The Circle: A Liberating Structure of Leadership

Since the tragedy at Sandy Hill Elementary in Connecticut, I have been reflecting on the circle as a liberating structure in leadership.  It’s not a new structure yet it is so rarely practiced in “civil society.”   In the very old days we sat around a fire for warmth.  And in that circle we began to create our plan for solving a problem or for celebrating.   In a circle we see each other.  We aren’t talking to each other’s backs or over each other’s laptops but into the collective territory we are creating together in the center.
In pre school, children and the adults gather in circle time several times per day.  It is the structure for coming together and organizing, problem solving, getting started on a project, and so on.  The process always begins with a circle.  Then in kindergarten and older grades the desks and chairs get in the way. Gradually classrooms look like pyramids with the teacher at the top of the pyramid, and students in rows underneath it.  Pyramids are so familiar in organizations.  Organizational charts all look like pyramids: a few at the top and then rows of people underneath, with more populated rows at the bottom of the pyramid.  Our societies reflect the pyramid structure: a few at the top, lots at the bottom.
The circle liberates us to share leadership, to find solutions in the collective wisdom and knowledge of the whole.
The words of Marianne Williamson, which Nelson Mandela made famous in his inaugural address, remind us that leadership is not just for a few:
“It’s not just in some of us.  It’s in everyone.  And as we let our own light shine we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.  As we are liberated from our own fears our presence automatically liberates others.”
What would happen if we brought back the circle in our organizations, maybe not all at once, but little by little, a few minutes at a time?
Try this:  Meet in an open space, gather a few chairs around in a circle, or stand in a circle. Conference tables are great but they invite us to bring in all our stuff: our laptops, papers, cell phones—all tantalizing distractions from the important work of really seeing and listening to one another.