Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Parents as Leaders

When the last group presented their leader as gardener model, I was taken. Of course since we had a tree in our empowerment ecosystem, I drew parallels, but there was also something about the nurturing, anonymous service of the gardener that felt familiar. The same group also made reference, I believe, to the idea that leaders are not just situated in organizations, but may be in families. This has stuck with me. Of course, its true, parents are leaders. Older siblings are leaders too. As I have been writing about our integrative model, at times my mind has drawn connections to the kinds of leadership I have experienced through family. Maybe it is the oncoming holiday season and my upcoming anniversary that have taken my thoughts there, but there is something more too, a recognition that our life experiences teach us some pretty essential conceptions about leadership. I bet, perhaps, through examining what my exposure has been I will also see why I have certain biases, preferences about what leadership should look like.

The themes in my family have been leadership as service and teaching. Greenleaf, Depree and Senge would see their ideas in the flesh in the home I grew up in. Service has always come first in the Nardella family. My father has worked with at risk youth as a school counselor for forty years. Thirty of those years, throughout all my childhood, adolescence, and college years, he was the head counselor at a center for incarcerated youth, what were called juvenile delinquents at the time. Each morning he gently woke my sister and I, served us breakfast, packed our lunches, dropped us off at school, and drove the forty-five minute commute to work. He made no complaints about the drive because the schools near his center were not nearly as good as the schools where we lived. Service was modeled daily, even though I only can consciously recognize it now. It is no surprise, however, that my older sister is a licensed marriage family therapist who spent the first ten years of her career counseling at risk youth and now directs a treatment program for teenage and young adult women in San Diego. Nor is it odd, given this experience, that I married a woman who has given her life to serving African communities in need of clean water and care for HIV and AIDS. Servant leadership has been the clear model in our new family too. I have learned to value those who “are challenging the pervasive injustice with greater force” (Greenleaf, 1977, pg. 20)

Both of my parents could be described as “less coercive, more creatively supportive” as Greenleaf puts it. My mom, like many, made it a mission to encourage my sister and me in whatever hobbies took our interest. We were given space to be curious, creative, and adventuresome. Days after school were spent playing team sports, swimming in the creek by our house, or building igloos in the Pennsylvania snow, all of it exploratory, experiential learning. Though we were not wealthy, what was available went to paying for the few years of dance lessons, and then instrument lessons, then karate, then horse back riding, a real smorgasbord of creative activities. There were not consequences for trying new things and giving them up. We only had to stick out the season. In the way Depree describes it, we felt like we had the trust of our leaders which gave us the grace we needed to try new things and operate in a creative world. Still we had time for directed learning as well.

In the way of Senge’s conception, our family was a learning organization. Our natural curiosity and impulse to learn were actively cultivated. Each evening after dinner, whether we had homework or not, my father facilitated a “homework hour”. During our elementary school years, when actual homework was nominal, this time often consisted of homegrown interactive exercises. My dad would create rhyming pairs or multiplication flash cards, handing us the question cards and hide the answer cards about the house. We would scavenge our way through learning. It was not performance based; we did not need to be excellent academics to earn our parents’ approval. Our parents were more stewards or facilitators, designing activities to foster growth, strategic thinking, and more insightful views of our current reality (Senge, 1990).

Our parents were not authoritarian experts teaching us the right way. They were there to encourage, just as the gardener cares for the sapling, and rarely criticize. It is no wonder that I am now creating a model that argues for leaders to make room for critical thinking, creativity, and curiosity.

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