A Hundred Strangers
by Dhruv Jagasia, CEO & Founder of Dharma Eyewear
(first published on the Global Round Table Leadership blog here)
A hundred strangers. That’s how we all started out, at least; as strangers. I took a fifteen minute subway ride to Parsons, walked into the classroom and I sat down at a desk not too far from the front. After all, I knew Lori Hanau well and I wanted to experience firsthand what was about to happen. Little did I know what would actually happen.
I knew that Lori was a community builder within the management programs at Marlboro College Graduate School and that she worked in the Shared Leadership space, but I hadn’t yet experienced her work outside of the ultra-liberal safe-zone that is Marlboro College. I’m a graduate student at Marlboro, working towards my MBA in Conscious Business. There, in the tiny city of Brattleboro, Vermont, amongst yogis, business people and non-profiteers, Lori had cultivated a close-knit community at a graduate school in which our hybrid in-person and online learning setup meant that we commuted from as far as California, New York and Florida. “Building a community there mustn’t be too hard, I thought. After all, we’re all a bunch of pseudo-hippies. Sitting in circles and talking about our feelings comes naturally to us.”
“So how the hell was Lori going to achieve that in New York?” I thought. New York is so densely packed and the pace of the day is so quick that by the end of the day, most people want to lock themselves in their apartment or in a bar, let alone sit together with strangers and talk about the “f” word — feelings.
“Okay, everyone, let’s all take our desks and turn them so we form a circle,” she said, after introducing herself and introducing us to the four pillars of shared leadership. Circle was something I was used to and had been exposed to going to school at Marlboro. There, we were all considered ‘learning partners’. Sure, it can sound a bit cheesy, but flattening hierarchies can introduce a sense of ease, openness and ownership (at the best of times).That meant that we spoke up to professors or administrators if we thought they were in the wrong. In a way, it turned professors in to students as well; there was a sense that they were there to learn from us just as much as we were there to learn from them.
But what about these Parson’s students, teachers, and otherwise New York professionals? How would they react to it? I could sense a little uneasiness, but we were all reassured by Lori’s calm and pervasive sense of confidence that filled the room. “She’s bringing a bit of Marlboro to New York,” I thought to myself. “This should be interesting.”
The first thing you’ll notice about Lori Hanau is that she is wacky — in the most charming and disarming way possible. She’s smiling, she’s laughing, she’s cracking jokes, she’s goofy — but she’s Lori. And that is what she preaches. “We need to show up in our humanity and in our wholeness,” she would often say. I hadn’t really understood what that meant until that night at Parsons. Just as being vulnerable and opening yourself up to others allows others to open up around you, being your goofiest self, if that’s who you really are, gives others the confidence to show up authentically, too. In a few moments, we went from being a mix of strangers, unsure of ourselves and unsure of each other, to laughing and sharing deep vulnerabilities; some stuff, I’m sure, not even our closest loved ones knew about us.
At one point, we were practicing an exercise where we all stood in a circle, and we would take turns sharing vulnerabilities and stepping further into the circle and, thus, out of our comfort zones. The most profound moment occurred when one of the teachers, whom many of the students were familiar with, admitted to everyone that speaking in front of others filled with him a sense of anxiety and dread. At first, we were shocked. He’s a professor, after all. And then, we all held him together in a sense of nurturing. It was like we were all saying, “there, there… we understand… it’s okay.” No one said anything, but that’s what we all felt and we cared for him in that moment. We transcended our individual selves, we became a community and, without words, we felt as one. In that moment, I understood what shared vulnerability meant, and how powerful communities can be.
And I realized the power of vulnerability, as after the professor spoke, a very young student said another thing that shocked us all with its rawness and its bold truth. Here was a nineteen year old student speaking with maturity, with poise, and with assuredness. In that moment, she immediately gained all of our respect for being vulnerable and for being her true self. I can’t imagine many other scenarios where someone so young could be so openly bold and frank, speaking amongst her peers and adults, many of whom she did not know, and could be regarded with that much respect. Community norms established and held by us all in the last hour had allowed for her personal growth in that moment.
Now that I think about it, Lori Hanau had not issued one single command. She only asked us that we form a circle. She only asked us to be ourselves. She only asked us to share space with each other. She asked us to listen with intention. She only asked us to respect ourselves — whoever we are. Whoever we are — that can’t be stressed enough. No judgments were issued. Here was a safe space, in the middle of New York City.
She did not lead in a traditional sense; she was not our boss. We were given the space to be human, to grow, to laugh, to learn, to be kind, to cheer and to be together. This was Shared Leadership; this was the product of Equality, Wholeness, Humanity and Collective Wisdom.
By the end of the workshop, we were no longer strangers. The kinship we felt cannot now be put into words. The way we felt, as one, could never be truly synthesized into this article. But, one thing became certain. If Lori Hanau can convert strangers with all sorts of superficial differences into kindred spirits in just a couple hours in the middle of New York City, we can create kinship and community anywhere. And our world needs this more than ever.
Many of us feel, I’m sure, a sense of longing, of loneliness, of disconnection and discontent. Especially in an age of electronic-device proliferation. What many of us want, I think, is to be needed, to belong, to be close to other people; to be part of something bigger than ourselves. That is but a small part what community offers us.
So I urge you to step out of your comfort zone. I urge you to be vulnerable. I urge you to give others the space to be their authentic whole selves, to grow, to earn respect, and to be human. Everyone has a leader hidden inside of them. All we have to do is let that seed flower and watch the world become a better place.
Dhruv participated in Lori Hanau’s Shared Leadership Workshop at Parsons School of Design in the Spring of 2015. We so appreciate him sharing his insights and reflections about his experience. For additional reflections from that workshop and Shared Leadership Practices, see Lori Hanau and Claire Wheeler’s May/June article in Conscious Company Magazine: Lead Better By Putting People First