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Three Stories from the Annals of Creative Leaps International

Two Dried Leaves


In New Orleans with the Red Cross Following Hurricane Katrina

"People were lifted to a place of hope and peace they had not dared to imagine for some 24 long months.  You helped us find our song again!"

                                                                             Kay Wilkins, CEO Southeast Louisiana Chapter

                                                                                                                               The American Red Cross


                            Laura Olson, Research Scientist, The George Washington University

                                                                    Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management

Daring to imagine is at the crux of the life impulse, and it was precisely this which seemed impossible to members of the Southeast Louisiana Chapter of the American Red Cross nearly two years after Hurricane Katrina had ravaged their beloved New Orleans.   How to rebuild their spirits?  How to rekindle hope and possibility for getting back on track for the new hurricane season just a couple of months away?  The SELA Chapter of the Red Cross had itself been decimated, members losing their own homes and loved ones to the storm.  They had pushed themselves beyond the breaking point, working for others, neglecting themselves. 

Three groups were brought in to help SELA and its people put itself back together: The George Washington University Institute for Crisis, Disaster and Risk Management; the James MacGregor Burns Center for Leadership at the University of Maryland; and Creative Leaps International, a nonprofit educational and consulting group headquartered in the Hudson Valley of New York.  The teams from GWU and UM lead the way with painstaking research, interviews, and archetypal interventions pointing the way to recovery.  Significant progress was made, enhancing self-knowledge and reframing the realities that had defeated them.   Yet, somehow, hope continued to be elusive.  Something was missing and it was in the wake of this realization that Laura Olson, research scientist at the GWU Institute, called in Creative Leaps International, an organization known for its innovative use of the arts in leadership development and organizational renewal. 

The team from Creative Leaps helped to design a culminating Resilience Retreat for the SELA participants, chock full of arts inflected workshops and activities.  Chief among them was a “Concert of Ideas”, a lively interactive performance designed to honor heroic service and catalyze new thinking in combination with an emotional re-surfacing of SELA’s traumatic experience.  At first, there was hesitation among some of the Red Cross workers even to sit down and give the performance a chance.  “What could this possibly do for us?  We’ve got mountains of work to do.”   But as the music washed over them and the performers reached out to them heart to heart, person to person, something began to happen.  The music entered and loosened that which was locked away.  Tears flowed, glances raced from one to another, and smiles began to break out from tightly clasped lips.  Within minutes, the room came alive and the journey with Creative Leaps International was begun. 

Discussion circles and workshops followed over the next two days.  By popular demand, the five workshops had to be repeated three times, all running concurrently on “leadership and perception”, “mind-body stress management”, “risk-taking and habits of excellence”, “lessons of courage and adversity” and “the hero’s journey”.  The participants drank in the messages and voiced their own deeply held truths.

Finally, on the afternoon of the last day, 15 volunteers were called forward to partner with the Creative Leaps team in the creation of a “Harvest of Learnings”, a performance event to be authored and mounted by the SELA participants themselves with a bit musical and theatrical assistance from their Creative Leaps colleagues.  Through two bubbling hours of meetings, interviews and quick-fire rehearsals, the Harvest was prepared.  The performance that followed was part celebration, part solemn ceremony, and moved through them with the force of a wave embracing and uplifting every hard-won truth, every personal victory.   Through tears of joy and gestures of triumph, the SELA participants exclaimed, “We’re back!” -- and the room literally shook with their life force.

What had happened?  How to describe it?  Even for the Creative Leaps team, the experience seemed to bypass a completely rational explanation.  They say that the music and their personal interactions with the participants simply catalyzed the completion of their healing process.  They had completed the inner work of art and could, once again, dare to imagine.  The life impulse had returned.

Two Dried Leaves

In Washington DC Rebuilding the District's Municipal Management 


"Understanding yourself is very important when you're trying to be a better leader.  And this parallels what Creative Leaps does with the music, getting you in touch with yourself and then bringing this awareness into the classroom and into the way you deal with people."

