in Creativity, Initiative, and Leadership
by E. Randy Cox
From the Editor: Randy Cox is the husband of the newly elected President of the National Federation of the Blind of Utah, Kristen Cox. He is himself an active and thoughtful member of the NFB. This is what he says about membership and leadership in the organization:
Some of you may recall a young man in his mid to late twenties instigating limbo contests and occasionally break dancing at the dances held during the last two national NFB conventions.
That was me. Although break dancing (breakin' as it is referred to by its practitioners) used to consume several hours of each day when I was in junior high and high school, nowadays I find courage and agility to attempt such antics only when I'm with friends at NFB conventions.
This is not to say that I have left the lessons of my hip-hop days behind me. In fact, as odd as it may sound, break dancing has some lessons for all Federationists.
For those lacking in hip-hop culture, I will explain some of the basics of breakin'. The most difficult aspect of breakin' is not learning how to balance and spin around on one's back, hands, or head. It isn't even learning how to move one's arms and torso in such a way as to look as though a wave of electricity has just passed through one's body. The hardest part of breakin' is being uniquedoing something that hasn't been done before. In fact, the highest compliment one breaker can pay to another is to say that he or she was "fresh," meaning that he or she had done something new.
When learning how to break, you first observe and mimic the movements of others. After you obtain some proficiency in the basic movements, it is time to begin creating some trademark variations. Failure to be creative at this point means relegation to the position of passive onlooker, rather than inclusion as a member of a crew.
To understand breakin', you must understand crewsloosely organized groups of break dancers. Each crew has its own name and usually has eight to ten members. One crew often challenges another to a contest at dance clubs.
The contests, or battles, go like this. A member of the first crew goes to the center of the dance floor and performs a movement, say a back spin. This is followed by a member of the opposite crew also doing a back spin but with a variation of some kind. The cheers and yells of the onlookers determine whose effort is best. Another member of the first crew then comes out and performs another movement. It is now the second crew's turn to send forward the member who can best perform that movement.
When I was breakin' regularly, my specials were the back spin, the hand spin, "combat uprockin'," and "pop-lockin'." When someone from an opposing crew did any of these movements, I knew it was time for me to break. However, if an opposing crew member did anything other than my specialties, I remained an observer.
Interesting, you say, but what does all this have to do with creativity, initiative, and leadership? Plenty. First, let's compare a break dancing crew to a chapter, division, or affiliate of the NFB. In a crew each member has particular strengths and is needed to play his or her part. Chapters, divisions, or affiliates are no different.
Some Federationists are good at using various types of technology. Others are wonderful at interacting with legislators. Some are best at mentoring those who are new to the Federation. Still others find their niche in communicating with and organizing members' ideas and talents to create the cohesive whole. In both crews and Federation groups each person's contribution is necessary.
A corollary to this point is that to be on a breakin' crew means to be consistently practicing and creating new movesin other words, always to be stretching and growing. As each breaker improves, the crew improves in its ability to out-break other crews. Similarly, one cannot be a Federationist and be passive. Rather one must constantly seek ways to add value to one's self, the local organization, and the larger community.
I should add that no one had to tell any crew member what move he or she should work on next. If I observed that we were constantly being beaten by a certain movement, say a hand spin, and if I felt I could excel at that movement, I would begin working on it. Others saw different areas of weakness in which they felt they could excel and began working on those. The NFB is no different.
Implicit throughout this description of breakin' is the underlying premise and lesson that diversity in a group is to be encouraged and valued. When my fellow crew member could perform a movement far better than I could, I didn't feel threatened or feel the need to try to encourage him or her to do it my way. Rather we all applauded such differences as the lifeblood of our crew. We all felt our crew was stronger as a result of such differences. Not only did they give us new movements to add to our collection, but they encouraged the belief in all of us that there were always other variations, always a way to improve. This belief is the very foundation of creativity, and creativity and change are the lifeblood of a healthy, growing organization.
Thus far I've discussed some of the similarities between breakin' crews and organizations of the NFB. One difference worth noting is that crews are generally self-organizing and have no official leader. However, the NFB does have elected officers and leaders. I now want to mention briefly how the breakin' metaphor applies to leaders in the Federation.
To lead a group of motivated and diversely talented volunteers requires a leader truly to value differences. In addition, it requires the leader to have the maturity and the ability to communicate with people from diverse backgrounds, viewpoints, and different self-interests so that each member feels valued and is supported in his or her efforts to contribute to the organization. The leader must also be willing to allow the group's activities to reflect the complexion of the group as a whole, rather than his or her own personal conception.
In short, Federation leaders must learn to work collegially with everyone in the organization. This is the challenge and the strength of the National Federation of the Blind.
It is helpful to remember that, regardless of the movement each breaker was practicing on a particular afternoon, we were all there because of our love of dancing. Similarly, regardless of the individual roles we play in the Federation, we are all together for a common reason: to change what it means to be blind.