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Getting Emotional and Personal: YOU@CMC, A Self-Leadership Workshop

Posted June 18, 2014 in News

By Xiangyu Ma ‘17

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“ … and that is when I realized—” It was probably sometime mid-sentence, mid-story, mid-workshop when I realized just how different of an experience I was in for. I was sitting down next to one of my friends and she had been in the midst of her exposition when she stopped. “You know, I can’t believe I’m telling you all this. I usually take so long to warm to someone… and here I am blabbing away my life story…”

I nodded. From my vantage point near the back of the Freeburg Forum I could tell that the same sentiments were reverberating around the room. Half of the students in the room were in throes of animated monologue, while the other half was listening with half-grins of silent awe. It was almost surreal: thirty odd people sitting around a lecture room one Friday afternoon, swapping the most personal of stories.

YOU@CMC is a pilot program developed by Sara Thompson, the Director of Leadership Programs at the Kravis Leadership Institute, with her group of student coordinators. Thompson described it as a workshop aimed at teaching self-leadership and authentic leadership as part of “a KLI effort to do more outside-of-the-classroom leadership development.”

“We use a competency-based model here at the KLI to teach leadership to students. There are three components of that: leading the self, leading groups, and leading organizations. YOU@CMC focuses on the self,” Thompson said. “We want to help students understand who they are as leaders, and how to develop more as leaders. We wanted to help them learn individually about who they are and what kind of leader they want to be.”

Self-leadership begins with developing our sense of self-awareness. And to be self-aware means to understand exactly who we are, where we come from, and who we want to become. It means we must grapple with and then become masters of our own personal narratives. The YOU@CMC workshop is shaped around enabling this.

The day began with a sequence of icebreaker games that demanded incrementally more emotional and personal investment from us, the participants. This culminated with a closing icebreaker game that invited us to share personal insecurities and vulnerabilities with the rest, and other like-minded students would agree and empathize if and when they did. This exercise could have been a dry and trite, but instead it was a pulsating personal experience. People really bought-in to the workshop; people were incredibly forthcoming. I was astonished by the generosity and honesty with which people volunteered their own observations.

After the icebreakers, YOU@CMC segued into an introductory mode. Here, Thompson took over proceedings and launched into the objectives of the workshop: for us to discover our personal stories, and more importantly, to learn how to tell it to others. She introduced two concepts that would form the crux of everyone’s understanding of the workshop: the “head story” and the “soul story.” The head story, she explained, springs from the ego, and requires and generates low amounts of empathy. The soul story is much more powerful: it is the story of who we really are, straight from the heart, and it is the chief way through which we, as people or as leaders, connect with people. Knowing our own soul stories, Thompson emphasized, was important because ”as an individual you have to be able to role model and be an example of the things you are asking other people to do.”

Thereafter, the workshop moved into a series of pair and group activities. In those pairs and groups, participants shared, analyzed, and then constructed compelling narratives of their own. YOU@CMC had not been an especially long workshop; it spanned a total of five hours. But in that time, it managed to plump surprising emotional depth. Participants were active and willing, gratuitously offering powerful personal anecdotes in the knowledge that those-listening would reciprocate. The atmosphere was quite simply unique: it was emotionally charged in a way I had yet to experience in college.

Chong Shen ’16, YOU@CMC’s leading student coordinator, was gratified by the great response. She attributed this to the “nourishing setting” that “gave [the participants] the comfort to express themselves.” Chong added, “People were active and engaged, and that was pretty special. People really liked the openness of how everyone was honest about their personal experiences. That’s why they were in turn willing to share and expose their vulnerabilities to other people.”

I, and the others, left the workshop drained but happy. It was an emotionally-enervating few hours — but it was great, remarkable, and altogether rewarding. “I was not alone in feeling that way,” Chong said. “Some people have suggested a follow-up, like an Athenaeum tea or something similar so that the same group of people who’ve attended this workshop can come back and re-group.”

Thompson said that the participants were “very positive” about YOU@CMC, but she already has plans to improve and expand the workshop. This year’s pilot workshop was but the start. “We’ll tweak some of the activities, and we’ll add additional programs that develop other competencies. This one focuses on the self. We’ll have one on teams and groups, one on organizations and systems.” YOU@CMC was a great workshop, but the aim next year is to make it even bigger, even better.