The First Forum for Leadership Educators: An Origin Story

Wendy Morris

Saturday, September 26, 2009
University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management
Day Two of The Forum for Leadership Educators

A large rectangular room with a wall of windows overlooks the University of Minnesota West Bank Campus.Along the adjoining wall a heap of long tables are stacked tall, one on top of another.

Above the piled tables, a large printed banner proclaims…


  • To advance our understanding and practice of leadership development
  • To cultivate approaches to leadership development that are equal to the challenges of these unpredictable and daunting times
  • To generate adaptive approaches to integrative leadership
  • To evoke our capacity and competence to develop leadership for the common good

Another poster reads…
We do not just live in an age of change. We live in a change of ages. – Eamonn Kelly

Seven tables are scattered around the room covered with red and white checkered tablecloths, small vases of fresh flowers, and wine goblets stuffed with colorful markers. Sheets of flipchart paper drape over the tablecloths. The white pages are blank canvases primed and ready for insights and images that are about to come.

It’s break time. Twenty-five women and men are absorbed in animated conversations in the hallway. This cohort is a fertile mix of diversity and commonality. Although they come from very different worlds—business, government, academic, non-profit and community contexts—they all make leadership development their work.

The ring of a chime signals that break is over. Participants return to find a room that looks very different from the simple circle of chairs they left just a few minutes earlier. They are beginning to expect the unexpected.

When the program began the day before there was a subtle stiffness in their bodies, a cautious look in many eyes, and a formality to the cadence of their voices. Today, in this second afternoon there is a whiff of anticipation on their faces that borders on delight. There is a slight flow to their movements as they settle around the tables across from their colleagues. The sound of the voices is rich and varied—from lilting, playful qualities to deep and thoughtful tones.

This is day two of a three-month program to help leadership educators explore their own adaptive capacity and evolve as leaders themselves. During this first day and a half, the furniture in the room has been configured in many ways, each one signaling a new mode of engaging around the theme of adaptive leadership. After just this short time together, participants are adapting to a constantly changing learning environment filled with simulating ideas. It is time to generate some collective meaning from their divergent experiences.

Scrawled across a flipchart is the theme for the conversation they are about to embark on: What do we know now about what is possible together?

It is the beginning of a conversation that will continue to unfold in many forms over the months to come.

The Invitation

In the summer of 2009 the University of Minnesota’s Center for Integrative Leadership invited me to join a small team to design and teach an innovative program on adaptive leadership for leadership development practitioners from different sectors.

I was excited to contribute to this new venture. I had grown familiar with leadership development practitioners as an audience. Leadership consultants, trainers, educators, and coaches are often program participants at venues where I teach, places like the Shambhala Institute for Authentic Leadership (ALIA Institute) in Nova Scotia, and Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada.

I was also attracted to the cross-sector nature of the project. Since 2002 I had been co-facilitating a cross-sector leadership development program around creative community change: The Creative Community Leadership Institute (CCLI). My colleagues and I had developed an approach and a toolbox that had worked well for bringing cross-sector groups together. We drew on many of the core conversational methodologies that are associated with The Art of Hosting Conversations That Matter (hereafter referred to as “Art of Hosting”): we opened and closed each session with Circle Process; we regularly used Open Space Technology as a forum for emergent ideas, issues and opportunities; and we incorporated World Café as a way to evoke collective wisdom related to curricular topics.

Looking back to when I first met my colleagues from the Art of Hosting network in Canada in 2006, I can imagine that I might have been surprised by how sinuously the patterns and practices of Art of Hosting overlapped the patterns and practices of my own work. But I wasn’t surprised. Because those patterns and practices simply seemed to me to be how good work gets done in complex environments. The first time I participated in an Art of Hosting training was in 2008, ten years after I first trained in Open Space Technology with Harrison Owen, and a dozen years after integrating Circle Process into my own leadership development work. The Art of Hosting training was like being in my own living room—welcoming, comfortable, and familiar.

The story told here is about The Center for Integrative Leadership’s inaugural Forum for Leadership Educators and its relationship to the Art of Hosting initiatives that followed at the University. After the first Forum, faculty and staff interest in the kinds of participatory engagement practices taught through the Art of Hosting was very high, and all subsequent Forums for Leadership Educators have been Art of Hosting trainings. As a member of the core teams that led the first Art of Hosting training programs sponsored by the Center for Integrative Leadership, I have seen firsthand the commitment to nurture a robust community of practice, and to grow the number of Art of Hosting practitioners at the University. Faculty and staff have invested themselves in becoming skillful hosts of conversations that matter. Some of those who participated in the first Forums have gone on to train others who are now hosting conversational change efforts inside the University and in the community.

