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Sometimes You Have to Retreat If You Want to Advance

The university I work for organized a leadership development retreat for the last week of winter break, so I just spent the last week with 60 students and six colleagues. After being on winter break, I’d kind of regretted that I’d volunteered to do this. Despite all the great things I’d heard from last year’s group, I had trouble gearing up for the experience. I just wanted to ease back into work life, and I wasn’t looking forward to spending a week away from my partner and our dogs. And I didn’t want to lose writing time, which has become more and more precious the deeper I’ve gotten into my novel. But five minutes into facilitator training, I realized it was going to be worth my time. I’m not particularly resistant, but neither am I usually so easy to convince.

The curriculum was created by Leadershape. Two student affairs professionals (from other institutions but trained by Leadershape) guided us through the process at a lodge in the Poconos. The curriculum is designed to challenge everyone involved to develop a “healthy disregard for the impossible.” To those who are a little jaded, it may sound like an empty promise. But even if you know what to expect from similar training, you can’t avoid getting involved, because you’re completely submerged in the experience.

The curriculum’s goals are ambitious. The major goal is for each participant to create a vision for change that at first seems pretty much impossible. But subsequent exercises help you build a plan that will at least get you started. Maybe the plan will change, or maybe you’ll only get halfway to your vision. Better to realize that you can effect some change than not even try. What motivated me was finding similarities among others’ visions and mine, which gave me people to collaborate with in dreaming big as well as troubleshooting.

In fact, it was my ideal teaching/learning environment. Serious, complex discussion filled sessions, meal times, and free time. The students appreciated my openness and that I felt the power of the experience as deeply as they did. No one had to downplay their feelings or apologize for wanting to change the world in positive ways. There was precious little use of irony (even by me), except some of us occasionally made ironic comments to make fun of irony.

My big lesson is really a reminder for me: Everyone in a community is a valuable resource to the whole. That’s not touchy-feely, hearts-&-flowers bullshit. Members of a community have to remain open to collaboration, even in competition, and must insist on contributing rather than sitting back and letting others take over. You really can milk everyone for all they’re worth, and the best way to do that is to treat them well so they want to play along.

The students were divided into six groups, called family clusters, and the faculty from my university served as facilitators of those groups. Over the course of the week, each of us worked with and spent time with everyone else, becoming especially close to the members of our family clusters. The purpose of the family cluster is to provide a safe environment for discussion and support–a retreat within the retreat.

In our first session on the first day, my family cluster established that they would value community. Each of us presented an abridged version of our life stories. We had about ten minutes to create a visual representation on flipchart paper, and then five minutes each to present it. We all took chances and respected one another for it. One of their stories move the rest so much, we adopted the metaphor he was using to tell his story as our family cluster’s name. This kind of support happened throughout the week, even during painful discussions when the members openly disagreed. The group would divide for a while, but never tore apart. We didn’t “agree to disagree” so much as we realized we’d need more time to truly understand the disagreement. Anger wouldn’t help us understand, and deeming someone or some side the winner would have been pointless.

The magic of a retreat like this is possible only because the adventure is short. If it had lasted one more day, fatigue might have set in. We wouldn’t have been left wanting more, and we wouldn’t feel motivated, as we do, to figure out how to recreate or at least approximate parts of the experience out here in the real world. The most important thing for us to remember is that we have a lot to learn. We didn’t change that much in a week. We still have our shortcomings, our prejudices, our gaps in certain knowledge. But now we have even more people in our lives who will help us grow without judging us harshly, who are as interested in developing strengths and possibilities as we are.

Happens every time: I feel reluctant about going on a trip, then after my return, I miss the rhythm of life away from home and feel lonely for the people I was with. It’s not that I wasn’t ready to come home. I was. I’m shallow enough that I can only deal with hit-and-miss wi-fi for so long, and I missed my family. But if a trip was worth my time, there’s always that moment (that lasts hours, or maybe even a day or two) when I want both to be home and to be back in the thick of what and where I just left. It’s impossible to have both at the same time, but I guess I’ve always disregarded what’s impossible. Cherishing a moment doesn’t mean strangling it or letting it go. If it matters, I keep it with me so it can work its way into my life.

The members of my family cluster claim they’re committed to staying connected, and I am, too. We know the challenges: busy schedules, naysayers, self-doubt. All we can do is move forward and pursue the possibilities we found at the retreat. We have a private Facebook group where we can be shamelessly idealistic together. And we’ve already gotten together for dinner. Two days down, forever to go.

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