significant drawback of most leadership development programs is the lack of a real application to one’s own life. Sure this experience is amazing when I’m extracted from my daily routine, but what does all of this “feel-good nonsense” actually do for me? How do I actually use it? LeaderShape achieved this for me in several ways. First, the administrators, faculty, and directors lived and breathed MIT into everything we did. Given that this was the one factor that tied all of us together, and most of us would be going back for at least another year, visualizing the support, resources, and people at MIT who reflected leadership in the community was not difficult. And that was another thing– unlike most summer programs where you become extremely close to a group of people and then say good-bye only to ever communicate with them again via Facebook, I would be seeing all of these people on campus. They actually lived within a two-mile radius of me, and since coming back from LeaderShape, I have already seen my new friends several times. 🙂
Even more significant, however, was that LeaderShape led us through the a process that is critical for any leader: articulating a vision and creating an action plan to achieve that vision. This process exemplifies the necessity for any leader to be able to both think big (have a “healthy disregard for the impossible”) but also think practical and specific. One of the most inspiring experiences I had all week was seeing all of the students’ visions articulated and posted around the room. All sorts of issues ranging from educational initiatives to sustainability programs to improved mental health endeavors were in the minds and hearts of my peers, and I felt enlightened, realizing that so many in my community have such broad dreams. But like I said, ultimately it comes down to the application to one’s own life, and LeaderShape worked for me because it showed me that these visions don’t simply have to remain visions. We heard stories of students in past years who had articulated their visions at LeaderShape in the same room that I was sitting in, created an action plan, and actually carried it out. As MIT students, we had already seen the fruits of their vision: Relay for Life on campus, an initiative that exposed high school students in Africa to science and technology, a service trip over Spring Break, to name a few. Simply knowing that through LeaderShape, students before us, students like Sal Khan, the founder of Khan Academy, had discovered how to use their skills made it a little easier to dream, a little easier to envision our better futures.
LeaderShape works, not because it attempts to make you into someone you’re not, but because it encourages your true, real personality to come out in a way that allows you to lead yourself. It works not because of some extremely unique, one-of-a-kind well-kept secret, but because every participant there wants it to work– and every participant inherently wants it to work because it’s not propagating some foreign entity. LeaderShape is a mirror held up to each individual so that in this experience they see their own reflection, their own personality, and their own visions. After all, leadership is only sustainable when it’s 100%, true, natural and authentic.
This authenticity factor is often the single barrier between success and failure, and LeaderShape forced me to recognize areas in my own life where I had not been completely authentic and could see the disappointing results. In all of the meeting new people, sharing, and opening up, I was forced to learn a very important lesson: the importance of the willingness to be vulnerable. Showing your true self is inherently making you vulnerable to the world’s remarks, and so many times I realized that this had made other misinterpret my behaviors and not feel open enough to me, which I also misunderstood as a closed-mindedness on their part. Now this would have been profound enough if LeaderShape had simply helped me realize this, but the way I know an experience truly touched me is when it not only pervades my thoughts during the experience, but continues to affect both thought and action afterwards. The day after I came back from LeaderShape, I was working in my lab, sitting across from a freshman who had also just started in the lab. We had exchanged some pleasantries before, but I had never really engaged her in any conversation. But then again, this was my general attitude toward such things– don’t establish yourself too heavily, just do my work quietly and don’t waste my time trying to be liked. Besides, what if she didn’t like me? On this day, however, as I was packing up my things to head out for lunch, I started to walk out of the room, when I suddenly stopped. How had I assumed she wouldn’t like me? And how did I assume I wouldn’t like her? That we wouldn’t have anything in common to talk about? That a sit-across-from-each-other relationship doesn’t really mean anything? And the most LeaderShape-inspired thought: how had I assumed that I would not love to hear about her life experiences and she would not love to hear about mine, if I gave her a chance? I immediately spun around, and after hesitating for a second, asked her whether she wanted to join me for lunch. What resulted was an amazing conversation about all sorts of things I had NEVER expected to share with her– it’s important to also note that my lunch also just seemed to taste that much more delicious that day 🙂
LeaderShape may have only been 6 days, but it’s up to me to make it last for the rest of my life. Nor is this even close to describing the experience in its entirety. I wrote this post over the course of 5-6 days, not because of the length, but because it was just that difficult. After an amazing, perspective-shifting experience, I have tried my hardest to give you the most holistic, realistic description of what I went through. Still, I can in no way do justice to the numerous conversations, stories, and moments of laughter that were shared between us over those six days. If only everything had a word. Let’s see where it takes me.