Who I think about as “My Leader”

By: Jim Bruce
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Today’s Tuesday Reading, Who I think about as “My Leader,” is an essay by Paula Torres, Senior Educational Design Technologist, Global Learning and Innovation, NYU Information Technology.  Her essay first appeared as a program reflection last year.

The one person I think of when I think of leadership was not my manager, supervisor, or even coworker. She was an adjunct professor whose class I took at Teachers College.

This instructor taught me more about facilitation than any other person. I think of her often when I think about effective ways to communicate, observe, share, and learn. I wish I could capture an experience in one of her classes. I will try, but it won't do it justice.

The course was about museum education, and each class was held in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Over three hours, my class of about 15 sat in front of a few pieces in the museum for about an hour and discussed them. At the start of each discussion, all the instructor would say was, "What do you see?" Over the next 30-45 minutes we answered. If we inferred, if we provided any already-established knowledge about the work, it was tabled. We could only describe what we saw in front of us, and nothing more. If we were in front of a painting, it meant stating the obvious: I see a dog. I see a fox. The fox's body is slightly facing the dog. The dog looks out of proportion because one side of the face is bigger than the other. There are a lot of trees surrounding the dog and fox. It always started with a few missteps, a few out of many speaking, but, because she waited patiently, a few more, and then almost everyone contributed. By the end of the observation session, we started to connect observations to conclusions. Only then, when historical context and study came into play did the instructor speak up. She threw little facts here and there, but not too much. She corrected erroneous assumptions we made based on observation. When we couldn't observe any further, the instructor stepped in further, providing fuller information that could not be made by observation that placed the work in a time and place. Soon, our observations developed historical foundations, and assumptions made way for affirmations. That being said, we were never really wrong, except when we didn't describe what we could only see. She allowed us to make missteps because it was the process of observation and brainstorming, not about right or wrong answers. By the end, each piece became complex, personal. And, each individual could not have created that meaning by themselves; it was only by discussing as a group, building on each others' ideas, that we were able to make these works so alive.

It was through that process that I learned so much about seeing, stepping back, autonomy, and authority. By restricting us to only state the obvious, we had less opportunity to jump to conclusions. She created a space of comfort and allowed us to find our own path and meaning. She demonstrated her leadership by creating a space where everyone could speak and share without fear. She trusted and respected us enough as individuals and as collaborators to guide the conversation. I wish I could enroll in that course again and again. 

As you go through the coming weeks, do take the time to observe what’s going on around you and what implications it has for you as you work to successfully complete your goals.  And, also, take the time to reflect back on your life and identify those leaders, mentors, and coaches who have made been a part of making you who you have become today.

Make it a productive week.  .  .    jim

Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA.

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