One of my favorite experiences as a leadership coach was a monthly gathering of mid level managers in the Skilled Resources Division of Kodak Manufacturing. These were managers and supervisors who led teams of electricians, plumbers and pipefitters, sheet metal workers and other skilled tradespeople. The gathering was named, Dare to Soar by Dave Striker, division manager when we started the program in 2000. I thought the name was corny, but Dave’s intention and the spirit of the group got me past that.

We set this up as a leadership academy, with an open space format, meaning we did not come with a predetermined agenda. Instead, we built a sense of safety in the community by giving each participant the opportunity to talk about leadership challenges they ran up against in their daily life. In a fairly short period of time, the community began to raise more and more challenging, controversial issues, having to do with things like gender bias, racial discrimination, homophobia, and “reverse discrimination”. I liked going into each meeting with a sense of anticipation over what might get put into the mix that day.

One of my favorite elements of Dare to Soar was the occasional field trip. Dave Moskal, a leader who relished diversity in music, food, culture and people (he still does and remains a good friend) arranged for the group to have lunch at a Jamaican restaurant in downtown Rochester one day. What surprised me was the fear that some of the white male leaders had about venturing into downtown Rochester. Despite having worked for 25 or more years at Kodak Park (on the northern side of the city), many of them had NEVER been downtown. They held mythical views of the dangers of being in the heart of the city. These fears were reinforced by stereotypes they held about people of color. When we sat down in the simple, modest but very nice restaurant one block from the banking and legal district, the owner came out and called us all honey, sweetheart or something like that. You could see the fear melt away from these 50-something year old white men, as they tucked into fish, beans and rice and jerk-chicken.

Later visitors and field trips helped the group tackle homophobia, transgender prejudice, and broader leadership topics. We had the chief of police and his whole command staff join us for an outdoor session at a public park. The overlap between leadership issues in a police department and in a manufacturing support organization were fascinating and surprising for both groups.

I learned from these sessions that there are enormous learning opportunities that derive from the real life experiences of leaders, the challenges they face, the fears they harbor and the sense of support and confidence that comes from being able to share these experiences in a safe forum with colleagues.

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