LeadingAge Magazine · March-April 2018 • Volume 08 • Number 02

The Power of a Circle

March 12, 2018 | by Cat Oettinger, Rita Kostiuk, Sena Quist, Denise Brown and Michelle Faber

These 2017 Leadership Academy Fellows explain what they learned and experienced as part of their study circle, and how it will help them move our field forward.

Editor’s note: The Larry Minnix Leadership Academy includes a “study circle” in its curriculum. The Fellows participate in the study circle to collectively examine a timely issue relevant to nonprofit aging services providers. These discussions are meant to provide a vehicle for ongoing, structured dialogue, deliberation and shared problem solving.

Our 2017 Leadership Academy journey started and ended with a circle. Questions of various shapes and sizes were presented as gifts to us throughout the year: gifts meant to be unpacked and rewrapped and unpacked again. We started and ended each of our times together in a large circle and then moved into and out of smaller circles. Despite a circle’s boundaries, it ebbs and flows, changing size and shape. Like the initial circle formed by dropping a pebble into a pool of water, our first time sitting in a circle sent ripples of conversation that have continued past the end of our Academy year.

During our time together, questions were proposed, silence fell, writing occurred, chairs were moved, dialogue occurred. Ideas appeared, and assumptions were questioned. Chairs were moved again. In conference center rooms from Indianapolis to Redondo Beach to DC to Chicago to New Orleans, the conversations flowed. Once in the circle, we found our perspectives on ourselves and the work we passionately deliver every day, changing in unimaginable ways.

Since 2007, the Leadership Academy has brought together a group of diverse aging services professionals to explore questions for which there are no set answers. In our large group conversations and small breakouts, we test what we know about ourselves as leaders, and about the field of aging. The “study circle” is the vehicle for our journey together.

Our year in the Academy centered upon a broad and powerful question:

What do we see as gaps in our field and how do we think aging services providers should address those gaps?

The 48 aging services leaders were divided in 2 groups and divided into smaller teams within these groups. We were invited to prepare a short presentation made to inspire the exploration of these gaps. To name a few of the gaps highlighted during our presentation; we discussed ageism and how to combat it, we discussed how our worlds are often too siloed, and we discussed the need to focus on our generational similarities rather than differences. We all live these gaps every day, in different ways, in our own organizations. We live and witness the gaps in our personal lives as well. And yet, when we sat within our small teams—initially overlooking the water at Redondo beach—we were struck by the immensity of the question and the challenge of how to begin the conversation. Each road seemed impassable and impossible to journey down.

At the end of our presentations in DC, the gaps we face in aging services had not changed, but for many of us our perspective on the gaps had changed. In place of impossibility and impassibility, possibility and hope emerged. One of our incredible facilitators and guides, Judy Brown, the lead facilitator of the Academy, summarizes this journey best in her poem, "The Circles of our Conversation":

The circles of our conversation
Help us face each other
And the task before us,
With a hopefulness
We had not known
Until we met

It was within the ongoing, structured dialogue during our time together that different perspectives and ideas surfaced. And it was through this process, and this dialogue, that hopefulness emerged. With this hopefulness a new passion for tackling the complexity of the gaps we faced grew within us.

In place of impossibility and impassibility, possibility and hope emerged.

This is the power of leading with a question. Of being open to honest and deep exploration of all perspectives. Of giving room to not respond and solve but to simply listen and ponder more questions. In many of our small study circle exercises we experienced the power of being given the purposeful space to be heard and to listen to others. The transformative power of that experience is hard to define.

The Power of a Circle on Us, as Individuals

Throughout this year, as we explored the questions that face us as professionals, and as humans, we found ourselves in an ever-growing and changing conversation that led to a journey of deep discernment. The experience of the Academy is one that will connect you with incredible individuals who passionately serve in the field of aging every day. Ideas are shared and formed but it is the deep personal journey that takes place within each of us that is most surprising. And it starts with the first time you sit in that circle.

