Leadership as a two-way conversation

As many of you are aware, I recently started teaching a special needs drum line. I wanted to share the process where I benefitted from having my students collaborate with and even lead me at times, as we tried to figure out a curriculum that works for them.

I have taught Brazilian samba styles before to 3rd thru 5th graders, and I thought that this music would be perfect for this new group. There’s a limited number of musical phrases you need to learn, lots of repetition, and it leverages my special needs folks strength of being incredibly joyful when they’re doing something they love.

I also thought that, since the curriculum worked for 3rd to 5th graders, it would work for these developmentally disabled adults with only minor changes. And I was right…but I wasn’t totally right.

Many aspects of the curriculum I had developed previously did work, but there were definitely some parts of it that did not. And, as much as I tried to think it through and figure it out on my own before rehearsals with the group, what worked best for me was having my students figure it out together with me in real time at rehearsal.

Sometimes this was as simple as giving them a couple of options, and asking them which worked best. Sometimes it meant trying a new way to teach or conceive of an idea and then observing in real time to see if it was working.

But, the main idea here is that I was open to having a two-way relationship with my students, as opposed to a strictly one-way, top down relationship.

In the past–partly out of stubbornness, partly because it was how I was taught, partly out of my desire to keep things simple and streamlined for my students–I was the quintessential top-down/one-way teacher. “Don’t think, just move your hands” was often my motto.

One way to look at this is that this new approach is no more than a change of mindset. While I’m still the leader of the group, how we achieve our goals is more of a shared, collaborative  process.

In another way, this is a fundamental change in my relationship with my students. I am no longer the looming, omnipotent teacher figure–I’m just the guy in the room facilitating what we’re all trying to achieve.

It also aligns with how I see my role developing as an educator–I’m becoming more of a coach/facilitator (two-way communication) than a teacher (more of a one-way conversation). Not that the idea of a teacher is a bad thing–no, no. It’s just that, as I transition to this new paradigm of leadership, playing with the terminology helps me.

I thought of this while reflecting on a talk that Thomas Friedman of the New York Times recently gave at the World Affairs Council. He was talking about how the leadership paradigm would change in the near future. One of the fundamentals of this paradigm shift was that it was becoming a two-way conversation with the folks you are leading instead of a one-way conversation.

The country-level example he gave was Prime Minister Erdogan in Turkey, who sought a one-way conversation with his people (the protesters in Taksim Gezi Park are leaving NOW, we’ll shut down twitter, etc.) but he found out that it’s not so easy, and the people he led felt differently about these things (a social media revolt, mass demonstrations against his policies a la the Occupy movement, etc.). The protesters had a new type of power he hadn’t had to deal with before, and, whether he likes it or not, he now must have more of a two-way relationship with them.

For me as a teacher, it has been and will likely continue to be a bit of a struggle as I migrate from one-way teaching to a two-way relationship with my students. But, just as I can’t stop my students from getting crazy ideas about drum technique from the internet, I can’t stop this trend of leaders having to adapt to having a two-way relationship with those they lead. It is the wave of the future, but–more importantly–it’s an effective way to lead right now. For those in a leadership position, it can also be incredibly rewarding. My special needs drumline had a fantastic, uplifting show this past Saturday–a show that was made all the better by the two-way conversation we had gone through together while prepping for that performance.

Are there any parts of your life where you use the old-school, one-way leadership approach (as a parent, in your professional life, your personal life, etc.)? Could any of these benefit from more of a two-way relationship?

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