• Sherry P. Johnson

Challenging Assumptions

I'll never forget how clueless I was when I first formed a nonprofit. Having come out of the worlds of theatre direction and community asset mapping, I'd assumed that if I just called people together, brainstormed ideas, inventoried the talent, and encouraged one another with visionary talk, we'd keep sharing and act our way to good things. We'd have to fill out some paperwork at some point, and we'd cross that bridge when we got to it. I mean, who can't fill out paperwork?


We made all kinds of mistakes under my Creative Leadership. It felt like reinventing the wheel. Unbeknownst to me, there had been all kinds of resources for nonprofit incorporation, consensus processes for getting decisions made efficiently & with more people, and defining mission and vision. Instead, we hemmed and hawed about whether we really needed to be a nonprofit. We had lengthy discussions with a core group that never really got anywhere, and they failed to include enough people to pick up momentum. Moreover, we only loosely defined our mission and vision, which ended up splintering the group in the end.


The very next year, I participated in the Neighborhood Leadership Program, a wonderful offering of Wilder Foundation and the Minnesota History Center that trained new community leaders like me. They connected us with mentors who could help us build new skills; I had the pleasure of being mentored by Damon Shoholm, Linda Alton, and later Kia Moua and Brigid Riley--all experts in what I've come to refer to as Challenge Leadership.


Challenge Leaders possess a deep understanding of typical rules, procedures, and patterns in a sector. They know how to get things done by gathering the right people. They know whom & how to influence--and how to embody their authority, when necessary. Particularly in government and nonprofit governance, these folks are key to meaningful action.

The methods of Challenge Leadership bulked up my leadership toolbox for years to come. Among the many resources and trainings, I devoured at that time were the Intercultural Development Inventory, several conflict resolution approaches, project management tools, and ToP Facilitation Methods.


Want to improve your workplace DEI goals? I can steer you toward IDI-certified pros and help them lead your staff conversations. Got conflict? Bring it--I'm from Wisconsin, not Minnesota! I'll bring my conflict assessment tool and conversational structure for a staff training you'll remember. Need an action or strategic plan? I've got you! Just give me 15-20 members of your Board and staff over a few sessions to crank them out.


And these things worked for a few years. They still work--in the right hands, under the right circumstances--but their proper application is getting increasingly specialized. This isn't new with recent COVID and racial uprisings; BIPOC and disability communities have had to be resourceful and trauma-informed for a long time, in ways that have often made Challenge Leadership tools too cumbersome or disembodied to be meaningful.


The systems I tended to serve started to crumble around 2015. Participants stopped being able to communicate across difference to host any kind of efficient, "plug-and-play" facilitative process. Identity, power, & privilege kept showing up in ways that undermined facilitators who yearned to project "neutrality." Even the notion of consensus lost its shine when the U.S. elected a divisive populist in 2016—an event not yet fully processed by my facilitation colleagues and me.


All in all, organizations still need startup help. They still need succession and shorter-term project planning. They still need traditional consensus process on occasion—though we need to be more careful about it. We are at a time when complex circumstances demand that the tools of governance and the tools of creativity must intimately inform one another. But we process designers must first know ourselves. We humbly offer our Leadership Orientation Quiz to help you consider your go-to methods and consider how you might partner with colleagues and coworkers to lead in this volatile time.

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