The Braille Monitor                                                                              October 2005


Learning to Lead from the Leaders

by Heather Field

Heather Field

Heather Field

From the Editor: The preceding article describes the new TOPS initiative available to state affiliates across the nation. The following story describes what it was like to be a part of the first-ever weekend-long TOPS training seminar. Speaking as one of the mentors invited to take part in the program, I can report that the enthusiasm, energy, and excitement that radiate from Heather Field’s description were shared by everyone who took part in the August 2005 TOPS seminar--participants and mentors alike.

Heather Field is president of the Nashville Chapter of the NFB of Tennessee. She is originally from Australia, so everyone at the seminar found it easy to recognize her comments by her marvelous accent. Many Federationists know Heather as the Discovery Toys lady, who demonstrates and sells accessible toys wherever she goes. In addition to the benefits she describes in her story, a number of us were blessed by beginning our Christmas toy shopping early with her help late Friday evening. Here is Heather Field’s report on the August 2005 TOPS seminar:

“Cock-a-doodle-doo!” Good heavens, I thought. She's brave, crowing like that in public! Was that Dr. Joanne Wilson? I don't hear any other roosters replying. Was she merely contributing to the general mayhem, or was she trying to attract an entire group of apparently shy roosters? Fortunately I had drawn “horse” and didn’t need to concern myself with the roosters. “Meeeeoow,” squalled a very deep male voice. “Meow, meaaoow,” replied two very excited, giggling female cats from way over near the door. “Woof, moo, meow!” the creatures wailed. Dear me! The lunchroom where we were meeting the first night of the TOPS leadership seminar had turned into a barnyard, and the barnyard sounded like its population had gone mad.

How on earth could I ever be expected to hear poor souls trying to neigh or snort like horses in this howling din? Yet that was my assigned task. I had to find and join the horse group. I stood on the outside of the crowd listening intently for any kind of horse noise and trying to make some kind of a leadership decision. This was a leadership seminar, after all, and those who had invited me, no doubt, expected some kind of leadership behavior from me. But what was I supposed to do? Take some initiative, obviously, but what? Walk around the room? Well I could do that, but what if my walking took me farther away from the horses? That would be a complete waste of time. I could try neighing, I suppose, the obvious solution, but what was the point of neighing in here? No one would hear me in this cacophony of barking and bellowing. Well I have to do something. “Neigh,” I said, doing my best to imitate a horse. But, alas, it was barely audible in the racket, and I laughed out loud at my pathetic attempt. At this rate I'd be lucky if anyone even heard that a fellow horse was out here looking for the herd, let alone managed to come and join me.

“This activity was supposed to be an ice-breaker. Well, it looks like there’ll be plenty to break if I get left out in the cold without a group,” I thought petulantly. Then, suddenly, my thoughts were happily interrupted. I heard them, and I knew that the little card which fate had given me from the can the presenters had passed around had put me in the right group. “Neigh! Neigh,” came the loud chorus of two strong, young, female voices, sounding like two Shakespearean actors declaring their innocence. “Nay!” I shouted, all trace of horsiness gone from my cry, and I rushed across to the far corner of the room to join my fellow horses, who had once again demonstrated to me the power of collective action. “I'm a horse! I'm so glad I found you. That was a great idea to call out together,” I enthused.

“Thanks,” they replied laughing, one girl putting her arm around me and drawing me into line beside her. “Ok, let's all do it,” the other girl said. “One, two, three: Neigh!” the three of us shouted, the chorus of three louder than anything else in the room and at once bringing another woman and three men galloping up to us. “Horses! Horses! Here we are.” “Yes, you've found us.” “Yes, great job neighing.” “I was stuck over there near the cats.” “Good thing you girls can yell.” Happy voices all speaking at once, tumbling words into the little huddle of people like a mini avalanche, sending a shower of skittering pebbles into a mountain pool, and the group bonding in a flurry of laughter, congratulations, introductions, and handshaking.

