It is becoming increasingly clear to me that social change, when done well, is an intimate act. For many years, I was taught to ignore my feelings and intuition, and to develop unassailable plans and irrefutable theories to explain and legitimize my work. These days, I don’t find this strategy as useful as it once seemed to be.
We live in times of incredible connection. Everyone is available to everyone else, and yet leadership can feel very lonely and isolating. As I was coming of age, social change was not a profession. It happened in our kitchens, in the streets, in our churches, and sometimes even in our bedrooms. We didn’t need a theory of change or a mountain of data to justify what needed doing. We simply needed an idea and each other.
My deepest partners in the work are not necessarily the colleagues whose newsletters I read, or whom I might encounter at professional conferences. My deepest partners are those who know my heart. These are the people I can count on to challenge me when I need it, and who will hold me up through rough times. My intimates. We know we’re in it for the long haul.
Intimacy doesn’t require years of connection; it is potentially available to each of us in every interaction. I recently had a phone conversation with someone I’d not yet met in person. Within minutes, I recognized him as a brother. He showed his heart to me, and I offered mine in return. I believe the world shifted in that moment. In these times of political strife and conflict, I saw this as a blessing – and hope for more of this in our work.
I’m not disparaging whitepapers, professional forums, or blue ribbon panels. They certainly have their time and place. However, if we’re going to really shift the world, we’ll need to lay down our armor – emotional and intellectual – and risk opening ourselves to one another. We aren’t going to think our way through our current social crises. We need to feel/stumble/laugh/cry/inspire each other if we’re going to seriously solve the challenges ahead.
So the next time you are inclined to pontificate, I invite you to chat. Rather than postulate, let’s wonder with one another. Instead of defending our stances, let’s reach toward, stand beside each other, and develop intimacy. At Rockwood, we call this “relationship before task.” I imagine that work will be much more satisfying, and perhaps even more effective at creating the changes that so many of us are yearning for.
First published in Rockwood Leadership Institute’s September 2016 newsletter
Image by Thomas Hawk