Interview: Alma Blount
What’s a core value in your teaching and mentoring?
Humility. It’s the starting point, an anchor value in my book. I see it as an attitude and a quality of being. It’s a commitment to being present, open, curious, attentive, and genuinely interested in connecting with others. It’s about wanting to learn what makes others tick, to explore and understand complex contexts, to care about our common life, our interdependent life—in groups, organizations, communities, cities, states, regions, countries, the world.
The daily practice of humility requires strength. There’s nothing weak about it. It’s a hard core discipline. The kind of humility I am talking about comes from insight and wisdom. It is not that we magically let go of our egos if we dedicate ourselves to the practice of humility. The practice is about locating our work in a purpose that is larger than us—one that is necessary and demanding and worthy. The goal is human flourishing. It is vastly more interesting and enjoyable to live this way than to be locked in the “me/mine machine.”
Humility comes from being ready to engage in the real work of the world, to be generous, inquisitive, and trustworthy, to be a colleague who wants the community to thrive. Being humble frees you up. Then you can bring your attention to releasing active forces in a group, encouraging creative questioning, developing a culture of explorations, improvisations, and problem-solving experiments. Humility helps us read contexts more skillfully, so we can refine our instincts for when and how to intervene in organizations, when and how to challenge others, when and how to engage our communities in confronting difficult problems.
Humility creates connection. A practice of humility fosters a connective imagination. For the complex, rapidly changing, interwoven issues we face in nearly every direction today, “cultivating humility,” as I call it, is a cornerstone leadership practice.
Tell us about a leadership principle that you emphasize with your students.
Collective, contextualized intelligence. I see leadership as the process of helping people confront their own most difficult challenges, so they can discover and come to trust their capacity to adapt, and learn new ways of doing business that will allow them to thrive.
The process of building adaptive capacity in an organization is rarely easy, because it requires learning how to work with conflict skillfully and turn it into a resource for adaptive learning. It requires bringing groups with opposing values and perspectives into productive dialogue.
I call the learning process “harnessing the power of collective contextualized intelligence”—a phrase that sounds abstract, although the leadership activity it describes is the opposite of abstract—because it is about working with others to diagnose specific dynamics and conditions, and crafting interventions for specific problem-solving cultures—or work-avoidance cultures—in complex social systems. The purpose of the work is both the well being of individuals and the well being of the community. The work can be inspiring and fulfilling, and it can be frustrating and exhausting.
Why would any of us want to take it on? Maybe we see that we can’t really escape the adaptive challenges of our world. Maybe we realize that doing this work helps us find our voices—to wake up, to become who we most authentically are, to be fully alive. Maybe we find it liberating to locate common purpose with others and “learn to love the swamp.”
Harnessing the power of collective, contextualized intelligence is about building our capacity to address the adaptive challenges that are right in front of us. Developing insight into our intrinsic interdependence, we find the courage to take action, starting with our own communities, and then rippling out to wider and wider circles of connection.
How would you describe the spirit of the Hart Leadership Program?
As teachers we are kindred spirts who see leadership development as a lifelong learning process that requires inner work and outer work. We see inner work and outer work as dimensions of a whole, not polarities. I think the way we value the balance between being and doing is one of our core strengths, and it comes from our rich and varied life experiences as practitioners. We are teachers who understand that we are still learners. HLP is a community of learners.
We care about creating a high quality mentoring environment. We know that we are teaching the future leaders of governments, companies, universities, foundations, civic organizations, and political groups of all kinds. We care about our students, we care about our communities, we care about our society, and we care about the body politic.