Friday, October 15, 2010

musical chairs

After last weeks "ghost-blog" here is another thought piece by Carrie Leising - I encourage you to read through it with a specific meeting in mind and ask yourself how you might have changed the arrangement to get more at what you really wanted from that time...

Have you ever walked into a meeting and disliked the way the chairs were set up? Did you feel uncomfortable with the chair you sat in? Was it made of hard plastic or rocked on one leg that was missing a rubber heel? Did you find yourself sitting in the corner or in a spot in the room that did not give you the best advantage to hear or see the speaker? But, what's this got to do with leadership?

Meetings are a holding environment for change initiatives (I love that line - DC). A board meetig for a nonprofit is convened to discuss governance issues. A weekly staff meeting keeps work-related tasks on the table. A faculty meeting discusses curriculum or student issues. A group of folks around the water cooler gossip about those hidden messages that lie deep in the heart of middle management. The way that meetings are arranged, whether they are done in a formal or informal manner, is a form of leadership that involves social norms and traditions.

The agenda and the arrangement of the room and which way the chairs are facing the leader sends a powerful message to the audience. Is there a pulpit? Is the speaker comfortable walking around the room? Does the speaker stay in one spot? How is the audience reacting to the speaker? Is the obnoxious person, who always speaks up at meetings, sitting in the back or the front of the room?

Have you gone to a meeting and spent an inordinate amount of time discussing how to rearrange the setup? Have you felt frustrated because the agenda was derailed? Do you have another meeting to follow up on the meeting? Changing the status quo at meetings generates tension and sometimes produces hidden conflicts. It also can challenge the organization's culture and leadership. It seems minor, but changing the way the chairs are set up is a technical challenge. It helps people avoid the "real" challenge. Whether people or leaders know it, they are avoiding the ADAPTIVE CHALLENGE, which is a change initiative. People do not like deep change and it takes a strong leader to focus on the change intitative that's at hand and manage the agenda.

When I sat on the Parish Council for my church, about ten minutes before the meeting started, the Pastor would come and sit in the chair at the head of the table. The pastor had a non-voting role at the meeting but his presence, especially at the head of the able, sent a message to everyone on the council. His agenda and non-verbal cues were leading the meeting. The members of the council struggled to conduct the meeting and say what they really wanted to say. Many nights I stood outside in the parkiung lot discussing the "real agenda." As my frustration grew, I see now that my pastor's seat, or the "hot seat," was in control of the agenda.

Leaders are responsible for controlling the message in ways that allow people to adapt and embrace the message. Leaders can also do the opposite - it all depends on the message. Too much heat and people will want to discuss rearranging chairs or getting to the meeting early to get a "good seat." Too little heat and people will focus on how uncomfortable their chair is and not pay attention.

Next time you walk into a room and feel a desire to pick a seat or change the set-up, take a moment to reflect WHY. It could be for hidden or obvious reasons. Do you have a message you want to share or deflect? Do you want to lead the adaptive challenge or the technical challenge? It's up to you...

Carrie Leising serves as a development officer for Concorida University Texas. She has a Masters in Not-for-Profit Management from the University of San Diego. You can contact her at

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