Congregation 2021 – if you see the need, take the lead

Every year, in November, CongregationTM is hosted by Eoin Kennedy in Cong, in County Mayo, in Ireland.
It is an unconference. There is a theme. The cost of a ticket to take part is writing a blog post on that theme.
On the day of the event, participants are randomly assigned to huddles of about eight people for about an hour. They rotate thru four huddles across the day. Each huddle is overseen by a chair, stories (which may or may not reflect the blog post submitted) are shared and discussed. In pre- and hopefully post-plague times, there is a strong social element warmly wrapped around the event.
In 2021 the theme is Leadership, and this is my 600 word ticket application.

Huddle in Danaghers during CongreationTM 2019. Photograph by @magsamond

When I was young, I heard the elders around me (in person and on tv) grumble with deep disapproval when Tommy Smith and John Carlos used their medal ceremony at the 1968 Olympics to protest as part of their Olympic Project for Human Rights campaign. As a teenager, me and my girlfriends heard (but didn’t listen to) the same grumbled disapproval as we cheered Billie Jean King as she went out on the court in 1973 and won the Battle of The Sexes challenge match. I found these events, and others, compelling at the time and they resonate still – they woke me up to the fact that leaders could lead from the very spot they occupied, which might not necessarily be an appointed leadership role. My favourite quote has always been the advice attributed to another icon, Arthur Ashe – start where you are, use what you have, do what you can. To that I’d add ‘lead if there’s need’. To appropriate a term Irish grammar, it is a sort of Modh Díreach [direct path] leadership. It is all around us (although it still meets with grumbling disapproval, and worse, from many). I don’t always acknowledge it, but I appreciate it.

I see it grow from one gesture by one person into global movements from which we all benefit – in 2012 when Malala Yousafzai spoke from her hospital bed having been shot for attending school; in 2018 when Greta Thunberg sat with a sign outside the Swedish Parliament, skipping school each Friday to protest climate change; in 2016, Colin Kaepernik first sitting then kneeling during the Anthem played before his football game, continuing the protest signal begun by Smith and Carlos more than fifty years ago.

I see it online in those who take time to share their expert information and experience with others in a time of crisis – there are many but my shout out of pandemic gratitude is to those who take the time to care and share their expert information (professors Trish Greenhalgh, Orla Hegarty), recount their daily reality (school principals Simon Lewis, Caitriona Hand, Trina Golden), and advocate for those otherwise without a voice (union official Linda Kelly). With this list, as Beckett said, I could go on …

I see enacted in many I have encountered in education networks and communities (looking at you, people in cesi.ie, and open non-hierarchical systems especially TeachMeet). My experience participating in and now researching informal self-organised gatherings has introduced me again and again to the person who takes that first step when they see the need – allowing others to join in and ‘make the road by walking’, to tread a desire line shortcut from where they are now to where they know they need to be. It is servant leadership, voluntary, humble but very powerful – the meeting leadership that facilitates democratic agenda setting and ensures that voices are heard organically in a convivial setting; and the practice leadership that ensures teachers benefit by being both audience and presenter, sharing with peer practitioners. It is leadership that begets leadership.

I have seen it here each November at the Congregation unconference – individuals who takes turns leading from a chair in a huddle in the pub or the shop in a small village in the west of Ireland – simply by telling their story.

To sum up in a practical way, I borrow a quote from (one who is a role model for what I am describing) Ewan McIntosh’s crowdsourced and very useful Middle Leadership Manifesto – “Leadership is what you achieve by trying something out”.

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