To seek leadership skills begs the question who is it that needs leading? This is the story of my love affair with an organization, my leadership journey there in and the bold energy of entrepreneurs.
When I first went into business for myself I knew that I was fundamentally changing the way people came into my life. Through the energy of money I had made a pact with humanity that whomever was willing to pay for my services would have my complete attention and care. I would now experience money directly as an energy transference, appreciation for services rendered. I was stretched by this pact to accept requests from people I would normally avoid or who belonged to a group that made me uncomfortable. So as luck would have it, one of my first clients was a man, a psychiatrist. (I have since made my peace with psychotherapists, but at the time I found that the language of analysis so conflicted with my own story telling sensibilities that I was in constant turmoil with those who practiced it.)
The psychiatrist and I sat in is office at our first meeting and he laid at my feet wonderful metaphors about how his disorganization weighed him down like ten pound boots and he would be so grateful for help to overcome this lack he so clearly saw in himself. Over the year that I spent organizing his office, he ignored anything I suggested he might do to improve his situation. And in the end he blamed me for not fully supporting him (and his continuing habit of disorganization). I had made the mistake of thinking he actually wanted me to help him change his habits and our relationship would soon end. But for the duration he was a terrific reference. He would sing my praises to any prospect who needed an authority figure to vouch for my skills.
It is this willingness to engage with all comers not knowing the outcome that makes entrepreneurs my chosen tribe, especially organizers. Intrepid knights for hire. The term free lancer borrowed from the lance carried by those knights of yore traveling on horseback across the countryside. And so we too ventured forth. As organizers we walk into the homes of strangers knowing little more than what can be described over the phone. We do our work in environments that begin as unfamiliar territory. And in the early days of the profession we did it without credentials. All we had was our own self confidence and chutzpah. I marveled at how much could be made of so little. Unlike academia where it's best to know more than everyone else about a subject, an entrepreneur need only know more than the client.
I loved the energy of these intrepid women eager to take on whatever needed doing, taking you in with one assessing look. I could in a few minutes become so deeply engaged in conversation with a colleague that time was forgotten. Women would stand before me and tell me a stream of revelations most people were not even thinking about. We asked probing questions and practiced our elevator speeches with each other.
We also raised the skill level of the profession by sharing information and teaching each other, creating workshops and conferences to do so. I owed a great deal of business acumen to my colleagues who challenged me to step up my professional image from bohemian sloppiness to creative consultant. We were drawn together by our shared value that environments be made functional and orderly, but also by an ethic of cooperation and honesty. Many a new organizer would come to a chapter meeting and feel overwhelmed by the sense of having found home among like minded people—a roomful of neatnicks. Some of us were not quite so neat, but I would not find that out until later.
The Kingdom of NAPO
The night I joined the San Francisco chapter of the National Association of Professional Organizers, the crown of leadership was being passed from one chapter president to another. The outgoing president happened to be a gay man, the incoming one—a straight woman. Thus in the passing of this mantle, a pair of women's shoes was also included. This was clearly an in joke. The shoes, it was explained, had been given the man at his inauguration by his predecessor (another woman) to gently remind him that he had large shoes to fill.
This was clearly an arena of women in power. And it was easily observed that any gathering of NAPO members was 95% women. The kind of women that I feared most. The ones who commanded families, raised children, volunteered and in general represented a moral America that I had largely experienced as hostile to the immoral minority, i.e. queers, which is to say—me.
My only experience with organizations before this point typically filled a room with black leather jackets, at least two Mohawks and a group energy that would as soon break out into protests with boos and hisses as show its pleasure with the stamping of heavy boots on the floor. In short, at the prime age of 36, I had very little fraternity with women outside of the lesbian community.
I had, luckily, already met the LGBT members of NAPO, including the chapter president. By lucky coincidence the annual conference, held the previous month had been in the Bay Area. So I was somewhat reassured that it would be safe enough to venture to a chapter meeting because I would at least have the company of a highly political, bisexual Jewish firecracker who was also a veteran organizer. (R.I.P. Hester dear) .
NAPO-SFBA met at a hotel near the airport. The energy in the room that night was so electric it felt like a revival meeting. I was quite intimidated by it and did not stand up in front of the group when it was asked if any visitors were present. Nobody outed me as I lay low and assessed this new environment.