In the summer of 2013, my University colleagues and I came to realize that the First Forum for Leadership Educators four years earlier had prepared the ground for what became the Art of Hosting initiatives at the University of Minnesota. This chapter explores that origin story.

What We Knew…

In 2009 the Center for Integrative Leadership was a young and tenuous collaboration between the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs and Carlson School of Management. The Center was without a director. The Forum for Leadership Educators was the Center’s first non-credit, executive education development offering, and a lot was at stake for the Center.

In my understanding, our charge was to build a cross-sector learning community of leadership trainers, educators and consultants interested in delving deeply into the practice and pedagogy of leadership. The structure of the program had been set before I was brought on board and I thought it would work well: three two-day retreats spread approximately one month apart; a trio teaching team; and a cohort of practitioners whose backgrounds would reflect a broad range of perspectives on the field of leadership development. The core content was to draw on cutting edge research, theory and practices around adaptive leadership and integrative leadership, especially the Adaptive Leadership framework developed by Ron Heifetz and his colleagues at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government (Heifetz & Linsky, 2002).

What We Didn’t Know…

None of the people putting on the Forum knew one another.

It is eight days before the program is about to launch.

For a number of reasons the person poised to serve as lead trainer and content expert is unable to fulfill the roles he has acquired. One week before launch he steps down.  

Sunday night before our Friday opening session I receive a phone call from Jodi Sandfort representing the University. She asks if I can “get this car out of the ditch”: to step in to complete the program design and steward this effort in four days.

I think about it overnight. I reach out to a colleague I have met a couple of times, Val Ulstad, a physician who I know has done a brilliant synthesis of Heifetz’ work for leaders in health care. I ask her if she’s willing to jump into the program to provide the content frame.

This is what the work is all about: adaptive leadership.

I agree to step in. Val agrees to step in. We’re on our way.

I want to assess how the program design might resonate with participants from diverse sectors, so I solicit input from a range of people. A colleague who is a senior leadership development practitioner for a large company confers on the program design with a business eye; a friend who knows nothing about leadership development provides a naïve perspective that helps take my implicit assumptions about the program and make them explicit.

In the next four days a curriculum comes together, a binder, handouts, slides… 

The trainer who was originally leading the program is invited to join as a participant and accepts.

Jodi, who was originally slotted to co-teach the program as part of the trio teaching team, realizes that what is unfolding is something unfamiliar to her. She recognizes that this is not work she knows in her bones, so she courageously suggests she let go of her trainer role but remain part of the hosting team interfacing with the University. 

As we each rearrange our roles and identities in relationship to this work I feel a kind of awe. It is as if the work itself is asking us to move into positions that are not the ones we would have envisioned for ourselves:

  • The lead trainer becomes a participant
  • The physician on the sidelines becomes a core trainer
  • The third member of the teaching team becomes the steward of the program as a whole
  • The academic expert becomes a whole-hearted learner who nurtures the larger institutional field 

This is what the work is about: adaptive leadership…individuals and organizations adapting and thriving in challenging conditions.

Or at least that’s what I thought. I hadn’t known that when the University used the words “adaptive leadership,” they specifically meant Adaptive Leadership™, the academic framework copyrighted by Ron Heifetz and his colleagues.

Hosting in a Large Academic Institution OR…What’s Up with the Stack of Tables in the Rear of the Room?

Before the first Forum, the University was expecting a conventional educational program delivered by expert teachers with specialized knowledge. Yet I was intentionally designing a learning space to host meaningful conversations that would be conducive to co-discovery and co-creation.

I felt confident that a rich peer learning exchange would best serve our purpose. I envisioned an environment where the participants, who were all leadership development practitioners in their own right, would learn from one another, and harvest new knowledge out of the intersections of their diverse backgrounds. A hosted program, with lots of opportunities for peer dialogue, was most likely to inspire innovation in leadership pedagogy, which was in essence what this project was about. A hosted program was the right fit for our purposes.

At the start of our collaboration, I didn’t realize that my approach was so far from the University’s expectations, so it didn’t occur to me to tell them that I was bringing a hosting orientation rather than a traditional teaching stance. They just knew that that I was asking for a whole lot of bizarre and impossible things, like a room where I could set up a circle of twenty-five chairs.

