How I Found the Authentic Leadership Program, and How It Found Me

Updated: Jun 10, 2020

Written by Sen Zhan, a participant in the "Authentic Leadership Project" by Clustered, Treffen and TMT

“What you seek is seeking you.”

- Rumi

When I joined my first coworking day with Treffen, I had expected it to be a coworking day like other events - someone keeps time, and we work according to the schedule without too much interaction.

But the Treffen day was different. In addition to ice breaker activities, members of Treffen offered micro-workshops or skillshares to the rest of the group. That’s how I met Mira Culic, who was offering 20-minute counseling sessions on any topic of choice.

In these days of constant information overload and stress from all directions, having a professional listening ear is like having someone treating you to dinner. In my session, I talked to Mira about a topic that had been occupying my mind - dealing with the uncertainty of wanting children in a relationship. What came from that discussion was an exchange of perspectives and reframing the issue in a way that defused how much stress I was experiencing from it.

Shortly after that, I learned that Mira was co-facilitating a three-month Authentic Leadership Program, and I was immediately interested. It turns out that this program was a joint venture between three parties:

  1. The program facilitators, who provided their coaching expertise and program materials

  2. Treffen, who provided the physical space (pre-pandemic)

  3. Clustered, who brought their coaching platform and community members, as well as their innovative Clustered app

I learned that the Authentic Leadership Program (ALP) was one program amongst others that was co-created and offered by Clustered. One of the aims of Clustered was to present a counterpoint to the ‘Success Porn’ of conventional coaching and learning communities that push their users towards presenting only a shiny, polished image of themselves. Instead, Clustered was interested in creating their “Clusters” of people based on their shared interest in a certain personal or professional development challenge, creating a less often-seen, but very needed model of group interactions based on vulnerability and trust.

In fact, I had already seen the ALP description on an online event somewhere, but it was one among many. It was in my mind that I definitely needed guidance back to myself during these uncertain times, but the task of choosing one program from the multitude out there was daunting. But having had the personal connection with Mira, one of the facilitators gave me the trust I needed. As Rumi says, what you seek is seeking you. It’s not the first time that when I was clear with myself about my need for guidance and support, that it came to me and met me halfway.

I joined the ALP at the beginning of March 2020.

From Physical to Digital

More than two months later, the world has changed in a way none of us was expecting. Just after the first week that the Authentic Leadership Project was launched, we joined the ranks of those taking our program completely online as we entered lockdown.

Since I joined the program later, after the first week where everyone had already met in the flesh, the only people I had actually met in person were Mira and Peter. The other participants were known to me, and I to them, exclusively virtually. There was naturally the question: Would we be able to transpose our intended group experience to the screen, and would it be as effective? In those first weeks, the answer remained to be seen.

For me, it didn’t take long to get used to seeing all my group members at a glance, with each one in their various backgrounds - some real, some virtual. Though even up until now I don’t have the bodily perception of what it’s like to physically be with any of my fellow participants, my imagination serves me well. And I’m happy to be surprised about my assumptions - how tall someone is, the way they move, how they present their appearance in the outside world - when we eventually do all meet IRL in Berlin.

One important aspect of the ALP was the ability to stay connected to my ALP colleagues via the Clustered mobile app. Having our communications be facilitated and organized by topic created the feeling that we could extend the conversations we had in our weekly live meetings, and also keep our messages to the group focused on the topic at hand - in contrast to other messaging platforms where the thread of conversation can easily start to fray after a while.

We were also prompted on the app to respond to questionnaires and discussion topics, as well as to relevant videos, podcasts, and articles, which gave support and development to the discussions we were having in our live sessions.

Finally, once a month, the ALP featured guest speakers who addressed common challenges - Impostor Syndrome, Rogue Leadership, and the Creative Process. These guests offered different perspectives than what we had grown accustomed to from each other, and our facilitators, and presented additional directions for growth.

Vulnerability in Leadership

As the weeks went by, I started to notice small, but significant things. For me, the biggest changes happen in the smallest moments - moments that may otherwise be unremarkable; perhaps not even worth mentioning - those are the moments where you can literally witness the process of change happening.

