Listening to the edges Rockwood's Akaya Windwood on building human-centered organizations

Akaya Windwood is president of the Rockwood Leadership Institute, a provider of transformative training and development for social change leaders and nonprofit organizations. Rockwood has trained more than 5,000 leaders since 2000 — a network they’re now hoping to scale up even further through their new “Open Access” initiative.

Matt: Why is Rockwood exploring “open access” for your work? And what drew you to partner with the Mozilla Foundation?

Akaya: We’ve been looking for ways to make our work at Rockwood more accessible online, beyond the intimate “go off into the woods with your folks” setting of our retreats. There are a lot of people who, for various reasons, can’t access that. So we have been working on our notion of “open access,” which is about opening our work beyond the usual context, or exploring ways to offer our services to communities beyond those who can afford the time and resources to attend what we ordinarily do.

So it’s a good opportunity for both organizations — for the Mozilla Foundation to strengthen their internal leadership, and for us to think about alternative ways to bring our own work forward.

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Overcoming isolation

What challenges do you face there, in terms of bringing your work to more people?

The thing that makes Rockwood what it is is that intimacy of really meeting people and having authentic relationships. We’re wondering if that can be created online, and we’re not sure. There are some indicators that once people have met, there can be good ways to keep them connected online — but I’m not sure it’s the same.

At Rockwood we teach leadership skills. But our real purpose is to develop interconnected communities of leaders who are working for social transformation.

Our intention is to interrupt the isolation so many leaders try and lead through.

But how to interrupt that isolation is a question. Humans are very sensate animals, and it isn’t until we actually see each other and smell each other and touch each other that we actually become real to one another. I don’t know if it’s possible to replicate that intimacy of: “You know me because we’ve been next to one another, we’ve had dinner together, we’ve thought together. You know what happens when I get upset, and you can help me get through that.” To me, leadership requires some of that level of intimacy.

Getting to why

One of the core practices Rockwood teaches is around purpose. A lot of the research into high-performing teams and organizations cites meaning and clarity of purpose — or “purposefulness” — as key. Why is it so important and difficult to get right?

If you’re not clear of your purpose, chances are good you’re not going to get what you want — whether it’s an email exchange, setting up an organization, or establishing a campaign to be Queen of the Universe. You have to be clear about why. What’s important about it? Why does it matter to you?

How many “purposeless” meetings have you sat through? In terms of efficiency and clarity and authenticity, it’s important to get to purpose clearly, right away.

What I believe, and what we teach, is that each of us has a purpose.

Each of us on this planet is here for a reason, and if we’re going to be great leaders it’s important that we understand and grapple with that purpose.

That’s our life. If we live and lead from a place of purpose, then chances are better that we will be effective, have satisfying lives, and do better for the planet.

That seems so clear — and yet so many organizations struggle here. They tweak words in a mission statement, or suffer through endless “change management initiatives” that feel disconnected from real life. 

Purpose is often, in organizations, determined from the top down. But there often hasn’t been any buy-in from the folks actually implementing that purpose. We can have a very clear mission statement — but if the folks who are sending out the mail and answering the phone and making sure the logistics are in place have had no input, how can you expect people to be clear about it? Often it’s an edict from on high.

Part of the reason for that is “efficiency.”

It takes time to come to collective agreements around the purpose of things, especially for an organization that’s not used to doing that.

As the president of Rockwood I could easily get with my CEO and say, “You know, we want to change the purpose of Rockwood. And here it is.” We have the positional power and authority to make that statement — we could rewrite it, put it out there, and the world might say “good for them.”

But if we didn’t bother to bring it to folks, to all the staff, and say, “Hey, here’s what we’re thinking. What do you think?” — taking the time to align folks, and here’s where it works and here’s where it doesn’t — if we didn’t do that, then we’d have some great purpose statement, but nobody would be clear about it. Even if everyone has good intentions to follow it, it’s meaningless.

When nobody’s had real input in it, it gets confusing. You hear things like: “well, it’s not clear to me.” Of course, it isn’t clear to you. Because you weren’t part of it!

It takes time to get buy in and alignment. So many orgs opt for the “efficiency” of having the top people say, “Here’s what it is. You all follow.”