Some of the larger rooms at the Carlson School of Management were pre-set in permanent amphitheater style seating; other rooms had regulations that prevented furniture from being re-arranged or anything posted on walls. We located a room that was big enough, but when I arrived a day before our program to set up, I found the room packed to the gills with tables and chairs. The building staff made it clear that there was no other place the tables could be stored and I would just have to deal with the situation myself. I called my assistant who rushed over to help. She and I, with the reluctant approval of the building staff, dragged tables into hallways, tucked chairs into nooks and crannies, and piled the rest inside the room. It wasn’t pretty, but it worked.

The pile of tables was a symbol of what happens sometimes when a culture of hosting asserts itself inside a bureaucratic institution like the University of Minnesota. The tables were also a symbol of what happens when a culture of hosting asserts itself in the hearts and minds of people who are accustomed to a more conventional meeting structure. The first day, several participants were quite vocal about how uncomfortable they were sitting in a circle without a table. Some expected to sit behind a desk and take notes. Some demanded a place to put their binders, coffee cups and other gear. I brought back a few of the abundance of tables and placed them outside the perimeter of our circle. This compromise sent the message that I was willing to listen and respond to their concerns, even though I wasn’t willing to abandon the structure I believed would best serve our learning. With this compromise, the group was ready to get to work.

The Adaptation Process in a Culture of Hosting

The next three months were filled with many such compromises and adaptations. As was my practice, at the beginning of each session as I talked about the coming day, I referred to a visual agenda, which represented the flow of activities in a hand-drawn spiral of simple images and icons on a flipchart page. But for this program, I also handed out typed agendas for each session. I duplicated the work in two versions—graphics and text—to communicate that there are a multiplicity of ways to think and communicate about something as a basic as how we will spend our time together.

People often reject outright new ways of working because to embrace the new approaches might be a judgment that their longstanding practices are bad or wrong. By presenting the same information in two formats I wanted to convey the message that their usual ways of going about things weren’t wrong, AND there were other creative options. I hoped to bridge between where they were at and where I was inviting them to go. Participants repeatedly told me how much they appreciated simultaneously being able to hold onto what was familiar and also see what was possible.

Making the Implicit Explicit

Day One of The Forum for Leadership Educators

It is our first morning together. On the wall is a flipchart with a bold headline: What do you want to know about the other people in this room? Below the heading are participant responses in an assortment of handwriting styles and marker colors: What sector do you work in? Where do you live? Who else is thinking about a professional transition? What inspires you? How do you like to spend your leisure time?

I invite participants to get on their feet so we can physically map out answers to some of their questions. For the leisure time question they call out a favorite way they spend their leisure, “Reading!” “Playing tennis” “Hiking with my kids…” As I spot patterns in their answers, I ask them to cluster according to whether the activity is mostly indoors or outdoors; and then subdivide those groups according to whether it is mostly solo or with others. As we spontaneously generate ways to map answers their questions I tell the group, “In the spirit of stating the obvious, I’m making this up as I go along.”

At the end of the day several participants approach me, “We’re all professionals here. We are often in front of a group and making it up on the spot. But you don’t have to say it out loud.”

I’m taken aback. In this moment I recognize that, moving forward, I need to be rigorous about taking my implicit understanding and intentions, and making them explicit.

The next morning I come back to the group determined to do just that.

“If you look at the structure of that opening exercise, you’ll notice that it is designed so I can’t possibly pre-plan what we will do. I can’t know how we are going to map the answers to your questions, because I don’t know what your questions will be. That is on purpose.

I chose to open the program with an activity where I am forced to make it up on the spot as a way to model adaptive behavior right here and right now. You could have received an email in advance asking you what you wanted to know about others in the cohort. But by waiting until we were face to face, we tapped an authentic curiosity about one another, and worked with it to identify the seen and unseen patterns that connect us and divide us. In this way we were able to respond to what is alive right here in us, and in this room. The exercise is designed not just to help us get to know one another, but also to demonstrate how we can intentionally use improvisation to grow adaptive capacity.

As leadership development practitioners and educators, what does it mean for us to not acknowledge that we are often making it up as we go along? What does that imply for the leaders we serve, who are increasingly required to function in fast-changing, unprecedented conditions where they can’t possibly anticipate what is coming? This exercise was one small step towards not perpetuating the myth and illusion that leaders can, and should, know what’s ahead.

