Leadership starts at the bottom

Ori Brafman and Judah Pollack are hoping to get the Yukon government's deputy ministers to sit in a circle and talk about their feelings. "We need to begin a conversation," said Pollack.

Ori Brafman and Judah Pollack are hoping to get the Yukon government’s deputy ministers to sit in a circle and talk about their feelings.

“We need to begin a conversation,” said Pollack.

And sitting “knee-to-knee” is a good place to start, he said.

The two U.S. leadership experts were brought to Whitehorse this week by the Public Service Commission’s staff development branch.

And while sitting in a circle to talk about feelings may sound like a flaky place to start, it’s worked for Brafman and Pollack.

One of Brafman’s clients is the U.S. Army.

Its top general approached the peace studies major after reading one of his books, The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations.

Cut off a spider’s leg and it’s in trouble, said Brafman. “Cut off its head and it dies.

“But cut off a starfish’s leg and it grows a new one – while the leg grows into a whole new starfish.”

The U.S. Army is a spider, he said.

So are most governments and most corporations.

Brafman and Pollack want to change this.

They want to see organizations operate like starfish, using a decentralized, bottom-up approach, rather than like spiders, with one centralized command-and-control centre.

Look at the Arab Spring or the Occupy Movement, said Brafman.

These are bottom-up approaches that are all about networking, he said.

“So is al-Qaida and Wikipedia.”

Technology is making it much easier to create networks, but networks have always existed.

In 19th-century England, a small group of 12 people, starting with a few flyers, ended up abolishing slavery long before the U.S. did.

“And it all started with a small circle,” said Brafman.

So did the reopening of the border between India and Pakistan.

Brafman was involved in building Global Peace Networks, an organization of more than 1,000 CEOs working for peace and economic development following the 9/11 attacks in New York City.

One of these small circles of CEOs saw a tiny group of Indians and Pakistanis work together to open their borders to travel and trade, said Brafman.

And it worked.

Sitting together in a circle, truly talking to each other, “your humanity comes out,” said Pollack.

Ideally, he would like to see decision-makers and leaders sitting down with everyone from the janitors, who clean the legislature’s toilets, to the children, who go to school down the street.

“We owe it to ourselves to have those conversations,” said Brafman.

In some cases, these “open, invitational conversations” even save lives.

A few years back, Brafman was hired by an inner city Philadelphia hospital that was losing more and more patients to staph infections.

These infections are stopped by washing your hands.

So the hospital put up signs saying, “wash your hands.”

But nothing changed.

“So it put up bigger signs,” he said.

Still no change.

Next the hospital heads ran a half-day conference on hand washing.

But it had no effect.

Then it ran a two-day hand-washing workshop.

Still nothing.

That’s when the senior staff turned to Brafman, who started talking to everybody.

The answer lay with the janitor.

He’d noticed that one wing of the hospital threw away more rubber gloves than the other.

So Brafman went to the wing that wasn’t using rubber gloves and talked to the nurses.

Turns out the majority of the nurses in the hospital had extra small hands, and despite frequent requests, the hospital wasn’t stocking enough gloves in their size.

It was that simple, said Brafman.

Within a year, the hospital had cut its staph infections by 75 per cent.

And all it took was someone to listen, not just to the senior staff and leadership, but to the nurses and janitors.

“You have to have these conversations,” he said.

“The wisdom is in the system – you don’t need management consultants – you just need to have these conversations.

“I believe circles can move mountains.”

While not here to address the Peel River watershed debate, both men had heard about it.

“You should be having conversations with everyone from First Nations and environmentalists to the mechanics at the mines,” said Pollack.

“The problem is we silo up,” he said.

“But community must have been part of what has drawn people here, and if you fall and break your leg at 40 below, you count on each other.”

It shouldn’t be any different with the Peel, he said.

“You just need to discover your shared values,” added Brafman. “And once you’ve found a connection, you have traction to start a conversation.”

Brafman has started having conversation circles with U.S. Army soldiers, generals and policy-makers all sitting down together and using first names.

If the army has realized its top-down approach is no longer working and is “starting to listen to itself,” then there’s hope for governments and corporations, said Brafman.

But it takes time, he said.

“We all need to start listening to each other.

“And unfortunately, there are no shortcuts.”

In Whitehorse, Pollack and Brafman are hosting a workshop with some of the Yukon government’s deputy and assistant deputy ministers, as well as any interested middle-management employees.

They are also hosting a public talk March 21 at the Kwanlin Dun Cultural Centre. It starts at 7:30 p.m.

Contact Genesee Keevil at


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