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After the Windsor Leadership Dialogue

Posted
24/02/2020

On 13 and 14 January 2020, I attended the Windsor Leadership Dialogue (WLD) as an assistant rapporteur to Gillian Chivinge. The theme of the WLD was ‘Leadership on a Shifting Dancefloor’. Eighteen leaders from the commercial, independent, and voluntary sectors attended the two days of WLD at St. George’s House within the grounds of Windsor Castle. The dialogue was facilitated by a team of three custodians who were former participants and associates of the WLD.

The informing idea behind the event is that a dialogue is a kind of collaborative thinking – and most importantly, that dialogue doesn’t need to lead towards an answer. It is instead an opportunity to think and to learn together, and to share space in an intentional way – with no specific end-goal or ‘target’ to achieve. Unlike a meeting at a workplace, for example, the WLD would not require that action was taken, there was nothing that needed to be done – the participants were free to just be together in a way that they found useful, exploring  questions that felt pressing for them. My expectations were simultaneously off-the-scale and nought; I had no idea what a dialogue would actually look like when done by the experts’. The WLD hoped to take people – who often had prestigious achievements – divest them of their rank in the hierarchies and order of society, and place them as equals, each with something to contribute and something to learn.  I was surprised and grateful to find that I was to be included in this ethos, valued and embraced as an equal amongst people I thought ‘great and good’, and a good few of them at least 20 years older than me.

My lofty dream of observing perfect dialogue in action, of seeing the ‘experts’ perform, soon met with reality.  I should have known that there are no experts. Even though the delegates were experienced leaders and skilled speakers, thinkers, and listeners, they were still human; communication was still difficult, people were still hesitant – but it was important to recognise that – and to recognise myself in that hesitancy and to realise that I wasn’t observing a whole different class of perfect communicators; everyone at the WLD was just a person doing their best to make sense. I was impressed that, despite the inherent human messiness of this, all delegates had the clear intention to push past their egos towards understanding, taking seriously the need for leadership to be different to ‘management’; to pursue the idea that instead leadership could be inherently ethical, ‘heart-centred’, and empowering. At the end of the WLD, we all gave collaborative feedback to each other and to the custodians. It felt inspiring that the custodians and delegates were still always working to improve, and become aware of obstacles in the way of deeper communication. In the spirit of dialogue, they were striving for more vulnerability, to go deeper, encouraging more diverse participants with different worldviews, – to have more challenge, and a deeper reward.

Throughout the WLD the custodians had a difficult but important job – prioritising and enabling the self-organisation and collaboration of the delegates over the two days, while also guiding the process. They had to create and shape the form of the process, without inhibiting its natural flow. This was an interesting tension which mirrored the content of discussions within the dialogues – how should we as ‘leaders’ act to enable the utmost freedom, collaboration, and exchange, without taking the liberty we were trying to protect away in our action?

Like the tensions involved in the process of facilitating the dialogue, other productive and enlightening tensions arose, both in the form and the content of the dialogues.  While some of the tensions could be useful in generating energy during the collective enquiry, others threatened to become paralysing. Interestingly we found some dichotomies to be false, relieving the tension caused by imagining one in direct opposition to another.

Among these creative tensions were: Freedom vs. Framework, Environment vs. Individuals, Knowing vs. Not Knowing, Action vs. Reflection, Experience vs. ‘Naivety’, Abstract Theory vs. Lived Experience, Collaboration vs. Leadership, Like-mindedness vs. Diversity (or unity vs. difference), Doing the right thing vs. Getting it right, Good vs. Popular, Learning vs. Unlearning, Speaking vs. Listening.

However, in navigating these tensions throughout the dialogue, the most value for me came in realising collectively how little we knew.  As we explored one question in more depth – the approach we thought might lead to best results was compared to an alternative approach offered by another delegate.  Both approaches were questioned by yet another delegate who proposed a further alternative approach. In the end, we realised no one knew which path was best to take, and it seemed clear that it was near impossible to really know which path was the best, if any (especially in the age of limitless information).  Anyone who claimed to know which path was definitively and actually the best shouldn’t be listened to anyway, as they clearly hadn’t thought enough about it! Although important for equalising us, and humbling any of us who presumed ourselves definitively expert, the sceptical route which doubts certainty can potentially lead us to disbelieve ourselves and our power to change things for the better. It seemed to me that the persistent position of the leader (revealed most especially in this age of potential climate collapse), could be that they must know their individual powerlessness and fallibility. Despite their power, they still need to have the courage to make decisions and keep learning and unlearning, knowing that they can never know the right thing to do – hopefully finding new power in that contradictory move. Group power through quality collaboration seems like one of the best ways through the loneliness of that inherent uncertainty.

This led back to the theme of this year’s dialogue – ‘Leadership on the Shifting Dancefloor’; what does it mean to lead after acknowledging that the contexts of our leadership are always changing? How do we lead in light of vast uncertainty and change? In my blog prior to attending the WLD I had quoted John Cage in saying that we live most of our life ‘fumbling around in the darkness’. This suddenly made more sense after a participant deftly linked it with what another delegate was saying about the importance of courageous leadership, taking risks and experimenting. Listening only works if we understand that we’re not in an illuminated world, that we have seen so little of it, and that there is so much yet ‘out there’ (or even just ‘right here’ under our nose). Especially after seeing what top leaders still felt they had yet to know, I realised that it was important to recognise that we are always wading into the land of uncertainty – the unknown, and the unknowable – and it is the courage to collaborate and fumble through the darkness together that seems to provide the key to progress. Pretending we know the right thing to do can lead to rigidity, or arrogance, either one masking a fear of the dark. Again, this was not just clear in what the delegates were talking about, but how they were talking. In the more effective dialogues, nobody assumed they knew for certain what the next steps were, and where exactly solutions lay, but they attempted to speak and listen with a shared purpose, guiding others where they could and letting themselves be guided.

As a young person encountering this kind of event for the first time, I came away thinking and feeling about leadership, collaboration, and communication in new ways, and with a host of insightful tools learnt from observing and participating in the WLD. I am looking forward to putting what I have learnt into practice in my own life, from the most mundane group decision-making to deeper group reflection and enquiry with friends and family, or as part of my degree with fellow students. Beyond this, the WLD has inspired me to attempt to ‘lead’ more on things that matter to me, to be more active in changing my life to impact the world, as well as in helping me find a model of leadership that I feel resonates with my personality and values. I felt the importance of not just sitting quietly to listen to people, but also to actively and continuously sustain a space for people to speak and think freely, in order to listen properly to them. We can’t just relax and hope that we will automatically understand each other and that any conflict will be resolved. However, as I learnt through observing the dynamics and tensions at play at the WLD, actively creating that space requires skill as well. I imagined trying to clumsily recreate a dialogue with reluctant friends, shepherding them into a room and trying to get them to collaborate and listen. True collaboration and dialogue have to involve co-operation and intent from all parties, making decisions with people.

I hope to bring dialogue with me everywhere I go in whatever form I can – dialogue not being just a place to go once a year. Coming of age in continuing political, ecological and therefore personal turmoil, I have felt, above all, the importance of staying ‘in dialogue’, despite every fear that tells us otherwise, luring us towards a bunkered certainty. I hope for this sense of dialogue to persist in my life, helping to anchor myself to others, and to what really matters. I also hope to stay modest in my understanding of the world, whilst navigating the complex and ever-changing unknown world of the present.

Thank you to the Oasis School of Human Relations, to everyone I met at the WLD, and to St. George’s House for this great and insightful experience!