Our brilliant human capacity for strategic improvisation is not something to hide. It is something to model and celebrate because it is essential for leading in today’s increasingly complex, interdependent and quickening world.”

Or at least, that’s what I meant to say. In 2009, at the start of the Forum, I was an experienced practitioner with more implicit knowledge than explicit language. The Forum and the Art of Hosting trainings I have been involved in, both as a trainer and a participant learner, have been transformative stops on the journey of growing my capacity to give voice to an otherwise silent knowing. I have always been pretty good at “walking the talk”, but in the past five years I have learned to “talk the walk”.

Leaving and Returning

At the end of the first morning three participants decided the program was not what they expected or wanted. During a break they informed Jodi that they were dropping the program, and they left the building. In the month between the first and second session, the grapevine was buzzing about how valuable the full two-day session had been. Two of the three participants who had left reconsidered their choice and asked if they could return for the remainder of the program, which they did.

I had not anticipated that the Forum would be such a shock for some participants, which it especially was for those who came from highly bureaucratic professional environments. I had been using these approaches in other settings for so long I didn’t realize how drastically different they were, and how much discomfort they might evoke. I also didn’t recognize how often, especially in academic institutions, educators teach things they don’t actually do. In the Forum we were breaking that paradigm by asking participants to invest in themselves as leaders. The program was rooted in the belief that, if leadership development practitioners understand ourselves as leaders, then that will change how we do leadership education.

From the start of the program we built a learning climate where participants were encouraged to explore themselves as leaders. We attended to the relationships within the cohort even as we introduced concepts related to Heifetz and Linsky’s (2002) adaptive leadership framework.

Ron joined us midway through the program. In our morning check-in circle participants expressed themselves with openness, vulnerability, creativity, and heart; so Ron assumed the group members were all seasoned experiential learning facilitators, which wasn’t the case. They were not facilitators who already used direct experience as their primary pedagogical strategy in their own work. Later that day, participants collaboratively created presentations that used sound, movement, and visual elements to reflect their understanding of Adaptive Leadership. Ron pulled me aside to tell me that he was amazed at what he had seen the cohort do, and he asked whether I thought anyone could do what they had done. I said, yes, if the right conditions were set.

The Art of Hosting is a resource for setting those conditions. For ninety percent of the participants in the First Forum, the ways we were engaging were far from what from what they were accustomed to. But because these practices are quite basic to what human beings naturally do together, it didn’t take very long for them to acclimate, adjust, and find value in them.

How the Worldview, Core Patterns and Practices of the Art of Hosting were embedded in the First Forum for Leadership Educators

Some think of the Art of Hosting as a suite of conversational methodologies. Some see it as a global network of colleagues who share a participatory and relational approach to leadership. Some associate it with a training process for facilitation that is rooted in the power of self-organization and emergence. And for others the Art of Hosting is fundamentally a worldview —a way of understanding the nature of how the world works—and a set of principles that flow from that worldview. Below are some ways that the First Forum for Leadership Educators was aligned with the Art of Hosting.

Acknowledging Multiple Levels of Scale

The Art of Hosting attends to four interconnected levels of scale at once, each of which is present in the other levels. Throughout this program we purposefully operated on the following levels…

  • Individual: strengthening individual capacity for adaptive and integrative leadership by making space for self-reflection, self-awareness, and presence
  • Team: developing collective capacity for collaborative leadership, co-creation, and group reflection
  • Community, organization, and system: sharing and generating knowledge about complex systems by working with leadership practitioners from diverse contexts
  • Global: integrating the larger context by raising questions and bringing into the room what was taking place in our world at that time\

Sharing the Work

Hosting is not work to be done alone; it is meant to be done with colleagues and friends. In the Forum, even though our roles shifted, the program was still designed and led by a “we.” The “we” included the trainers, the colleague who lent her business eye to the design process, and a participant who contributed a teaching about the nexus between emotional intelligence and adaptive leadership.

Checking in and Checking out

We began each session with a check-in process to hear every voice, to set the conditions for people to be fully present, and to weave the relational field. We closed each session with a check-out process to harvest individual and collective learnings, and to create a constructive transition for participants as they returned to the rest of their lives.