That kind of leadership is quickly becoming archaic.

Illustration by Sam Bradd

Slowing down to go fast

You’ve written about “listening to the edges” as an alternative. What is that?

I have been thinking about the “edges” of the organization, and about ways to ensure that we are listening for the wisdom of the edges.

People on the edges can actually see the whole thing, whereas the ones in the middle see only a small part of what we’re doing.

I sit in the middle of Rockwood, and if I didn’t pay attention and really make a commitment to pay attention, it would be easy for me to lose track of what’s happening on the edges of the organization where people are actually doing the work. And yet people look to me to speak for the organization. I’m happy to, but I have to make a conscious effort to not believe only what I can see, because my view is limited.

I’m speaking beyond just Rockwood or one organization — I’m thinking about this in social movements. I’m thinking about it in this country as a whole. There are a lot of voices that have been edged out, or edged toward the margin, that are not in the centers of power. We know that, and there is vast wisdom there. Until those voices get attended to, seen and understood, we really can’t move very far as a country. And the same is true for organizations.

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Is that part of a self-perpetuating cycle? In the sense that: we know there may be tension or resentment at the edges, whether in an organization or a country. So there’s fear. We don’t want to go there, because we’re afraid of conflict, or that it’ll become a big mess, or that we’ll get lost in that diversity of voices and never find our way back?

Those are reasonable fears. But guess what? It’s true! Just because you don’t deal with it doesn’t mean it’s not there. Sometimes leaders think. “Oh, well, we won’t talk about that because it will unsettle people.” Well, people are already unsettled! “We don’t want to open that conversation because people are going to be unhappy.” Well, people are unhappy — otherwise you wouldn’t have to avoid having that conversation.

It’s one of the fascinating things that humans do: “I’m going to put my head in the sand and ignore it.” Well, if you ignore a problem, it rarely goes away. Mostly it grows.

It’s important to develop organizational cultures by which people can say, “Hey, this doesn’t feel right to me.” Let’s talk about that, without retribution or hate.

As that culture become normative, I believe it makes it much easier in the long haul. It’s one of those things where you go slow in order to go fast later.

If you take the time to get clear and aligned on purpose, then when it gets tricky — and it always does down the line — you’ve got a good starting place for that. But organizations often think, “We don’t want to open this Pandora’s box.” Well, frankly, if you’ve got a Pandora’s box, it’s cracked anyway, so it’s going to open one way or the other. And it’s so, so hard on staff.

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Human-centered organizations

One of the mysteries for me is: why do so many organizations — full of good people, with the best of intentions, doing courageous work — end up becoming such dispiriting or demoralizing places to work?

I think it happens because the structures of our current organizations are not built for humans. They’re built for “productivity,” and as long as getting “x” done or made or produced is primary, then the humanity of the people doing the work can get overlooked. Frankly, I think it has to do with the capitalist bottom-line centered system. And please don’t mishear me — the nonprofit sector is a deep part of that capitalist bottom-line oriented system.

Factories were not made to celebrate the human spirit. Factories were made to organize people in productive units so that a certain amount of widgets get made, and I think a lot of our organizations are based on that model. That’s hell.

Let me give you an example. I hear all the time that Rockwood is a great place to work, and that’s because we try to model what we teach. Full-time is 32 hours a week here. Everybody has a three-day weekend. There aren’t a specified number of sick days. If you’re sick, stay home, get well, and then come back.

We have staff meetings once a week, and we rotate facilitation of that staff meeting so that no one person always runs that meeting, and so that everyone learns how to facilitate. It’s understood that anyone gets to talk to anyone, and we laugh, and we play, and we have retreats in which we celebrate each other and play and be silly on purpose.

And you know what? We get a shit ton done. You know why? Because people are happy. Because we don’t have any burnout.

That sounds amazing. Are you hiring? : )

It is amazing, and it’s not that hard.

I cannot tell you how many executive directors or presidents have come and said: “I wish I could come and work for you.” I tell them: “Do it in your own organization! I’ll show you how. We have the guidelines and the materials to follow — we want people to do this.

