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Pussy Hats in Portholland

By Deborah Rowland

I never thought I would hear the word, “pussy”, in church. But I did, last Sunday, as I joined the small, yet fervent congregation in my local Portloe Church in Cornwall.

The prior weekend, on January 21st, it is estimated that up to 4.8 million women around the world united in a protest march against the Donald Trump presidency. Inspired by the Washington DC women’s protest march, which alone attracted 500,000 people, women in 673 locations, across 82 countries, on all seven continents, were simultaneously connected – a spontaneous, self-organised, grassroots movement sending a bold political message to the new Trump administration about women’s, and human rights.

A pussy riotPhoto from Cornwall Live

One of those 673 locations was my neighbouring tiny coastal village of Portholland, where 100 women gathered from across Cornwall and marched from the west beach, to the east beach, and back again. Annie, the lay preacher in this Portloe church service, was one of those peaceful yet forceful 100 women. She gave a wry smile as she stood behind the lectern, recounting how the march had become to be known as the “Pussy Hat march of Portholland”.

I sat in the congregation, as a human being profoundly disturbed by Trump’s past lewd proclamations about women, and recent executive orders that are exclusionary and anti-humanist, feeling a mixture of pride and hope, that the right-wing extremism now on full display on the world stage would be neutered. But I also sat there, as a life-long student of leadership and large complex systems in transition, feeling curious and bizarrely grateful for the disruptive force of the Trump presidency.

And here’s why.

It is teaching us about change

IMG_7843Photo from Cornwall Live

One reason Trump won the presidential race is because of his overall change approach: he tuned into the periphery (those at the edge of a system, who can be ignored); uncovered a ripe issue (globalization has come to the benefit of an elite few and at a price to many local communities); set a loose overall intention (“make America great again”); broke down the traditional power distance in communications (via his personalized, direct tweets); and used the power of self-organising volunteer networks (a dramatic grass roots movement swelled his support). Contrast this approach to the more centrally controlled and carefully messaged Clinton campaign.

Whether you agree or disagree with what Trump’s message of change is, you can’t deny that how he led the change turned a once ridiculed outsider candidate into arguably the most powerful leader in the world.

My own practical experience, and empirical research into the successful implementation of change likewise shows that in today’s uncertain and dynamic world, where peer-to-peer networks are a stronger influencing force on mindset and behavior change than traditional vertical hierarchies, a more “emergent” approach to change is more successful. In emergent change you don’t attempt to lay out grand plans that get rolled out from the centre, delivered through formal programmes. Instead, you tap into the unmet needs of the system, influence the informal, day-to-day conversations, and fan the flames of local activism.

It is teaching us about leadership

Now, the disruptive change approach that won Trump the presidency might not be accompanied by the skill set that will make him successful when in presidential office. I suspect things might get a little more complicated for him as he attempts to implement the large-scale change he has so sweepingly promised. In practically every conversation I now have with my clients, or during Q&A sessions when I am speaking at conferences, I get asked the question, “how come such a narcissistic, impulsive, liberal-with-“the truth” combative leader has got the top job? Doesn’t your research show that shaping, ego-centric leadership leads to failure when implementing large complex change?”

Well, I guess there can be anomalies. But, seriously, the jury is still out on whether or not his leadership style will be successful. And, what is, “success”? Is it pushing through change that dangerously divides a systemically influential global nation, while at the same time alienating previously important international allies? Do we deem success just on the basis of “America first” prosperity while other nations lose out, or, look to see if the whole global order will in some way be improved by having Trump as president?

Out of the eight skills I have found to be associated with the successful leadership of change, and, written up in my new book, Still Moving: How to Lead Mindful Change (Wiley 2017), Trump does tick a few boxes. In particular, his capacity to “Tune Into The System”, identifying with the emotional undercurrents of your people.

Most worryingly, however, is his seeming complete incapacity to adopt “Curious & Intentional Responding”, the skill of hitting the pause button between what is being experienced and what you do in response to that experience, a capacity that takes leaders off of blind, impulsive self-serving protective routines and into more resourceful and creative ones.

If leaders cannot exercise this skill, they risk solely seeing the world through their own projection, and they will deploy coping mechanisms probably learned deep in childhood experience. And, the system around them whose worldview is ignored will either rise up and resist or in self-serving collusion, comply.

It is teaching us about systems

When I am at my most fearful, or troubled, by what I am seeing and hearing about Trump and his new presidential team, or when I am tempted to read only more liberally minded New Yorker magazine articles, I try to step back, acknowledge all of the world’s reaction – including the positive – towards Trump, and see the disturbance as a ripple in a wider, bigger picture. My systemic training tells me that if anything gets excluded it only gets bigger. Once you stand in judgment, you stop exploring deeper, positive causality. At some level, I have to learn to agree to Trump, even if I cannot agree with Trump.

So, systemically, what is his presidency serving? At face value it might serve to exclude immigrants and protect local jobs, impose protectionist tariffs and boost US industry. But, at a deeper level, what else might it serve? By swinging so far from the previous liberal administration, and causing reactionary unrest, might it, paradoxically, only serve to strengthen, not impede civil rights progress? Coming so soon as it does after Brexit, might his presidency provide a wake-up call to the European Union to make sure that this institution founded in the ashes of the Second World War makes itself more relevant to the local nations it is designed to serve?

Above all else, perhaps his presidency is serving to bring to light a once-ignored section of the global population. To reveal how dangerous it is to divide. To show how, despite the wishful thinking of building walls, it is impossible in today’s interconnected world to isolate. And, to inspire local residents from around the world, like Annie, to step up and lead, to take a voice – even if her words risk making God blush.

I, for one, don’t think that is too high of a price.

 

Deborah Rowland
January 31st, 2017

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