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The Journey – Tools, Inspiration and Connecting

by Brook Turner, General Manager of Supportive Housing, VisionWest Community Trust

Oh, no, not another leadership course!

I started my journey in leadership twenty years ago with sky-high expectations for personal growth. Every so often I would find myself lured into paying enormous fees for a short-term leadership course which promised learnings that would significantly reshape my leadership journey. The truth was far different from the promise. After countless days of death by PowerPoint and pithy quotes, I abandoned the feeling of optimism that told me a course could truly teach me to lead. Instead, I spent years reading, watching and connecting with leaders from every industry both at home and abroad.

However, about two years ago I found that my leadership had hit a ceiling. I had external supervision, a business mentor and spiritual mentor, and a plethora of books in my leadership library. But I couldn’t seem to grow to the next level on my own. Ironically it was speaking at a leadership conference called NYLD where I was first introduced to Leadership NZ. A good friend Annette Fale spent some time convincing me that Leadership NZ’s approach was different and would help me find what I was searching for. After a year and a half of pondering Annette’s words and doing some of my own investigation of Leadership NZ, I took the plunge and applied for the 2017 cohort. Remarkably, I was chosen as one of the 36 students for 2017.

Earlier last week I found myself alone in the car traveling north to Northridge Lodge for the first Leadership NZ retreat. I couldn’t help but be cynical. I tried to push away my doubt but felt this step of faith was almost a ‘last ditch attempt’ at finding meaningful leadership development from an external organisation.

Upon arrival, I was greeted by past Leadership NZ students. A cultural indicator that was both intriguing and refreshing. After some initial conversations with the Leadership NZ alumni, I made my way into the main meeting area with 35 strangers and found my place at the table with my name on it. I was sitting with five other people, who like me, had little to no idea of what to expect. These five people became my safe place to be myself over the three days. Six little birds migrating together to warmer leadership lands.

After some introductions, what followed can only be described as a dismantling of my prejudices towards leadership courses. The welcome reminded me of the approach we have at Zeal (my organization) where people join a family, not an institution. We were constantly reminded that we were now part of the Leadership NZ family. Throughout the first day, this feeling of whanau was palatable and set an atmosphere of aroha where everyone’s fears and anxieties appeared to disappear by days’ end. It somehow felt easy to be vulnerable which seems like a contradiction of terms as being vulnerable can be challenging. Yet, I was experiencing leadership through peer connections, care-based facilitation and a non-hierarchical approach from Leadership NZ staff that made me feel completely at home.

I kept waiting for the power point presentations to arrive. They never did. Instead, every waking hour of those three days challenged me to search within myself, share courageously with my peers, and step a little closer to the leadership edge of my comfort zone.

Of course, there were practical tools as well. But the tools I learned on this three-day retreat taught me more about myself, who I am, and what’s important to me, than simply giving me tidbits for the bottom drawer. I was challenged to journal feelings, to do self-inquiry at a frequency that made me go deep quickly and exposed both the inadequacy and ecstasy within my soul. The mindfulness exercises helped me to re-center myself after a busy start to the year and gave me helpful tools on slowing the mind to help reconnect it to the heart. This was a major lesson for me over the three days. The importance of connecting the mind to the heart, staying true to yourself and being prepared to venture into the unknown with leaders on each shoulder.

It didn’t feel like I was journeying alone although I arrived that way. Instead, from the moment we started, I was connected. My strengths helped to strengthen others. My fears were allayed by other students reaching out to me with empathy and useful tools taught by our facilitator, Louise. I was being swept away into a soulful, mindful, heart-filled experience. Nothing in the three days resembled a course or series of workshops (except for the Post-it notes).

There were guest speakers. I had expected as much, but not the way they spoke or the subject of their conversations. The vulnerability, creativity, and diversity of the speaker content was deep and rich. Instead of listening for an hour we had quick 20-minute insight moments from the speakers lives followed by a rich and full 40-minute session of Q and A.  In all the experience, I found myself returning to an excitement about my leadership journey and what the Leadership NZ year will do in my life. The cynicism was gone and I already felt like my leadership muscles were getting stretched.  On the last day as I looked around the room, it appeared everyone else also shared my optimistic view.