It is a rainy late October morning in New Brunswick. I am just back from an arts conference in Maine, where we talked about advocacy, strategies for sustainable success, public engagement, and leadership. There were lots of buzzwords, jargon, and catch phrases that get bandied about in many fields, but through it all, I was struck by how many of the people leading these seminars gave concrete, inspiring stories from the local level – how personal life philosophies translate into an organization’s mission, and become the locus for change agency over and over again. How an Opera House in a small coastal town has become an advocate for local lobster fishermen. How a theatre group is helping the citizens of its community become great performers of life. How an art teacher transformed signage in her school through student design, and changed the way her school engaged with the larger community, too. How an orchestra has helped the corporate world lead from every chair.
I ruminate about the nature of leadership – how each of us, if we are able to articulate our personal life philosophy (and that may shift over time, as we grow and learn and change), can translate that, through focused action, into positive change in our communities. That each of us, whether we are introverted, extraverted, and regardless of where our talents lie, have something to offer our family, neighbor, community, or jurisdiction. That true engagement lies in self actualization, and that self actualization grows up through a sense of empowerment to express oneself…and that there are so many modes of self-expression that our school systems do not yet adequately address.
I ponder creative problem solving. Creativity is not the sole domain of any one discipline – and yet our education systems encourage quantitative versus qualitative knowledge – pushes towards specialized knowledge rather than opening opportunities for cross-disciplinary / multi-modal thinking, and too often ignores anything that can’t be written or enumerated. So often I hear people in positions of authority toss about the worn-out phrase, “thinking outside the box”…and yet none of them seem to have access to a box cutter. What if the most creative thinkers from all disciplines had greater opportunities to intersect? What if there were deliberate openings for scientists, artists, computer programmers, health practitioners, etc. to meet and exchange ideas?
Our world is demanding a new kind of literacy – the net demands visual literacy, auditory literacy, and more highly developed critical thinking skills to parse through mountains of data, messages, and argumentations. To navigate that world with skill, to insert ourselves in it with any kind of lasting gravity means we have to have better listening skills, thinking skills, observation skills, and the ability to understand how the juxtaposition of various elements – visual, literary, auditory, etc. – impacts how we perceive – or how somebody else may be manipulating how we perceive.
I have never been the best listener – but more than ever, the ability to listen actively and critically is increasingly key. So is empathy, in a world that is increasingly coming to one in a stream. We can’t afford to be passive receivers – somehow we all need to become active, sophisticated listeners…and we also need the critical capacities to analyze what is being received in order to reframe something before we share it with others. What lens were you using when you read that cbc article about shale gas fracking? What elements were being shared by the media? Was the reporting balanced? What was the government’s response? Is there evidence of active listening there? Empathy? What of the people of Elsipogtog? Of Kent County? Where are they coming from? Where is there disconnect? Why is there disconnect? Why are traditional methods of dealing with this kind of crisis so ineffective? What could be done differently? Who holds knowledge and skill in those diverging methods of approach? What does social license really mean, and to whom? What values are at stake? Why is each value valid? Where can balance and respect be restored?
We have so much to sort out in how we approach things – but it all begins with empowering children with as many means of self-expression as possible when they are young…so that they are equipped with lateral thinking skills (thinking about things from multiple perspectives, observing in different ways, with all five senses) in order to become lucid, articulate, capable proponents of their own individual philosophies of life – and to thereby ultimately become more engaged, open, empathetic citizens.