One such moment in the last months was when one of our quieter participants - someone who rarely spoke up in our sessions, shared the difficulty she was having with feeling unheard by her much louder colleagues at work. As she described the self-doubt she was carrying, and the beliefs that she was working through - beliefs like “Quiet people cannot be leaders,” or “In order for me to be a leader, I need to be able to speak on a stage to many people,” or “Quiet people do not have as much impact on the world as loud people,” a surge of emotion welled up from her, and she spilled into tears.

The atmosphere of our virtual Zoom room suddenly changed from jovial banter to a silence of solidarity. Despite not being in the same physical space, emotions are perceptible across digital channels. It was in this seemingly small moment that I felt suddenly closer to this woman whom I hadn’t even spoken to directly yet. At that moment, I admitted to myself that I wouldn’t have taken the chance to be the first person to shed a tear in this group of people I didn’t know well. But this woman, self-reported to be shy and quiet, set a precedent of vulnerability for the group that made it suddenly possible for me to go more deeply into myself.

In our session the following week, I found myself sharing with another participant things that were much more personal and deep, and therefore emotional for me. I shed some tears myself. And I knew very clearly that I wouldn’t have been able to go there if I hadn’t been part of what was shared the previous week.

What was remarkable about this occurrence is not that someone shed tears in a group session - this does indeed happen all the time in workshops - big ones as well as small ones. It was not even the fact that it happened in a virtual setting. It was that it was a beautiful, small, and very missable example of the kind of leadership I felt was grossly missing in most of the organizations I had been a part of. The expression of one’s humanity and vulnerability, and understandable fears in front of peers.

It may not have even dawned on this participant just how much safer I felt in the group after she was the first to take the risk of being emotional in our group. While I have no trouble getting into my emotions, in the setting of a group that I don’t have prior connections with, my first gear is to be intellectual and analytical - sharing what my relevant thoughts are, but not getting into how things affect me, or if I do, speaking about them in a cursory, dismissive, or humorous kind of way.

Part of this is because I have the belief that others don’t care about my emotions, or that my emotions are inappropriate, or to focus on my emotions and let them out in this vulnerable way will make others uncomfortable. It’s also because the uncertainty of not knowing how others will respond to my emoting makes me feel not quite safe enough to let them out. I don’t have the confidence that others will know how to handle my emotions. I am afraid that the risk isn’t worth it, and I’ll leave the interaction feeling like I shouldn’t have gone there; that I’ve imposed myself on others, or that I’ve slowed down the group by taking them on a fussy tangent of my inconvenient feelings.

These are, of course, patterns learned in childhood, and reinforced on occasion in adulthood. I remembered the last time I’d gotten emotional with my managing director over feeling overwhelmed and overworked, and like I wouldn’t be able to continue the way I had been.

While there were some concrete attempts he made to ease what I was going through, the space given to my emotions was completely absent. There was no mention made of the fact that I had been feeling inadequate, insecure, and like I’d been given an insurmountable task to deliver. There were no questions asked about how I felt about the measures that were taken - they were simply implemented based on what my director believed to be the solution. And indeed, even if I had been asked about how I was feeling, I wouldn’t have felt safe to truly say that his actions completely missed the point of what I was trying to bring to him.

After a succession of these kinds of interactions in the workplace over a sustained time, even the most emotionally comfortable people can get beaten back into their shells.

This small event with my ALP colleague was an example of what Simon Sinek teaches about leadership - There are leaders, and there are those who lead. Leaders are those who are designated that title and therefore hold authority. Those who lead are those who inspire through their own actions. We follow those who lead not because we have to, but because we want to.

After seeing how this participant put herself out there, I felt myself wanting to also put myself out there. No amount of reasoning, or explaining, or lecturing could make me want to do that, because people don’t make their decisions based on logic - much as we would like to believe. It was being led by a member who had the same participant status as me that made me feel like I could also take the risk of exposing my softer, more delicate parts for others to see. I was reminded by her that there is a sanctity in witnessing someone’s vulnerability, and there is an honour in holding the space for it.

The Wisdom of Peers

There have been several such examples of small things that may have gone unnoticed, but from which I was able to learn another way of being. This often appears in the way that a reflection is framed by one of the participants - sometimes in a kinder and more generous way than I might have put it. From the others, I was reminded of different ways to say the same thing, each with its own angle, and acknowledging points that I may not have seen only from my point of view.