Then, after a couple more perfunctory neighs, to which no one responded, we all sat down at the nearest table, as we'd been instructed to do before the activity began, and simply kept right on talking. I heard names being exchanged, and I recognized them from emails I'd read on the NFB listserv or from Braille Monitor articles. So, although I'd never met any of my group members before, I already knew that these people all thought as I did about things that matter to Federationists. That made me feel excited and terribly impatient to talk to every one of them. So many questions. So much to tell, to say, to share, and so thrilled to be in the same room with all these people who cared passionately about the things that I cared about. With so much excitement and so many thoughts crackling in my head, I almost couldn't talk, but only almost. I dived into a conversation with the man on my left about what a great idea I thought this leadership seminar was.

But he had scarcely begun to reply when the presenters, Angela Howard and Angela Wolf, called for quiet, and silence fell. Not a calm, quiet silence, like the kind that normally falls when a speaker steps to the podium at a conference. No. This was the kind of silence that falls when the lights dim before the curtain opens on a long-awaited play or just before the world-famous soprano begins to sing, the kind of silence that vibrates with anticipation because something wonderful is about to happen, and you are part of it.

“Okay, think of a person you consider to be a great leader,” Angela Howard began. “It can be anyone you want. Take a few minutes to write down the characteristics of that person on your own page and then share your material with your group and make a list of those characteristics that you, as a group, think are leadership qualities,” she said. “Anyone who needs a slate and stylus to make notes, call out, and we'll bring you one.”

“That's fantastic,” I thought to myself as I called, “Over here please.” What other conference would have Braille-writing slates on hand? NFB blind people know what the blind need, even a slate and stylus for people like me who didn't bring something to take notes with on the first night.

“Florence Nightingale!” someone in the group said. “My Auntie!” “Martin Luther King!” “My grandmother!” “Gandhi!” The names flew. “Hang on!” said someone whose name I couldn't yet remember. “We have to work on our own first.”

“Yes, that's right,” someone else agreed; and, as our group went to work in earnest, the combined sounds of Braille notetakers, slates and styli, and pens quietly demonstrated that it was not about vision, but about alternative techniques, independence, and maximized potential.

It was 9:00 p.m. on a Friday night, I was really working hard, and I couldn't think of any place that I'd rather be or any thing I'd rather be doing. That's pretty much how the rest of my weekend went. Me, working hard or talking enthusiastically with other Federationists, convinced that this was right where I wanted to be, with these people doing what we were doing together. Even when it was 2 o’clock Sunday morning and some of us were still talking, knowing we had a 6 o’clock wake-up call. Even when we were stripping our beds and cleaning our bathrooms on Sunday afternoon. Even when I was waiting for hours with a new NFB friend at the airport, I could not have been more excited or satisfied. There is something profoundly powerful about spending time working with people who have the same aspirations and goals that you do. Those who had organized this leadership seminar knew this, and they used it to make it a memorable and inspiring experience for us.

Not that leadership-training seminars are new for the National Federation of the Blind--hundreds of Federationists have attended them over the years. But this one was the first of its kind, a new kind that focused on giving us specific knowledge and skills and developing specific abilities. This was a seminar for people who already knew the NFB philosophy and were already involved as leaders at the chapter, division, or affiliate level. This seminar was designed to teach us new things, to give us experiences which would foster new approaches, new ways of thinking, and new ways of dealing with old situations. The two Angelas carefully planned information-packed presentations by Federation leaders like President Marc Maurer, Dr. Betsy Zaborowski, and Jim Omvig. They designed role-playing activities in which we practiced and honed our leadership skills using our new knowledge and focusing our identified strengths.
Each group had to make several presentations of NFB policies and requests to pretend politicians ably played by Dr. Wilson, Mr. Omvig, and Dr. Schroeder. Then we had to interact individually with pretend members of the public who displayed attitudes that we had to try to change. I found myself trying to persuade an anti-Federationist, Dr. Schroeder, that the NFB did not reject guide-dog users; telling a high-achieving blind psychologist who had never heard of the NFB, Dr. Maurer, why he should get involved with this blindness organization; and even trying to convince a woman who still had some sight, Barbara Pierce, to stop denying her blindness long enough to hear how an organization called the National Federation of the “Blind” could possibly have any relevance to her beyond an opportunity to volunteer by helping the less fortunate.