                                         Herbert Tillery, Deputy Mayor for Operations, Washington D.C.

                former Director, Center for Excellence in Municipal Management (CEMM)

The District of Columbia was still reeling from the arrest of its mayor and the city’s consequent decommissioning by the Federal Government.  This was 1997 and a new institution known as the Center for Excellence in Municipal Management at George Washington University (CEMM) was created to restore strong leadership to the district by undertaking the retraining of its most dedicated municipal managers.  Creative Leaps International was brought in as adjunct faculty to the Center and charged with the task of bridging the transition for these managers from the trenches of their former roles to a new mindset ready for learning and transformative leadership development.  Candidates were drawn from across all agencies and departments, three days each month for the eleven months of the training.  They formed cohorts of 30-35 participants and new cohorts were launched approximately every four months.   Creative Leaps International worked with 18 cohorts over a six-year period. 

The first challenge for the Creative Leaps team was getting to know the people they were working with and helping them to know one another for nearly all were strangers to one another.  Groups were highly diverse, of varying ethnicities and educational backgrounds, and came from virtually every agency of city government.  They shared two things in common, however:  the injury of having worked in chaos and moral disarray, and the desire to see things change.  Both these factors proved to be powerful drivers of the transition to transformative leadership development.

Within hours of their arrival, participants were ushered into a plenary room set for a concert performance with a 9-foot grand piano, four huge kettle drums and a marimba.  They were told only that they were in for a surprise that would set their minds to thinking about leadership as never before.  Faces were full of questions, eyebrows raised in anticipation, bodies wriggling in their chairs, when suddenly the kettle drums sounded the bold opening to Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man”, the grand piano echoed its strains, and voices and other instruments joined in the joyful tumult.  The 30 CEMM participants were surrounded by glorious sound and within minutes found themselves cheering and bubbling with excitement for whatever might lie ahead.   “We are here for you”, said the Creative Leaps team, “to celebrate your journey and your dedication, to help spark the creative thinking and heart-felt searching that will see you through to the high goals you’ve set for yourselves.”  And with that, the “Concert of Ideas” was underway. 

In the hour and a half that followed, the Creative Leaps team challenged their audience to listen differently, drawing them into various listening games and light-spirited conversation.  “How does the music make you feel?  What do you see with your mind’s eye?”  And encouraging them to make this their mantra through all they would experience in the days ahead:  how does this make me feel?  What am I seeing in my imagination? Participants were encouraged to pay attention to the activities of their own minds and hearts, not merely the input from the stage or the podium.  The concert then took a deeper turn, venturing into musical retellings of Don Quixote’s quest, the African American experience captured in the spirituals, the archetypal ‘hero’s journey’ a’ la Joseph Campbell recreated on the great bronzed kettle drums, and more,  each musical selection becoming a prism for their thoughts, wonderings, and remembered feelings.

Like every good concert, the Concert of Ideas ended on a high note both literally and figuratively.  The energy in the room was palpable and quickly channeled into small group discussions facilitated by the performers themselves.  For most, this was not the sort of music they were accustomed to hearing, let alone experiencing full out and at arm’s length.  Within minutes, however, the conversations took off, sharing favorite moments, and bit by bit getting into their own thought processes.  The concert became a kind of mirror to their interior lives and what they saw gave them pause, made them wonder about the stories they were living and how they might take a more conscious role in authoring the chapters that would come next. 

Creative leadership begins with writing your own story, re-writing it and writing it again as you see your way forward in an ever changing world.  This is the leader’s first responsibility, learning to look inward to see what story is playing itself out there, and then, with courage, looking deeper still to see what might be if they would only join themselves to the task.  This personal transformation is the leader’s key to all subsequent transformations in the organizations they lead: to see in oneself and others the possibilities waiting to be born.  This is what, at Creative Leaps International, is called “the inner work of art”, something we can all do if we afford ourselves the opportunity.

Two Dried Leaves

On Silver Bay with the Human Issues in Management Conference - An Origin Story

"Right after the music -- boom! People went together. It accelerated
that bonding and relationships -- and got people interacting at a level that normally takes much longer into the conference."

