Originally posted on Cincinnati.com
My fear of heights is irrational, yet undeniable and intense.
Thus, imagine my trepidation two Fridays ago when I arrived at Camp Joy
for the first event of my Leadership Cincinnati year – ropes and cables to walk on 30 feet in the air and a telephone pole to climb, stand on top of and jump from. All in front of 50 people who will be friends by the end of the program in June, but who today are strangers. And I am editor of The Enquirer, with an image to uphold, after all.
I didn’t walk on the ropes or climb the pole. I did shake with fear and cry. That irrational part kicked in big time. I stood and watched the two hours it took for most of my classmates to climb that pole and jump off. It terrified me to watch.
No one pressured me to do anything that made me most uncomfortable. It was not a competition. They did ask me to stay in the game, to support in whatever way I could.
And then, we reached the wall. Ten or 12 or 15 feet tall, I’m not sure. Higher than the ladders I won’t climb at home. No footholds or harnesses. Just our own bodies to push each other high enough, flat against the wall, so those who went up first would pull you over.
Now there was winning or losing, though. It was the last event of our weekend. We split into groups. The only way for our group to “win” was to get all those who volunteered for the wall over the wall. Folks like me who didn’t volunteer to go over still had to help push and spot. And there were a lot of rules about how many times someone could help lift and pull from the top. We had to strategize who would go in what order so those rules would work out.
All went well until near the end when we realized we had miscalculated. We had run out of people eligible to lift. One brave soul on the outside volunteered to step in. But he had an injured shoulder; he’d have to let someone stand on that shoulder and later he’d have to pull to the top with one arm.
No one wanted him to hurt himself.
But if he didn’t, we would lose.
Irrationally, I stepped forward. I did the wall.
Afterward, someone who’d seen my terror at the pole asked me why. It took me a couple of days to figure that out.
I didn’t want my team to lose. No, let me turn it around. I wanted us to win. On the last event of our weekend, the weekend that would set the stage for our relationships and work together the rest of our year, my choice to suspend my discomfort would matter a lot.
That sequence of events is a perfect metaphor for our larger community.
Earlier that same week, I joined a group of about 70 business and elected leaders on a tour of Denver, the sixth or seventh trip the Chamber has smartly organized to help Cincinnati leaders see how other cities approach goals and challenges and bring away ideas.
Denver is cool, but it’s important to understand that is a result of organized response to a crisis many years ago. Leaders there have a system for how they operate together. The issues change over time (the ropes, the pole, the wall). But how they approach the process of making decisions and running projects does not. And the Cincinnatians who visited said the themes are essentially the same in all the cities they have visited.
What do we really need to take to heart? If we want some outcomes to be different in our community, what will each of us commit to do differently? (At Camp Joy, you had to use the word “I,” not “we,” to take responsibility for only your own opinion and not speak for others.) It takes every one of us.
What behaviors will you commit to change?
The real lessons from Denver and Camp Joy were about the power of our attitudes and our commitment to relationships.
It starts with how each of us reacts to a new idea or challenge.
What if we committed that we will not allow each other to ever meet a new idea with “that won’t work here”? What if that is where we choose to use peer pressure?
Denver is about living collaboration – more than a buzzword. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (former Denver mayor) said they have made collaboration a regional brand.
What does that mean? The components of collaboration in Denver: relationships, leaving partisanship out of governing, and thinking regionally.
Relationships: A Denver company hosts social get-togethers for regional mayors and their spouses, so they can get to know each other as people. There is power in taking time for that. (After that Camp Joy weekend of play and personal conversations, I will be more open to listening to these colleagues even when I disagree when we get to the hard community issues.)
Will you listen to someone else’s point of view long enough to say “I never thought of it like that”?
Partisanship: Denver leaders apply peer pressure to new elected officials who come on board. Not peer pressure to change their principles. But pressure to leave partisan language at the door. One mayor said, “We work hard to blur the lines.”
Thinking regionally: There is pressure to put regional interest ahead of self-interest. In the early stages of collaboration, they said, it is important to find the overlap in self-interests. One mayor said they really do get to regional consensus, to the point that even those who aren’t fully supportive can live with it. (Remember my ah-ha moment from Camp Joy: I wanted to help us win, not just fail to lose.)
Whom will you vote for? Will you elect council members, commissioners and others who will live collaboration – put regional interests ahead of self interest and leave partisan language at the door ?
Once that consensus has been reached, what role will you play? We are really hard on our elected officials. We say we want one thing (non-partisanship, cutting government spending, etc.). But when they do it or try, we slam them for it. Or we are silent. When credible and influential people in our community choose silence, it can be the most damaging thing of all. (Remember at Camp Joy: they asked me to stay in the game, to support in whatever way I could.)
How will you give elected leaders public support to do the right things?
Finally, the Denver folks talked about the concept of “a thousand small steps.” It’s about agreeing on a destination, persevering, and celebrating progress rather than the finish.
Because to be a city on the move, you have to stay on the move. And as I learned at Camp Joy, scary moves can actually be exciting when you are surrounded by people with your best interests at heart, ideas to contribute and willingness to share the load. I just had to choose to suspend my discomfort.
What will you choose?