Best of all, we received feedback on our performances, noting how we could have done things differently or better, when we did things that we should not have done, and even when we forgot to do some of the most basic things, like ask a person for a name or offer a card with a contact number. It was valuable having the chance to see how I responded under the pressure of an actual situation, trying out something I'd learned earlier that day, like telling someone in thirty seconds or less what the NFB is and does. It was useful to me personally to get a chance to try a new approach to a person or situation rather than defaulting to the same old methods. It was about learning to use my strengths instead of letting my weaknesses determine the outcomes of an interaction. We had the rare opportunity to get to know ourselves better as well as to get to know others, and we had the equally valuable opportunity to be honest about what we discovered about both in a safe and loving environment.

It was liberating to realize that everyone, no matter how competent a leader, has personal weaknesses as well as strengths and then to learn ways to minimize the effects of those weaknesses on the people with whom we work in our chapters and divisions. At last I could be free to admit that I am a big-picture person and that I really struggle to deal with all the details. When I remembered to bring my laptop and the power supply back to my room, only to realize that I'd forgotten the computer bag to pack it all in because I was so engrossed in a conversation about my suggested three-year plan and early intervention curriculum for a deaf-blind infant, I was able to laugh about it and say, “Oh well, unfortunately I'm just not a details person.” I didn't castigate myself for not being what I'll never be. Instead I reminded myself just how important it is for me to apply the complementarity principle we'd been discussing during the seminar. “Remember, it is the combination of all the members of the group working where they are strongest that makes the group as successful as it can be,” I told myself as I trudged all the way back to the empty conference room to get the computer bag while everyone else was having lunch.

This seminar was a successful experience for me because I was challenged and inspired by longtime Federation leaders who gave of their time to teach, encourage, and mentor us. They helped us to grasp the vision, to comprehend the significance of the achievements of our predecessors in the organization, and to realize the truth about leadership in the National Federation of the Blind. It wasn’t that they told us the truth directly; they showed us in their actions toward us and told us about it in the personal experiences and stories of others that they shared. They brought the truth to life for us during discussions designed to address issues like dealing with difficult members and patiently helping us to solve our own problems with NFB solutions.

From Friday night till Sunday afternoon we laughed with each other and at each other. We questioned each other and answered each other. We discussed and reported, shared and advised, listened and learned. We worked together, brainstormed and planned together, ate together, and roomed together; and by the end of the seminar we had learned in new ways what it meant to be a leader in the National Federation of the Blind. At whatever level you lead in this organization, to be a leader means that you must serve. You must be very patient, love and forgive, seek unity and common ground, encourage and teach. You must be self-sacrificing and committed to our vision with all your heart, and you must continually seek to grow as a person, always remembering that everyone has weaknesses as well as strengths and that we will all make mistakes no matter how well meant our actions. But, perhaps most important of all, we learned that we have each other to rely on for support and that, as we all share what we know, what we learn, and what we have, we will all go forward together.

William Jennings Bryan, the great politician, lawyer, and orator at the turn of the last century, said in his “America’s Mission” speech (1899), “Destiny is not a matter of chance; it is a matter of choice. It is not something to be waited for; it is a thing to be achieved.” The TOPS leadership seminar has certainly helped those who attended to work harder and smarter in the NFB’s mission of achieving the kind of destiny--equality, opportunity, and security--that the National Federation of the Blind insists is the right of all blind people.