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Last week, I attended a seminar for educational leaders called Adaptive Schools. Led by Carolyn McKanders, who spent 28 years in the Detroit Public Schools as a teacher, counselor, program administrator, and staff-development specialist, we were asked to consider how to be facilitators of change in a complex system. One of the core lessons we kept coming back to was related to fractal scaling, a mathematical term that I, an English major, had never encountered before.
Represented by irregular geometrical structures whose shape appears to be self-similar regardless of the level of magnification at which it is viewed, fractal scaling is the idea that each piece is reflective of its larger system. It’s a concept easily found in nature. Google the term and you’ll encounter images of snowflakes, ferns, artichokes, and succulents. I will likely never look at broccoli quite the same, as I now understand its fractal-esque nature and how, zoomed in, each of its tiny florets is a reflection of the larger stalk it grew on.
Applied to the context of leadership, fractal scaling means that whether we’re leading a meeting, teaching a group of students, parenting, or directing traffic, the values and behaviors we choose — the posture, position, and procedures we demonstrate — will echo throughout the system. (I was immediately convicted of all the times I’ve screamed at my children to quiet down.)
Like other sophisticated concepts that suddenly seem simple once we are introduced to them, this week I’ve noticed fractal scaling all around me; I’ve noticed all the ways the tenor of a leader can echo throughout a family, team, school, government, social group, or church.
The most effective leadership, McKanders reminded us, is servant leadership or “one who is willing to grow publicly.” Counter to common examples of leading with force, strength, and conviction, the instruction we were given centered around leading with humility: ridding our vocabulary of the word I, locating resourcefulness within the community, focusing on relationships, and setting aside judgment. Her teaching sounded more like Gospel imagery than a description of a superhero from a Marvel movie. It sounded more like feet washing than climbing ladders. It sounded more like lowering a friend through the ceiling into a crowded party than barricading the door. It sounded more like asking sincere questions and sharing parables than wielding scripture like a sword.
While fractal scaling is easily found in nature, it has not been my experience that it’s as easily found in human nature. Call it total depravity, original sin, or weakness of flesh, but most of us have a natural tendency toward judgment and egocentrism. Scientists say that our brains register threats within a twelfth of a second, but it takes twelve seconds before a positive thought lodges itself in our minds. We are born with the tools for assessing danger, taking directions from fear, and armoring up. Challenging our human nature, not to mention our entrenched social and cultural norms — even within the church, or maybe especially within the church — is a constant exercise in retraining our brains, in letting go of our old selves, and in leaning toward resurrection and restoration.
The key to lasting change, we learned, is rooted in our identity — who, at the very core we strive to be and become. One’s Identity is not static, but constantly shifting and providing the basis for the belief and behaviors that flow out of it. I find this to be a relief. We are not indefinitely stuck in the mire of our own fear and defensiveness, but able to be nudged and changed. Our hearts are pliable. There is hope that if we stay open to it, if we lean in toward love and grace, we can all look a little more like Jesus, a little more like a small stalk of broccoli growing to reflect its larger tree.