                                              Robert Nalewajek, Chair
Human Issues in Management Conferences

Who would have guessed that the arts had anything to say to business about being better leaders?  It was the summer of 1991 and the Human Issues in Management Conferences at Silver Bay on New York’s beautiful Lake George were about to convene their annual gathering.  Robert Greenleaf, the father of what is now known as ‘servant leadership’, had founded the conferences out of AT&T back in the 1920s and they had become the standard for the HR field.  Greenleaf’s partner, Bill Sharwell, now president of Pace University, was a regular at these gatherings and a champion of new approaches to keeping HR values fresh.  In keeping with Sharwell’s spirit of adventure, the planning committee had voted to bring in a group of performer/educators whose work with children and families had impressed a couple of the members.  The group had a talent for using their performances to get kids and parents, even their teenagers, to talk to one another.   The idea was, if they could get teenagers to talk to their parents about stuff they would probably rather avoid, maybe they could get business folk to do the same, that is, talk to one another about things they were all too good at avoiding! 

The theme for the upcoming conference was ‘leadership’ and they were hoping to see it from some new angles, get beyond the conventional thinking and into the thick of it.  Their keynoter for the occasion was Walt Ulmer, then president of the famous Center for Creative Leadership out of Greensboro, NC.  Ulmer had a reputation as an excellent speaker and was sure to offer an up to date perspective.  The artist group, known then as Associated Solo Artists, already keen on interdisciplinary projects connecting the sciences and the arts, was charged with coming up with a performance matched to Ulmer’s keynote that would take his message deeper, especially on an intuitive, emotional level, and inspire conversation.

Eager to please and anxious to come up with something good, the artists reached out to Ulmer at CCL but, to their dismay, never managed to reach him personally.  They were told he was too busy and never used notes in his talks anyway, so they would have to manage on their own.  Ultimately, this proved a blessing because they very quickly set to work using their own instincts and the tools of their trade: the music, poetry, science and literature they loved to juxtapose in interdisciplinary projects. They chose as their form a performance format they had invented called a “Concert of Ideas” which served as a mixing pot for thinking gleaned from many disciplines and traditions.  Rather than proclaiming a singular perspective or solution, they sought to refract different perspectives off one another.  They called their design principle ‘creative juxtaposition’ and knew from experience how it prompted the mind to seek creative connections and figure things out on its own.  What better lead-in to conversation as each listener sought to share his or her route through these ideas and the meanings they had created?

When the big day arrived, Walt Ulmer was absolutely masterful, strolling comfortably among his listeners, telling stories and delivering his keen insights.  What more was there to say?   It was a perfection.   But then, the curtain rose and the music began, heroic voices lifted in song, grand piano, flute and kettle drums in resounding support.  The audience was taken off guard.  They liked it!  It was fun.  But where was it going?  Step by step, the performers brought the audience into their world of ideas, images and emotions.  They spoke to them across the footlights, cajoling, questioning, and starting conversations.  Before they realized what was happening, the audience was onboard for a journey into their own psyches, their own imaginations and whispered pasts.  Each musical scenario, story or song played off the one before and became the lens through which the next piece would be experienced.  It was a kaleidoscope of input and perspectives which begged exploration and personal meaning-making.  Calling upon the wisdom of inventor Buckminster Fuller, the performers reminded their audience, “Don’t connect the dots too soon!  Remember to stand before them in awe and wonder for as long as you can before drawing your conclusions.”    The audience was full of smiles because they understood precisely what was happening here.

The Concert of Ideas succeeded as a touchstone for discussion precisely because it brought everyone into a universal space, a place for thinking, feeling and exploring without experts proclaiming the answers.   The music engaged the heart as well as the mind and simply pointed to enticing possibilities and directions of exploration.    Each person’s first and most important discussion began internally with him- or herself.  That was the key.  No wonder they could hardly wait to talk with one another!    “I don’t know who they liked better,” Ulmer said afterwards, “you or me.  But in the future we’re going to work together”.   And in that moment was born the new identity for this group of interdisciplinary thinkers and musicians (!) known ever after as “Creative Leaps International.” 

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