Their responses are: “Oh, it will never happen in my organization.” Or: “Oh, my board won’t go for it.” There’s this assumption that it is hopeless. Or worse, I’ve had people say: “Well, if I did that with my organization, we wouldn’t get anything done.” I’ll say, are you kidding me?

Since we started working this way, our productivity is off the charts. Our budget has tripled without tripling our staff.

It’s paradoxical, but it works. As long as our organizations are built on mechanistic, production-based processes and criteria, we’ll continue to have deadly organizations. But if we base our organizations on what’s good or best for all concerned, and how do we keep the human spirit as the deepest value alive and central, then we can have a hell of a lot of fun at work.

Resources and documentation on how Rockwood works

Beyond the “organization as machine” or factory model you describe, there’s also this idea of the “organization as family.”

That’s a mess, too.

It often feels like the de facto culture in most organizations is some version of: the senior leadership are kind of like the parents, and the staff are kind of like the kids. (And maybe the directors are a bit like teenagers — old enough to borrow the car, but at the end of the day it’s still “our roof, our rules!”)

It is a very strong pattern. If you’re not paying attention to the pattern, it’s going to continue.

In my own organization, I am no one’s “mamma.” My staff know very clearly that I am not their mother and they are not my children. We might be “cousins,” in a sense; think it’s important to honor the kinship, without being stuck in a nuclear family frame. I know very few people who came unscathed out of that nuclear family frame.

To me, when people start talking about their organization as family, I get very nervous. I’m like, “Mmm, yeah, I don’t want it.” If your organization looks like the nuclear family I grew up in, or a lot of the families that I’ve seen, I don’t want any part of it. There’s the dad and the mom and the kids, and maybe there’s an aunt or the crazy uncle over in the corner that everybody avoids. No, I don’t want any part of that.

It is important, though, as we develop human-centered organizations, which I’m dancing with: I am really interested in stepping away from the white male-centered frame. I don’t think it’s useful anymore. I don’t think it’s healthy, and that white male frame is part of the problem here. It may be the root of the problem, which is why I’m listening for the edges, the folks who have not been or had access to the center of power in that way, because there’s deep wisdom there.

I’m not going to trust a leader who is replicating or insisting on a white male frame as a good way to lead an organization, or a social movement, or the country. I’m putting my cards on that table right now.


Recently you wrote: “Lately I seem to have lost my passion for, or even interest in, social change.” You say you’d rather spend your time working towards something you cannot see, but only imagine. Could you say more about that?

I’m going to turn the question on you, Matt.

What are you dreaming for? What do you want? When you step aside from any cynicism you may have, or when you’re not disheartened, or when you’re thinking, “Well, what do I want to leave behind?” What kind of world are you dreaming about?

Um… you want me to answer that?

I do.

[Long, long pause.] I don’t know. What you said about “listening to the margins” really speaks to me. I think collaboration is what defines us as humans. At this point, I’m less interested in trying to line up other people behind some vision or outcome I have in my own head — and more interested in increasing the capacity of others, and feeling the pleasure and potential that comes out of that.

If you could imagine a world that was really built on that, or receptive to it, describe it in just two sentences for me, please.

…I guess it would feel a bit like… flourishing. Like the difference between a sandy old dried up lot, versus a lush garden. More like flourishing, and less like some hardscrabble competition.

So, imagine a world that flourishes, and we all flourish in our various ways. That is what I am interested in. That’s why I’m not interested in changing the world that currently is. I’m interested in transforming to what you just talked about. That’s what’s interesting, isn’t it?

I want to push you a little bit here. I hear that you’re saying that you don’t want to put your vision out there and have people come along and just say yes to your vision.

But I would ask you to take a big risk, and as you write this book, you start with that vision of flourishing. Because we need some new stories that tell us what’s possible. Even though it may sound like your story, it’s not, really. You’re listening to a lot of people, but if you start with a vision of flourishing, and that that’s possible, and here are some ways to think about that, this is a book we need.

<Matt gulps. Offers huge thank you and goodbye. Wipes tear. Goes for a walk outside to look at the sunflowers, then tries to get back to work.>

the sunflowers in my yard

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