The workshops that I have mentioned here from time to time continue to reveal no end of lessons learned. The participants- many of whom have attended every one of the sessions for the past several years- seem eager to consider and report on the “take-aways” at the conclusion of each gathering, and the insights are as diverse as the people themselves. In some cases, they might have learned about a production technique or marketing access. In others, they may have gained an insight into organizational strengthening or even personal interactions. The presentations and resulting discussions are rich with the reflections of rural Nicaraguans who, like all of us, possess experiences both illuminating and mundane. And I wonder at the end of every session whether that isn’t the real lesson to be both taught and learned.
I have frequently been given the opportunity to present to the workshops, either the stories of my former company, Foldcraft (itself employee-owned and thus very much cooperative-like), or open-book management, or general observations about organizational life and vitality. With the essential translation help of Mark Lester, we have assumed the role of teachers in that context. It’s a role that I both love and fear: love, because I think there is potential value in sharing what we know and what we have experienced in our own journeys; and fear, because I am always sensitive to the stereotype of the North American gringo, descending upon a poor rural community to deliver wisdom and rescue to incapable Nicaraguans. But with that sensitivity in mind, and recognizing fully that everyone in attendance knows Winds of Peace has funded the sessions, we have nonetheless sought to bring our own perspectives into the discussions so that new ideas might be explored.
In the workshops, Mark and I sit right up front. Right where everyone can see us. We offer comment and opinion as appropriate. At the conclusion of major segments, facilitator Rene Mendoza often asks for our opinions or insights into what has just transpired. At times, it seems as though even the translation of my comments somehow adds to their weight, giving them an aura of importance. When I’ve made an actual presentation, the audience almost always applauds, something that they may or may not feel inclined to do following other presentations. It’s heady stuff, becoming the professor, the educator, the sage. It’s easy to adopt the mantle of teacher after all these years, looked to for my perspective, my opinion, my wisdom.
I find myself embarrassed even to write such things. For when I succumb to such feelings for even a moment, I know that I have fallen into the trap which ensnares so many of us and so often. That trap consists of assuming the guise of teacher without retaining the role of learner. When I begin to believe that I have assimilated all of the answers, I take an enormous step backwards in my ability to serve. For truly, everything that I know and teach, I have learned at some prior stage from someone else. If I disconnect from the possibility of continuing to learn from others, I stagnate. And in a world that changes every moment, stagnation leads to ignorance and irrelevance.
In my presentation last month, I referenced a book, The Great Game of Business by Jack Stack. (It’s the essential tome on the topic of open-book management.) I talked about its themes and guiding principles, realizing that even with the Spanish version of the book, many in the audience would never be able to read it, given reading skills and available time. It was a reality that the participants themselves acknowledged. But I encouraged it nonetheless, because the ideas there are so important. And in the discussion thereafter, one of the attendees gave me a new perspective on open-books or any other topic, for that matter. With deliberation and a gentle respect for everyone in that room, he stated, “The illiterate are not necessarily those who cannot read, but those who do not seek to understand.”
In the blink of an eye, the teacher had become the learner, the learner had become the professor. The truth of his words was profound enough by itself. But I also knew that those words had come from a man who, in fact, was very limited in his ability to read or write. His expression simply revealed a truth about our capacity to learn and grow throughout our lifetimes, if we are inclined to retain a sense of curiosity and humility as both teacher and learner.
Harold Nielsen, Founder of Winds of Peace Foundation is now 96 years of age and in failing health. Presently in hospice care at his home, Harold has great difficulty in generating enough breath to speak. But during a visit with him earlier this week, we did have a conversation, of sorts. He eked out his words breathlessly as he tried to tell me about a television interview he had seen recently on the topic of creativity and imagination. He could not recall the name of the woman interviewed. But one of the last things whispered to me was that he was very curious about imagination, and that “I’d like to learn more about that.” In his role as the constant learner, Harold also was modeling himself as the constant teacher. I did not miss the lesson.
Retaining the role of both teacher and learner as I continue to work in Nicaragua is an up-front priority. For whatever I might have to teach, I likely have twice as much to learn. But the inequity of that equation feels OK to me. In fact, as long as I remain the learner I stand a better chance at becoming a worthy and worthwhile teacher. It strikes me as a possibly significant equation for all who aspire to lead….