Life On The Margins - Creation of a Learning Edge

Jun 4, 2010 3:45 PM ET

The Acacia Group - Socially Responsible Leadership

The last couple of weeks I have encountered different writings and experiences that have heightened my awareness of the concept of marginality. As often happens, once something has captured my attention I begin to see examples in day to day life. So I have been thinking about paradigms related to marginality. Some of these paradigms include;

·         marginality and power ·         marginality and change ·         marginality and community ·         marginality and leadership ·         marginality and learning.   Let’s start with marginality and learning. Within the practice of leadership coaching, reference is often made to the importance of working with the learning edge of the client. Often the primary focus of the coaching is to help the client identify their learning edge, help them explore the areas of learning that they want to work on and help support them in the learning and application process so that their learning becomes embedded into their internal ways of being and doing. What does `the learning edge’ mean? To me it is that place in my thinking and choice making that is being challenged by my context and environment. It is the `place’ where what I have known and what I have done just doesn’t seem to be working as well for me and I know that I need to explore new knowledge and understanding in order to continue to be effective or to be more effective. The margin or learning edge for me seems to be the place where I am open to new ways of seeing and being.   From the perspective of leadership, marginality would seem to be an oxymoron. We tend to think of leaders as people who are at the centre of things – certainly within organizational structures we rarely place positions of leadership at the bottom or the edges of the organization. And yet what can we make of the growing trend towards CEO’s going undercover in order to see their organization from a different perspective?  There is a new or alternative perspective to be gained when a leader situates him/her self differently in relationship to the organization that can help them see a situation, problem or issue in a different way. Surely then new solutions can begin to emerge.   Marginality and community is perhaps a more common context for thinking about and understanding marginality. Every community carries a mental model of `the normal citizen’. Outside of the mental model of normal however, `other’ people are seen as being on the margins – the homeless, the poor, the transients, the mentally ill, the ethnic minority. In some communities there is an openness and desire to embrace and include people on the margins while in others there are entrenched systemic barriers between the established norm and the newcomers or minorities. An example of this would be the different outcomes we can see between Canada’s approach to multiculturalism and France’s segregation approach. Another example might be the move in the 1980’s towards integrating children with special needs into the mainstream school system. Today it is hard to remember that segregation based on health (physical and mental) was once the norm. The practice of inclusivity can remove barriers that we hold in our mind and open us up to possibilities that were once unimaginable.   Marginality and change? -  interactions with the margin can only result in change and this is fractal i.e. for individuals and for large systems. I have recently been reading Naomi Klein’s collection of essays called `Fences and Windows – Dispatches from the Front Lines of the Globalization Movement’. Back in 1999 when protests were being held at the World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle, the folks in power were surprised to see the protesters and apparently unsure of how to handle things. It would seem that this was a re-start of a movement in which the centers of economic and political decision making were forced to encounter the people who were feeling marginalized in the decision making processes that were affecting their lives and the lives of people around them. (NOTE – this is not the first time in history!)  In the 10 or more years since Seattle, those people who were on and representing the margins have had significant impact on the decision makers – and from this movement corporate social responsibility has been leveraged. The lesson would seem to be that the margin is where new priorities gain momentum and the place from which the impetus for system change comes. The center or the `establishment’ is rarely internally motivated enough to disrupt the status quo.    Power often resides at the center – the place of influence, decision making and control. The place where laws, regulations, and policies have created an infrastructure that perpetuates and holds power in place. This is not necessarily bad – systems and people need stability and we can all think of examples where instability has been incredibly destructive and horrific actions have resulted. However when power is centralized, a margin is created and for many people who live on the margins they are unable to feel connected, to feel that they can influence and to feel that they have value.   As leaders – whether in organizations or in our day to day lives there is value in increasing our awareness of the margins  that exist around us. As I have tried to reflect above, the benefits of exploring the margins around us are:   ·         Margins create a place for greater personal learning ·         Margins create a place for greater organizational learning ·         Margins are a place of fresh perspective, innovation and new possibility ·         Margins are a place to engage people and increase social capital ·         Margins are a place to see injustice and to make conscious choices for justice ·         Margins are a place from which change is coming whether we like it or not.   A friend of mine once said that sometimes we avoid having conversations because intuitively we know that we might be changed as a result and our first response is to resist being changed. Exploring the margins in our lives and in our world can be difficult – however the potential to experience new ways of seeing ourselves and the world around us opens us up to rich and diverse experiences that will make us wonder why we were so attached to the status quo in the first place.   And remember the margins are a place where all of us have spent time doodling and creating when what is going on around us is boring!   Within the world of CSR, Leadership, and Stakeholder Engagement margins are critical places to be. What margins are you avoiding in your life and which ones are you open to exploring? What parts of the status quo are you upholding because you are not exploring a margin?   The Acacia Group’s mission is to offer transformative and unique leadership development for organizations seeking to live out their global citizenship. To do this we blend knowledge from Corporate Social Responsibility, Community Development and Leadership Development and Learning to emerge new opportunities for excellence for our clients. We help them find their margins!   AG7250