Over the years, I’ve designed and delivered hundreds of leadership workshops, seminars, and retreats. In that time, I’ve learned that there are often four kinds of participants in attendance:
1. Some come as prisoners. They were ordered to be there, either by their boss or by organizational policy. They don’t want to be there. They often sit in the back of the room, or as close to the door as they can. They are among the last to arrive, the last to return from a break or lunch, and the first to leave.
My experience with workshop “prisoners” is that they often engage in passive-aggressive behavior. Feeling powerless, they act out with disruptive behavior, as if to say, “If I don’t want to be here, I’m going to make sure no one else does, either!”
When challenged, prisoner-participants rarely accept their own choices about their participation. They are defensive and rationalize their behavior. I’ve invited prisoner-participants to examine their role in the dynamic, sometimes by suggesting that they think about their willingness to challenge their own boss or the organization’s policy. The response is typically to retreat into a place of no accountability.
They feel they have no choice, which, of course, is nonsense. Everyone has choice, and leaders, in particular, need to acknowledge and accept their own complicity in their compliance. “I have to…” doesn’t cut it. Either come because you want to, or don’t come because you don’t want to, and accept the consequences of your choice. That’s leadership. That’s walking the talk. That’s taking responsibility.
2. Some come as vacationers. They see a workshop as a break from the routine of the daily grind back at the office. It’s a chance to relax and let their hair down. The content of the workshop and the learning opportunity is almost irrelevant. They want to have fun!
Vacationing-participants are easy to engage, and often they become eager to new ideas and concepts because their minds are open. The biggest challenge for these folks is helping them take any learning back to the workplace. They see work and “play” as two very different things, and ne’er the two shall meet.
That differs substantially from the behavior of the leaders I admire most – they live as though work is play, and play is work. They have fun when they come to work. Despite all the weighty descriptions of what an effective leader does, these folks manage to have fun being leaders. They take their mission seriously, and themselves lightly.
3. Some come as consumers. These are participants who have a learning agenda in mind when they come to a workshop. It might be as broad as “How can I be a more effective leader during times of rapid change?” or as narrow as “How do I deliver a good performance review?” Sometimes, they arrive not knowing exactly what they want to learn, but they quickly focus on the content that addresses their own felt needs.
Consumer-participants want to be there. They participate actively. They engage. They also add to the experience by freely sharing their own experience. Consumer-participants are cognizant of their role as a leader, and they want to take their practice to the next level.
4. Some come as reluctant sponges. They want to be there, they want to learn, but they are nervous, or intimidated, or, for whatever reason, don’t feel they belong there. They worry that their contributions won’t measure up to that of others. They fear “being discovered” as people with flaws – but, they do bring a powerful attitude to the workshop. They are acting with courage. But, as sponges, they will absorb much. Some will be useful immediately, and some will take hold in some secret part of their consciousness, to be brought to bear later, when it is useful.
Sponge-participants are poised on the edge of their own greatness. They have only to acknowledge and own their talent and make a commitment to act.
You might think that as a workshop facilitator I prefer a room full of “consumers” and perhaps a few “reluctant sponges”, but it is not so. Bring on the “prisoners” and “vacationers,” and let’s start with where we are.
The truth seems to be that we are all, at different times, prisoners, vacationers, consumers and reluctant sponges.
And if that’s true for leaders, it’s also true for so-called followers. Learning to lead means learning to accept people for who they are and what’s true for them right now, and then helping them see beyond the horizon to a better future.
One of these days, I’m going to facilitate a leadership learning experience, with no agenda, no preplanned content, no handouts or PowerPoint slides. We’ll start with getting clear on who we are, and take it from there. Maybe we’ll start with four questions:
- What do you do when you feel like a prisoner? How’s that working for you?
- What is your paradigm about work and vacation? How’s that working for you?
- If you could learn just one thing that would have an impact on your leadership practice, what would it be?
- What do you do when you feel like you’re over your head, when you feel like you have to protect yourself against being discovered as less than perfect? How can you inspire others to act with courage when they feel this way?
I’d love to facilitate that workshop.