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What Makes A Leader? Reflections on Our Annual Training Retreat

Written by Claire Ferguson, Programs Director at Operation Groundswell

Growing up, all I ever wanted was to be in charge – the person standing at the podium; the one at the front of the pack; the one calling the shots. As long as I can remember, I thought of leadership as a single point: only one person can be the team captain, only one can be at the top of the class, the pillar of guidance, the holder of answers, the torch bearer, the prom queen. In retrospect, being a leader felt more defined by being followed than truly leading. By being heard than listening. By making decisions than being ok with having your mind changed.

Claire leads a presentation on OG’s core curriculum alongside Executive Director Eyal Rosenblum

I’ve learned a lot about leadership growing up, but nothing has taught me more than the years I have spent working with a team of diverse, strong willed, and truly amazing leaders at Operation Groundswell. Every year, the apex of this leadership madness takes place at the Program Leader Retreat, where we fly Program Leaders from all over the world to join us for a sweaty, hilarious, and inspiring weekend of training. This January, 30 Program Leaders, 5 Regional Directors/Coordinators, 13 full- and part-time staff, and one Board Member spent 4 full days together in a farm house north of Toronto for jam-packed days of leadership training, dance parties, educational games, brainstorming, and bunk beds.

As most things OG, the retreat was a minefield for lessons and learnings – many of which shook my childhood assumptions on leadership. So what did I discover?

For starters, leadership is not about what you know, but an awareness of what you don’t know. This means true leaders know when to follow the lead of others, and step comfortably into the role of the student.  A leader’s focus on curiosity keeps them reflecting on the experiences they have; knowing that no experience, however simple, will go overlooked as an opportunity for learning. Whether they have university degrees, years of extensive travel experience, or mad facilitation tools under their belt, our Program Leaders were eager and ready to learn from others – about their homes, their skills, their stories.

The group share a moment of reflection (and get snuggly) after playing in the snow.

Leaders know they aren’t alone and that social change can only happen through collaboration, by empowering one another through trust, and through vulnerability. Leadership is un-centered, and fluid, and belongs to no one. Leaders know when to shut up and when to step back as much as when to speak up for what they believe in and step forward to make a stand. They know this by knowing they are not alone, but are always by necessity with those for whom they lead and share in leadership.

Leaders are empathetic. They know that their experiences are singular, and they listen actively to the experiences of others before making decisions about world. Empathy inspires connection, and being with others in their experiences of the world is what makes leaders so good at taking responsibility for their own actions and words. This is an important step in working towards social justice; knowing that the first step in inspiring and motivating change is to humanize and validate our individual experiences of the present. This year’s Program Leaders displayed that listening to our varied experiences, rather than comparing them, allows us to create something which is not only inclusive, but which is built by and for all of us.

Program Leader vet Yaw shares some of his past experiences with the team.

Leaders know the importance of play. They are humble, not arrogant. They mess up, trip up, experiment with their thoughts and make mistakes. They will dance wherever there is music, they will over-commit to games, and they will make themselves vulnerable in order to create community, unity, and build relationships. OG has always been a big old heap of goof balls, but this year the dance moves, onesies, bad jokes, play fights, night walks, cuddle puddles, music jams, giggles, secret handshakes, and laughter were unprecedented. We need that play because it levels us, rejuvenates us, and builds a bridge across the differences we are not always able to talk our way through.

By all my childhood standards, this retreat should have been a disaster: four days of opinionated people talking over each other, struggling to share tasks, and competing for space. Instead, I had the honour of witnessing a moment of true shared leadership made up of different individuals creating a community for change, knowing when to step forward and back, and when to just get straight up silly.

what are you waiting for?