It’s natural that in a longer-term program such as the ALP, ambiguities, disagreements, and conflicts will arise. In the instances when it did, I realized that under stress, my tendencies are to become immediately combative and blaming, and to take swift action, assuming the worst of the situation. Over the course of the last months, I’ve seen how the others handle these situations, and the diverse ways they present their positions and viewpoints, and how in listening to their perspectives, I start to feel less attached to mine.

I saw how diplomatically, and effectively some participants were able to communicate the same message I might have delivered a bit caustically and defensively. I learned that just because I was feeling impatient or annoyed in some moments, didn’t mean that others were feeling this to the same extent. And I also experienced that when I did speak up and offer my perspectives, that this was heard and appreciated by the others.

The question of what my impact is had been circling as doubting ghosts of my mind since I left my position to take a sabbatical several months ago. Eventually, I understood that when I was asking this question, what I was really asking was: Do I matter? Do the things I do make a difference in a way that also matters to me? Would it be different if I weren’t even here? Do people remember me well? Did I leave this place better than I found it?

The truthful answer to all these questions, when it came to the position I had left was: I really don’t know. What I was reminded of from the weeks of our ALP gatherings is that sometimes we really can’t know. But what is important is that we seize opportunities to tell people when we feel impacted by them. Certainly, impact can be measured with KPIs, but emotional impact is not so easily measurable. And at the end of the day, emotional impact (or lack thereof) is what we will remember.

Benefits of the ALP Structure

What continues to be one of the most valuable parts of being in a three-month-long Authentic Leadership Program, is the consistent structure of the program itself - something that creates the expectation that whatever happens, we’ll be returning members of the same group that continues to evolve together. The continuity of this program - in contrast with many other more ‘illustrious’ programs with big names behind them, is that it’s not this wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am kind of experience, where we take one, or multiple days off to attend a spectacular event. We feel incredible for the duration of the event, and for a short time afterward, we are powered by the charisma of the speakers, we are momentarily inspired by the risks we are taking by opening up to strangers, and then we leave it all behind and try our best to integrate what we’ve learned into our daily lives, usually with limited sustainable change.

A program like Clustered’s co-created Authentic Leadership Program presents a counterpoint to this kind of exhilarating experience that many grow attached to, and seek out again and again. One leaves their regular routine to go to a special retreat where they can leave their daily selves behind in order to temporarily try on different facets of one’s identity. We can get caught in this cycle of “experience-seeking” events that due to their structure, cannot support longer-term changes because of the lack of continuous community relationships.

Think of all the people you may have met in these one, or even multi-day settings, with whom you shared a great connection within the context of the workshop, but after the conclusion of the experience, everyone goes home, and there is no longer the same context to maintain the relationship. Despite best intentions, the relationship drops off after a while, as do the learnings you promised yourself you would carry forward.

The ALP is a weekly group that meets for three months, for a few hours each time. The difference is that the changes do not happen quickly, though of course, they can. The point is not to rush everyone to a five-step plan to change your life, or to take participants on a wild rollercoaster of emotions, or to manufacture intimacy between strangers. The best part of the ALP is that it is the opposite of these intensive seminars. It’s slower-paced. There’s time and continuity for the participants to develop organic relationships with each other, based on natural inclinations. It’s not about the main speaker, and how incredible his life has been, and how you too can achieve great things. It’s about providing a recurring space where the participants can try out different behaviours, sometimes an inch at a time, and test what the reception is amongst these people whom you’ll be seeing again next week.

The feeling of the ALP is that we are a cohort, moving through our own changes together, even if we are not colleagues in the same workplace. We have an opportunity every week to be with each other, pose questions to each other, receive diverse kinds of insights and support from each other, and take part in our joint co-evolution. I believe that the most sustainable change is evolutionary, rather than revolutionary; that the most significant kinds of change happen almost imperceptibly at first. I believe that in staying together as a group over an extended period of time, we inevitably bring parts of each other into ourselves. We inevitably diversify ourselves by choosing to be part of a community. The key is in recognizing that short, flashy, and intense experiences can be good for igniting change, but slow, gentle, and sustained is the way to make that change last.


Are you interested in joining the next cohort in October? Get more info here.

Sen is a creative content producer and storyteller. She broadcasts ideas and experiences so that her readers and listeners can imagine themselves with a new perspective. Sen recognizes the power of narrative in understanding ourselves and the journeys we’re on. She is the host and producer of the podcast Beyond Asian: Stories of the Third Culture, where she helps her guests retrace the events of the past to empower the present.