s I consider those AI processes that I have facilitated that have had the greatest impact and longer lasting effect, one of the components that I think is most critical is the role of the leader.  AI is an exercise in shared leadership and decision-making.  At its best it is the willingness to believe that leadership resides in the group rather than in one person.

I’d like to tell a story about the leader of one of my recent projects.  This project was working with a local high school that was in turmoil and at risk of being closed.  A new principal was appointed or I should say volunteered to take on this challenging task.  In addition, the school was facing re-accreditation in less than 10 months with no work having been done in preparation. On the recommendation of people in the school district who had been in CPC’s Power of Appreciative Inquiry Workshop, he learned about AI.  He did some research and believed this might be just the right thing to bring about healing, create some positive momentum and gather much needed information for the re-accreditation submission. Buried in the myriad of things necessary to start the new school year he hired me to conduct a 4-day, 4–D process based upon a phone call.  Later I learned that he understood my “humanistic” approach (which I think is a characteristic of AI facilitators) and felt an immediate connection.  That was enough for him.  This process was scheduled to begin at in the middle of September.  As I got to know him, he often spoke of his belief in distributed leadership that was a topic in his dissertation.  Hearing this I knew that the AI process would be a great match for him.

Throughout the entire process he worked to stay in the background and allow the group to self manage.   This selfless posture was so dramatic that I began to worry that he might not step forward when it was necessary for him to take a position, show support or manage expectations, only to have him do exactly that, exactly when it was needed.  It was an extremely contentious group who was angry and wounded by past treatment of their principals and the district administration.  Even during the early steps before the process had established some momentum, he never faltered.  As AI facilitators we often remark to ourselves to “trust the process” – here was a new leader with no real AI experience who stayed steady on course.  His patience was well rewarded, as the transformation was almost palpable.  It moved his faculty from being in victim mentality to action mentality.  He continued to show patience, confidence and commitment to the process and the activities that took place following the AI session.  He went to formal appreciative inquiry training to learn how to incorporate more AI in his daily activities.

He further supported the effort by putting his entire school leadership team through appreciative leadership training to increase their ability to lead in a different way.

The results were beyond his hopes and dreams.  In the first school year they passed their re-accreditation with one of the highest scores ever.  They doubled their graduation rate; they got additional teachers and sites.  In less than one year their reputation went from being a troubled school to one of being the innovators of their district.  Entering the year now 2 years from the initial process, the principal reports that the AI process far exceeded his expectations and is still propelling the school forward.  His leadership was all about his people; it was calm, confident, supportive, persistent and patient.

By: Tenny Poole

Principal, West Coast Center for Positive Change

Image courtesy of Michelle Meiklejohn at FreeDigitalPhotos.net