Power, Leadership, & Healthy Movement Culture

Regenerative, transformative, cooperative and caring … those are just a few of the words participants on the December 22 National Strategy call used to describe the kind of healthy culture they’d like to see for our movement. Clearly, this group of 20+ Transitioners, staff and collaborative partners had a lot of ideas. This strategy call, facilitated by Aleisa Myles of Transition Town Media and William Mutch of Transition Palo Alto, focused on leadership, power sharing and healthy movement culture. It was the 5th strategy call in a series of calls intended to inform the strategic direction of Transition US moving forward. 

Background & Context

In 2019, a nationwide survey of Transition leaders and stakeholders identified challenges with the Transition model as initially presented in the Transition Handbook and as it had been lived out in groups across the U.S. Feedback on that strategy survey (pg. 15) included:

  • “… the sense of ‘whoever shows up are the right people’ is both valuable and also can be a burden in terms of slow decision making and process.”
  • “Despite Rob Hopkin’s aspiration for a leaderless structure, people need training in how to lead and how to motivate people.”
  • “We have an opportunity to set higher standards and expectations for leadership. We can communicate what is needed in effective Transition leadership, as well as the need for more discernment in designing our core teams.”
  • “Transition initiatives often struggle with challenges related to burnout or dysfunctional leadership/group dynamics. Both of these issues can be addressed with more attention to leadership development, including practical skill-building around healthy and effective collaboration, cultivating the ‘next generation’ of leaders, and empowering people to step up and take leadership.”

The conversation in December sought to answer two questions, though the conversation was, as usual, wide-ranging:

  • What resources could Transition US provide to local Transition initiatives to help with the development of leadership and healthy movement culture?
  • How do you distinguish when a problem is the result of a difficult situation or a mismatch of personalities?  

LEADERSHIP CHALLENGES

There are two sensitive periods in a Transition group’s life cycle – how a group gels at the time it first forms, and then when it shifts from founding leadership to new leadership. 

Conrad Willeman, Transition Newburyport (MA), said that the instructions groups were provided when they first registered weren’t very well defined. Everyone did what they wanted to. He acknowledged the challenge of trying to teach “leadership” to groups that are supposed to be autonomous. 

How much do groups need to be “in line” with what Transition US says? How do you provide concrete direction for groups operating in very different circumstances? 

Jane Dugdale’s Transition group in Phoenixville, PA, began just last year. They were fortunate in that all of the core team members took the Regenerative Leadership course offered by Transition US. While they enjoyed the training, they feel unsure about their next steps. They wanted a list of what local groups are doing around the U.S. and information on what models are working. 

John Duvall, from Transition Santa Rosa (now inactive) asked how local groups finance Transition leadership training. It’s important because good leadership doesn’t just happen. The Transition motto that “whoever shows up are the right people to be there” may work well for some things, but not necessarily for leadership. 

People suggested developing training like that which is provided to everyone who begins working with the Citizens Climate Lobby. 

Allen Stockbridge (Bellingham, WA, group name?) said his group would ask: “Who wants to be in charge tonight?” While it helped to spread leadership around, it was a disorganized and unfocused way of operating and they lost people over time. 

Aleisa Myles suggested a national-level mentorship exchange program as well as material on diversity, equity and inclusion. 

Sari Steuber (Transition Media, PA) wanted to see classes on how to facilitate a meeting. “People don’t know what to do. They are worried they won’t be good at it.” She’d also like to see Transition US teach classes on how to organize events and deal with difficult personalities. 

Laura Philon (Transition Wilmington, DE) shared a story from her group about a new person who came in with a particular interest in doing a project. They group invited her to take the lead but the new person’s formal, rigid leadership style didn’t mesh well with the fluid, “go with the flow” personalities in the group. The leadership style caused friction. 

Allen Stockbridge talked about the challenge of “leading” in a non-hierarchical setting, which he likened to “herding cats.” How can we prepare people to adapt their leadership style to a non-hierarchical setting?

Monty Smith (Puyallup Watershed Initiative, WA) said that personality typing is helpful in understanding how people operate – for example Myers-Briggs or Enneagram. 