I was simultaneously drawn to immediately join this cult-like entity and run for my life. As it happened there was a trade being offered that night. If a volunteer was willing to step up to the job of membership database management their membership fee would be waived. And so I volunteered.
The following year I traveled to Washington D.C. to once again attend the National Conference where I knew almost nobody in a room of some 450 women, but the incoming chapter president of NAPO-SFBA made a point to sit at my table at dinner and proceed to talk me into becoming the editor of the chapter newsletter. I happened to have both the desktop publishing skills and the writing skills needed to handle the job.
This new leadership position went straight to my head and I proceeded to write editorials that both entertained and poked fun at our profession with very little attention paid to actual correction of typos and none at all paid to a business ethic. In no time I realized I had made quite a few enemies. Some of those I had slighted were women I admired and looked up to and I could not seem to ask forgiveness for I hadn't really done anything wrong.
Instead I opted to reveal my perceived role in this organization. I, who dared to make fools of the powerful, was at heart a court jester, a King Lear sort of fool. For this reveal I made a costume to wear to the end-of-the-year holiday party—a fool's costume in blue and purple satin complete with three pointed fool's hat with bells on each point.
I made a business card to go with my outfit stating my title as Professional Fool in the Kingdom of NAPO, "practicing random acts of wit, wisdom and other foolishness for all occasions". I proceeded to hand out a card to every member to whom I felt I needed to make amends plus any other I wished to honor. And thus I charmed the most powerful women in the room into forgiveness and was, in turn, accepted as a contender.
And as it happens with those who seek power, the day will come when that power is challenged. And I would learn that my heros were unable to adapt to this incoming challenge. And by taking their side I assisted in the splitting up of the chapter into factions. Much was discussed behind the backs of those involved until emotions were so high that my entire posse of heroes felt obliged to leave. And I found myself left to fend for myself where I felt so dismembered by the distrust of the opposing faction that I gave up my role as editor of the newsletter, a job I'd held for five years.
From this I learned much about the politics of an organization and how to avoid going down this road in the first place. A year passed and to the credit of those whom I had perceived to be enemies I was given another job as chapter program chair which allowed me to facilitate what I really wanted to do in the first place which was to keep everyone from taking themselves so seriously.
As program chair I was to get up in front of the 70 to 90 members who attended the monthly meetings and introduce speakers I had managed to find who would speak for free. The job had so much potential for theatre that I fully exploited the position with costumes and schtick dressed as everything from super woman to vintage head nurse. I raised the bar so high I could hardly get over it myself. But luckily I would again offend someone and have to quit.
Leadership, as realized in such an organization, was a creative endeavor supported by a shared idea of community. We wanted the party to continue and to do that we took turns to come up with a vision we could all get behind. Not all of my visions had been shared by others, but by taking these risks I had learned a lot about what did constitute good leadership and what would be controversial.
The Shire of ICD
Being predominantly perfectionists, the majority of organizers liked nothing better than to bring order to chaos, coming up with their own filing systems, labeling techniques, favorite products and assorted tips and tricks which they would later blog about. Some designed their own day planners, organizing software and executive management systems. There were, however, a few organizers who began to pay attention to "problem" clients. These clients seemed to unravel back to chaos before their next appointment came around. Led by the innovative Judith Kohlberg, a sub organization of NAPO was formed called the National Study Group of Chronic Disorganization.
Over time the NSGCD put together information to educate colleagues about clients who seemed to resist every effort to organize them. We learned about right brain versus left brain thinking styles, visual learners, attention deficit disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder and the impact of earlier trauma on hoarders. These "red flag" clients were largely by-passed by the majority of organizers who deemed them "not ready". But there were a handful of us who were drawn to these interesting clients. Often we shared some of these tendencies ourselves or had relatives who did. We were also equally drawn to each other and so it was to this group that I gravitated and found home with the brainy nerds of the profession (as opposed to the ambitious product franchising types whose business model I found too daunting to follow).
The NSGCD grew and spawned a two day conference of its own, acquired international attention from organizers world wide and renamed itself the Institute Challenging Disorganization so as to streamline that mouth full of letters from five to three.
Last summer, Kim my long time conference roommate and a member of the board, told me that I was being considered for the role of conference chair of ICD. I was duly honored and intrigued. But why was I being considered, I asked her? I wasn't in any way an exemplary example of anything. She pointed out that I was already on the conference committee and I had all those years of experience as the program chair of my own chapter. Yes and I had learned a great deal about just how far you could push organizers in terms of presentable speaker material.