When asked about what the Academy experience has meant for the fellows this year, trust, collaboration and openness came through as highlights. Included in the word cloud below are the responses of the Fellows:

Figure 1

The Power of a Circle on Our Organizations

The threads of our conversation were woven and carried through our many times together and continue to strengthen. In our final gathering, sitting in a large circle, a ball of yarn was passed (and thrown and rolled) between each of us—tying us together—tying together the many threads of our conversation. We spoke about what we were taking away with us and where we were headed next. The word cloud below captures what the fellows said they would bring back to their own organizations:

Figure 2The desire to promote culture change and continue the deep discernment process was complemented by plans to practice the exercises we explored this year. Some Fellows spoke to using this experience to plant the seeds of culture change within their organizations—to focus on “a culture of safety” in which “people are free to speak honestly and openly.” The fellows spoke about having more people, from various parts of their teams, come to the table, allowing more voices to be heard, and supporting this process by leading with questions. There was a shared understanding that the change in perspective is what is so necessary in the work we do. It is through alignment in our differences that we will overcome the perceived and real gaps we face every day.

Throughout this year, as we explored the questions that face us as professionals, and as humans, we found ourselves in an ever-growing and changing conversation that led to a journey of deep discernment.

Other fellows plan to take the exercises we practiced in the Academy journey and use them with their own teams, with the aim of helping support internal leadership development. Some fellows spoke to continuing their own discernment process, and said that the conversations during our time together will continue to make them more aware of how they foster the gaps we face in aging services.

The fellows spoke to giving and receiving more feedback, and showing more appreciation—both to themselves and their teams. There was agreement that there are small steps to be taken which lead to big changes. Many fellows spoke to the shift they experienced in how they lead: purposefully pausing to ask questions and learning from other voices, rather than jumping into problem solving. It is perhaps because of this shift in perspective that there was a shared experience of discovering the courage to take on the role of “leader as learner.”

The Power of a Circle on the Field of Aging Services

The Academy has served as a deep learning experience for leaders in aging services over the last 11 years. Over that time more than 400 individuals have sat in circles and shaped and pushed conversations which have continued within their own organizations and lives. The impact on the field of aging services is undoubtedly great. In the word cloud below, the fellows’ words about how this experience will shape the field of aging services is captured:

Figure 3Fellows spoke to the importance of obtaining various perspectives around the table for continued dialogue. This requires collaboration across our field and our organizations, and must include the voices of those we serve. It demands engaging decision makers from all areas. Our leadership in this field, and overcoming ever-present gaps, requires continual exploration of self, and the encouragement of others to do the same. It requires the awareness that we all experience—and foster—ageism which influences the gaps that we face daily.

For some fellows, this experience has led to an immediate change in their positions and organizations. It’s sparked a new passion to become advocates beyond their organizations into the legislative levels of community. Other fellows spoke honestly that they are “still working on it …”

This Academy was a spark that started a lifelong dialogue and journey. One that will continue to be shaped, and will continue to shape us for the rest of our lives. This experience has allowed us a new vision for the future, shaped by the different ways we engage multiple voices in dialogue and celebrate different perspectives. It has allowed us to see opportunities rather than problems. Fellows spoke to learning how to look for “gaps” between what is and what could or should be, and the power of bringing others along to explore these gaps collaboratively. This journey has fostered the courage to take a step and not know where it is going to lead. This journey has fostered the courage to sit in a circle and start a dialogue.

Throughout this year we have explored the idea of leader as learner, and the power of leading with a question. A question sparks a conversation, which sends ripples of ideas and change, which sparks new conversations, and so the ripples continue. That is the power of a study circle; the power of the Academy. For those of you who have not participated in the Academy, we hope you will join the circle and continue the conversation.

Cat Oettinger is director of community life at Orchard Cove, Canton, MA; Rita Kostiuk is member engagement manager for LeadingAge Massachusetts; Sena Quist is executive director and nursing home administrator at Rock Hill Post Acute Care Center, Rock Hill, SC; Denise Brown, RN, is director of nursing at Ohio Living Mount Pleasant Retirement Village, Monroe, OH; and Michelle Faber, RN, is a nurse practitioner at Carol Woods Retirement Community, Chapel Hill, NC.