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In a Land of Machete Killings, Self-Management Rules

Dateline:  Dapaong, Togo, West Africa, July 4, 2015

Our Toyota SUV crosses the military checkpoint in the strategic Dapaong region of northern Togo. Three days earlier, our arrival at the Lomé airport reminded us that we were entering a formidable part of the world: medics took our temperatures to make sure we weren’t Ebola carriers. Today, we are in the difficult border region of three West African countries: Togo, Ghana and Burkina Faso. The sun bakes the land into dry dust, with only the slightest breeze to moderate the stifling heat. This is a land of mud huts and backbreaking subsistence agriculture. Although the rainy season is just getting started, the rains have been sparse this year—not a good sign. Togo has been hit by periodic famine in the past; as one of the poorest countries in the world, it is ill-equipped to manage a severe food shortage.

This area is the home of the proud Moba people, and I am here by invitation, along with other colleagues, to engage in training and dialogue on conflict management. The day before, I delivered professional conflict management training to 40 pastors and community leaders from all over Northern Togo. I spent a bit of time on the Johari Window—the group wanted animal names assigned to each of the Johari windowpanes for clarity and understanding. The closed window became a turtle (in its shell, unresponsive, a poor listener). The group wanted to know what animal should represent the open window. I hadn’t thought about it before, but after desperately searching the tin ceiling for a clue, finally suggested a dog—expressive but also attuned to human voices. Nodding approval, they seemed to like that solution.

The group is smart, by anyone’s standards–all have attended graduate school. Today’s task was much easier than yesterday’s—to meet with a dozen of those leaders and engage in dialogue on the topic of conflict. The first questions are easy, followed by one that is rather startling. What if, the questioner asks, two neighbors have a land dispute, and one goes to the other to discuss the problem, and the neighbor attacks him with a machete? How can we resolve the conflict?

Apparently, this is not an isolated situation. It is actually a major concern for leaders who see themselves as peacemakers. On the other side of the border, in Ghana, there is continuous low-intensity conflict, occasionally erupting in violence (arson, murder, mayhem). I’m not prepared to prescribe standard conflict management protocol and encourage people to position themselves to be killed—this is existential stuff, not a question of nasty boardroom politics. If someone senses the possibility of a machete attack, they need to either involve the nearest gendarmerie, or learn to tolerate the situation. After a quick translation from English to French, my questioner nods his understanding and agreement.

The leaders don’t have computers, but all have cell phones (some quite high-end). The occasional cell phone goes off during the meeting, causing individuals to pop up and exit to take a call. It’s not like being in a typical North American office—here we’re in a concrete building with a tin roof, tiny windows and no restrooms. But somehow cell phone behavior seems to be the same worldwide. In Dapaong, internet cafés are available, but only work to the extent there is available electricity–a hit-and-miss proposition. So leaders are tethered to their cell phones for connectivity, supported by robust nationwide signal strength. They are motivated to sit in a stifling concrete room on backless, hard wooden benches for six hours because of their principles, values, vision and purpose. Their engagement and passion shows in their faces. They are inspiring. I reflect on room temperature, chair comfort and food complaints from past training evaluations and smile.

Observing the behavior of the main group and subset groups over a period of six days, some lessons became clear.

First, the leaders and peacemakers are all self-managed, self-organized. For one thing, they are unpaid—devoting ten to thirty hours a week on helping others for free, spending the rest of their waking hours growing food for their immediate families. They have voluntarily surrendered two days of work to learn about conflict management and other topics and leave food production in the hands of others. Not easy choices to make. Despite partial expense reimbursement, these are real opportunity costs.

Being self-managers by definition, they navigate conditions and engage in practices that drive serious effectiveness without bureaucracy:

Zero Command Authority. All relationships, and all activities, are purely voluntary. No one has any authority to direct activities of any kind. All leadership is exercised through influence, persuasion and trust. The voluntary gathering of forty unpaid leaders for two full days of training was an expression of pure self-management.

Connectivity. Communication is “Always-On/Always-Near”. Leaders will make and take cell phone calls whenever necessary. We never viewed these calls during training sessions as interruptions—they were manifestations of a robust self-managed network in action.

Out-Teaming. The leadership group made us feel welcome, as fellow collaborators. We were neither elevated in importance nor diminished as temporary guests. For our time there, we were simply peers, colleagues and collaboration partners.

Nurturing the Network. The overall network is actually a network of networks (in the parlance of my friend, Ken Everett, N2N). Each leader has a local community network, nested within the larger community of communities. The leaders operate fluidly at both network levels and internalize self-management at a visceral level because they have no other way to get things done. Resources from the larger level (like learning) flow to the local level, and local resources (like information) flow to the larger level. Both network levels are necessary, and each nourishes the other.

Learning Organization. The leaders gathered in small groups at break times to share insights, questions, observations and updates. The groups were fluid and information flowed easily from group to group and person to person, refining and anchoring the learning.

Capitalizing on the Power of Weak Ties. There is a nominal overall leader of the group with varying degrees of connectivity to every leader in the group. This leader broadcast low-energy messages that kept things on track without using force. His vision, presence and mindfulness, combined with message congruence, relied on the power of weak ties to make sure the right things were addressed in the seminar. When there were certain topics we wanted to address or avoid, he would broadcast the message for us, with excellent results.

Even in a challenging land of conflict, where the average lifespan is 56 years, it is possible to harvest lessons of effective self-organization and self-management.

The joyous self-organized post-workshop celebration:

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