I remembered fondly my creation of a character I named the Caterpillar of Perpetual Consumption. (Only Hester got the reference to famous nuns of queer culture.) I made the head of the caterpillar from a paper mache balloon which gave the microphone a hollow sort of voice when I preached to the audience about the virtues of overconsumption. I admonished them to buy more of everything, get things on sale, buy two for one always, drive across town and stock up because more really did mean More, was good for the economy and tax deductible to boot, not to mention patriotic. And anyone trying to preach otherwise was a subversive element operating in cleverly hidden terrorist cells and calling themselves agents of sustainable living. My amused colleagues thought this counter advocacy of everything we tried to discourage in our clients a hilarious take off on consumer culture.
The Caterpillar, of course, must transform into a Butterfly which was also part of my three minute performance. I was then able to explain the concept (introduced to me by biologist Elisabet Sahtouris) of caterpillar transformation as a metaphor for social change. How the Caterpillar would resist its impending transformation using its own antibodies to fight off the imaginal cells of the butterfly to which it would eventually succumb from exhaustion. These imaginal cells would then reorganize the molecules of the Caterpillar into an entirely new creature with an entirely different philosophy of living lightly on the earth. Thus we change agents who wanted to implement transformation need only align ourselves with the imaginal cells and eventually a whole new paradigm would fall into place. This idea appealed greatly to the ADD coaches in the room.
The Crown of Leadership
Inspired by this crown of leadership the ICD board had placed upon my head, I immediately set about to seek the kind of speakers I wanted to hear myself, though I had no particular plan as to how to do this. Wandering aimlessly one day I found myself at East West bookstore standing in front of a section marked Brain Plasticity (a favorite subject at the time). What better place to start a transformational change than through one's very ability to think.
I perused every book in the section and wrote down the name of all the authors I thought might interest ICD members. And when I e-mailed them under the title of program chair offering a paid gig in Denver they magically responded. One author with a book on stress elimination was so intrigued by our mission to help those challenged by chronic disorganization that he dropped his usual fee of $7,000 to $2,100. Another author had a book celebrating ADHD as an example of brain neurodiversity. I knew this author would be well received given our ADHD certificate requirements and how we loved positive ways of viewing our clients. With two stellar speakers in hand I was confident that the fates were favoring me. I prepared myself for our 2012 conference where I would be announced as the next chair.
I would naturally have to have a costume to express my eagerness to lead our merry band of intrepid organizers to Denver. Given the geography of the 2013 conference destination our theme was "climbing to new heights". I considered what I would have to do to board a plane to Chicago (which was mountain-less) with full climbing gear, possibly including an ice ax and crampons.
After much study of vintage climbing photos I saw that all I really needed to gear up was a ten foot length of rope looped around my body and a vintage style canvas ruck sack which I already owned plus a natty hat. Thus outfitted I was read to run up on stage at the end of conference wearing lace up leather boots, a red canvas fishermans' smock tucked into into khaki knickers and a waxed cotton field hat. With my ruck sack slung over my shoulder and a compass in my hand, that was all I needed to convey the exploratory nature of our adventure together. I was also to find that the phrase "brain plasticity" was quite funny in such a context allowing me to roll in plenty of other jokes including one about ADD being a useful skill in mountain climbing. It raised the energy in the room from end of conference let-down to celebratory. I couldn't be happier to be on board.
By January I had filled the eight presentation spots and had a strong committee to support these efforts. If leadership was about fostering an atmosphere to bring out the best in everyone it was certainly bringing out the best in me. Our speaker topics included working with clients with dementia, peer counseling as a resource for hoarders, the impact of hoarding on family members and collecting as an art form from the perspective of a film professor (my personal favorite), plus an ask-the-organizer panel and a case study session.
It was a program that brought new material to our core interests and would fulfill many certificate requirements; something to be proud of. I was amazed at how the whole thing had fallen into place with such grace. Everyone was pleased with it. So far so good. The conference wouldn't be until September leaving the whole summer to come up with ideas to enhance the conference experience itself and come up with ways to promote the event. It was for these challenges that I had asked for help.
The ICD conference "Climbing to New Heights" will be held at the Sheraton in downtown Denver on September 19-21, 2013. Online registration is now open.
Labels: ADD, leadership, organizers, organizing