Using Conversational Methodologies to Build Strong Relationships that Invite Real Collaboration

During the program we used many of the conversational methodologies that are core to the Art of Hosting including Circle process, World Café, and Open Space Technology. Six months after the program, participants reported that they had developed new relationships and strengthened pre-existing ones. In the years that followed some of those connections resulted in professional collaborations, as practitioners taught in one another’s programs and sometimes crossed into sectors they had not worked in before the Forum.

Creating a Meaningful Record of Conversations and Interactions

Throughout the Forum we used a variety of documentation practices to harvest emerging insights from the group. We employed a broad range of modalities to generate individual and collective meaning—from summary reports to poetry to physical gestures. By representing the group’s wisdom in tangible forms, we were able to animate the learning, integrate it and keep it alive a little longer.

Trusting the Wisdom in the Room

A core principle of the Art of Hosting is that the wisdom needed is inherent in the people who care enough to show up. The design for the program was grounded in deep trust that the skills, wisdom and expertise needed to innovate leadership development pedagogy would be in the room.

Leveraging the Power of Questions

Questions can serve many roles. They can be used to provoke critical thinking, to demonstrate knowledge, to clarify confusion, to mask a judgment, to further an agenda, to test, or to instigate cognitive dissonance in others. In the Art of Hosting, questions are often used to foster connection and generate a sense of “we.” At the start of the Forum, the framing comments addressed the importance of a stance of inquiry in unpredictable environments, like the one we were about to enter into. Throughout the program we used questions to integrate our heads, our hearts, and our action. The primary role of questions in the Forum was to help us connect to our fuller selves and to one another.

Attending to Chaos, Order and the Space Between

In each session we intentionally traversed from activities that were highly ordered, to those that were much less ordered, to those somewhere in the middle. By varying the degrees of structure in the activities, we were able to experientially address issues that were at the heart of the program

  • Adaptive Leadership was the theme for the Forum. During sessions, as participants shifted between activities they were invited to observe themselves. How did they respond to the disparate degrees of structure? What were their preferences and knee-jerk reactions? What was required for them to adapt? This inquiry served as a form of case-in-point learning, where the immediate moment in the session becomes a bridge for transformative learning about adaptive leadership.
  • Another focus for the program was to inspire innovation in leadership pedagogy. New insights and possibilities are the lifeblood of innovation, and they are most likely to emerge in the space between chaos and order: the chaordic space. Forum activities were designed to invite participants into chaordic space as a way to foster innovation in their leadership development practice.

Suspending Assumptions

In order to innovate on leadership development pedagogy or anything else, we need to suspend what we already know and move towards a willingness to “not know.” As part of the opening to the program, I wrote one of my own old assumptions about my leadership on a slip of paper: “I believe that the best way I can serve this community is to generate equilibrium and stability.” I dropped my paper into a glass bowl filled with water. As I stirred, the paper dissolved. I invited participants to join me in dissolving assumptions of their own that were relevant to our work together. I distributed blank slips of dissolving paper, which I had purchased from a magic store. They each wrote an assumption they wanted to hold lightly during the program and dropped it in water. When they were done, I poured the pulpy residue of their dissolved assumptions into an old gelatin mold. When we reconvened a month later, the water had evaporated. What remained was a richly textured handmade paper bowl, which I brought back to them as a reminder of the assumptions we had suspended, and where we began together.

Outcomes, Inspiration and Gratitude

It is four years after the First Forum, and those of us who were involved in putting it together are just now recognizing its ripples of impact.

Within months after the final session, colleagues from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, who had been influenced by their experience in the Forum, redesigned the mid-career Masters of Public Administration program and established its current cohort format.

Since the Forum, hundreds of people from University of Minnesota and Upper Midwest region have been trained in the Art of Hosting. Forum participants were some of the first local practitioners to serve as apprentice trainers on the teams that introduced the Art of Hosting regionally. Back in 2009 I was heartened by the willingness of Forum participants to grow in their own practice, just as I was growing in my own. Many of those people are now beloved friends and colleagues whose openness and commitment continues to inspire me.

I am outrageously grateful to my colleagues in the global Art of Hosting network who gave language and form to a relational approach that others of us had been using for years, but hadn’t yet articulated as a body of practice.

Lastly…Why the Above Story Doesn’t Follow a Linear Sequence

The story presented here has been written in a nonlinear, non-sequential format to give the reader a sense that is hopefully a bit closer to the experience being described. My sincere hope is that something from this story affirms your own adaptive strength and practice.