Notes on leadership: Chicago Civic Leadership Exchange kicks off with lessons from a pop-up choir

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On February 1, the walls of the Stony Island Arts Bank reverberated with the sound of more than forty voices joining in harmony to sing three complex choral pieces from South Africa, Corsica, and Appalachia. You wouldn’t have known from their polished performance — or from the audience’s cheers — that many of the choir members had little or no singing experience, or that they’d come together for the first time and learned their songs that same afternoon.

The singers, all of whom were leaders and alumni of nine wide-ranging Chicago civic leadership development programs, were invited to the Arts Bank to take part in a “pop-up choir,” an innovative leadership workshop created at the Harry L. Davis Center for Leadership at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and adapted by the Office of Civic Engagement.

The choir was the kickoff event of the Chicago Civic Leadership Exchange, a collaboration among a variety of Chicago organizations, including ADA 25 Advancing Leadership, the Urban League’s IMPACT program, the Multicultural Leadership Academy of the Chicago Latino Policy Forum, Surge Institute, Mujeras Latinas en Accion, Willie’s Warriors, Civic Action Capstone, UChicago’s Civic Leadership Academy and Civic Actor Studio, and others.

The Exchange facilitates collaboration by providing spaces and events designed to help civic leaders share knowledge as they work to advance a more equitable and inclusive Chicago.

“My favorite children’s story is Stone Soup,” with its lesson that sharing creates benefits for everyone who contributes, said Joanie Friedman, executive director of civic leadership in the Office of Civic Engagement. “We all do great programming — so what if we all work together to open doors to each other’s leaders and alumni and create chances to cross-pollinate?”

The choir workshop had two goals, Friedman said: to provide an engaging, fun, and profound experience around leadership, and to illustrate what can be possible when groups collaborate.

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Three hours, four lifetime lessons

Choir member Credell Walls, a community engagement specialist for the Forest Preserves of Cook County and an alumnus of the Multicultural Leadership Academy, has a background in improv comedy — so when he arrived at the Arts Bank and found out that the experience wasn’t what he expected, he was happy to roll with it.

“I misread the invitation, so I thought we were going to listen to a choir perform and then network with other leaders,” he explained. “And then I got there and found out we would all be singing. I took a breath and said, ‘You know what? This is great.’”

As they learned their songs with the help of Mollie Stone, UChicago choral director and lecturer, and choral director Patty Cuyler (who developed the original workshop with Harry L. Davis, Roger L. and Rachel M. Goetz Distinguished Service Professor of Creative Management), Walls and his fellow singers also learned lessons about:

Leadership through followership. Singing in a choir means leading sometimes and following at other times. “I felt confident with the first song, so I didn’t mind people listening and following my lead,” Walls said. “But during the other two, I made sure that the people who were doing a better job could be out front. I’d project only where I knew the part and could pitch in and make it stronger. A good leader is someone who knows when to step up and when to step back.”

Leadership through failure. Continuing to sing even after you’ve messed up is the only way to get through the song, Walls pointed out. “You have to be comfortable enough to laugh at yourself. I know I did at certain points!”

Leadership through respect and humility. By design, the three pieces sung by the choir came from different time periods, cultures, and vocal traditions — so learning the pieces’ backstories was integral to the experience of singing them. Receptiveness to unfamiliar cultures and approaches is key to engaging others and leading effectively.

Leadership through vulnerability. Feeling comfortable to take risks and enter a collaborative project as a novice was freeing, Walls said. “I felt really challenged despite the fact that I knew I could hold a note. There were portions of the exercise when I said to myself, ‘maybe hitting this particular note is not your strength. Do the best you can, and rely on your teammates here.’”

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After the intense three-hour practice session, participants’ families came in to hear the choir perform, and everyone then gathered to socialize, network, and learn more about one another.

The choir exercise was the first of what Friedman said will be monthly gatherings of Exchange participants, such as a conference at the Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation focused on nonprofit board experiences, and a Field Foundation workshop on data and equity.

“Throughout 2020, we’ll be coming together,” said Friedman, “and we’ll be showing that this is a city that invests in its problem-solvers. We have unbelievable talent here in Chicago, and together we can do so much more than we could do individually.”

For more information about the Chicago Civic Leadership Exchange, contact Joanie Friedman or Liz Jellema.


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