Sari Steuber’s core team all took the Myers-Briggs test and shared their results. “It was illuminating,” she said. “Introverts and extroverts sometimes have trouble getting along. Once you knew, it was easier. It’s not personal anymore.”

Sari Steuber finds that her group is becoming more hierarchical over time and she’s not sure why. It wasn’t intentional. Sylvia Holmes said that her group (Transition Pasadena, CA) has continued to operate well with a non-hierarchical structure because people are comfortable operating with a level of chaos. 

Laura Philon’s group has been challenged by people coming to meetings to be “part of the club” but rather than taking ownership and joining in, they present the core organizers with a list of what others “should” do. 

That experience was shared by many on the call.

People wanted to know if there was a tool they could use to help them understand the level of buy-in or motivation of people who show up at meetings. How can we tell who is ready to roll up their sleeves and who is just along for the ride?

Suzanne Jones’ group, Local 2020 (WA) may have found a way to address both passivity and criticism. They prioritize relationships, not projects. 

Helping people make the shift from passive listener to active participant is part of the art of leadership. Groups would benefit from more leadership development, particularly when shifting from founding members to the next generation of leaders. A lot of groups are unable to make that shift. 

Leslie Mackenzie (Transition Longfellow, MN) recently moved out of the community where she founded a group in 2011. She facilitated a 3-month process of community conversations to identify who might step into leadership and what the next incarnation of the group might look like. She would like to see training to help groups make the leadership shift. 

Others wanted to see a guidebook on how to revitalize or restart a failed or stalled chapter. 

Stockbridge talked about another shift for which he would like to see clearer instruction from Transition US and Transition International – the shift from a focus on peak oil to … what? He felt the priority message of the Transition movement is now unclear. 

GROUP DIFFICULTIES

William Mutch said we need to move past the assumption that we are all going to get along because we have common interests and values. How do we effectively hold tension in a group space? And if the conflict is too big for the group to manage, how do they discern when they need outside support?

Jane Dugdale talked about the challenge of differing opinions about priorities within the core team. The Phoenixville, PA group ended up excluding someone who was out of step with the thinking of the group. “We protected the core team from infiltration by a person who wanted to take things in a direction that’s not shared.”

Leslie MacKenzie shared that her group had experienced considerable difficulty in its first year due to personality mismatches within the core team. Conflict became so severe that a meeting was devoted to conflict resolution, which was only partly successful. MacKenzie felt that her group would have benefitted from help from a trained outside mediator. “We might have tackled the problems earlier if we had had that resource.” She credited the group’s survival to: 

  • establishing a clear decision-making structure very soon after formation, 
  • choosing to make decisions democratically rather than by consensus, and 
  • group process skills that several core team members brought with them into the group. 

Duvall pointed out that there are multiple forms of consensus and one of them might have worked for the group. 

Jess Parfrey (Eco Vista, CA) talked about the benefit of using trauma-informed and inclusive communication styles and giving people the benefit of a doubt while creating space for healing. Others talked about the value of using nonviolent communication techniques.

Monty Smith talked about the value of using contemplative and somatic (body-based) centering practices for the individual and the group. Specifically he suggested Dharma Ocean, the MIT Presencing Institute, Capra Course, and Theory U

Another tool for navigating group difficulties, and particularly the question of equitable distribution of responsibility (or who is “ready to roll up their sleeves”) is ProSocial, currently being introduced to the Transition network by Galen Meyers & Shaktari Below of the Transition US Collaborative Design Council.

Aleisa Myles shared a podcast with Inner Transition founder Sophy Banks about the importance of focusing on good group process, called “The Power of Not doing stuff.” 

RESOURCING WISH LIST

  • Mediation assistance and conflict support resources
  • Mental health first aid
  • Local leaders’ networking/mentoring group
  • Webpage/database showing what local initiatives and affiliated groups are doing around the US
  • Community organizing resources, training and support
  • Training in meeting facilitating and event planning
  • Training in nonviolent communication, somatic centering practices
  • Guide for restarting or revitalizing a group
  • Non-hierarchical leadership guidance
  • Tool to understanding readiness for action
  • Training in dealing with personality conflicts
  • Development of feedback and review systems

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