As organizations get flat and information goes viral, the era of command-and-control leadership is officially over. Every worker needs to be empowered to take the reins – but are local companies prepared to make that happen?
Rain slicks Pacific Boulevard while beneath the Georgia Viaduct, a group of 12 of us – an even split of men and women in their mid-20s to mid-40s – sidestep along a concrete abutment, nearly tripping over each other, dressed in black ninja outfits and feeling like anything but the highly disciplined martial artists our sinister costumes suggest. Suddenly one, two, then three more Vancouver Police Department cruisers, along with a dog team, roll to a stop next to the graffiti-scrawled skate park that is our informal training venue. And before anyone can say “samurai,” our gang of urban ninjas has been surrounded by a cagey contingent of officers.
Turns out a civic-minded resident of a Main Street apartment tower had spotted shadowy, black-clad individuals conducting odd exercises on the streets below. It’s the first anniversary of the Olympic opening ceremonies, so the cops are hypervigilant for the “black bloc” protestors who trashed downtown storefronts in a pulse of pre-Games mayhem last February. When the dutiful citizen had called 911, therefore, the response was swift and serious.
“Timing is everything,” says Geordie Aitken, our group’s 33-year-old leader, a disarming smile lighting up his youthful face as six cops, chests puffed up, exit their cars and approach with furrowed brows.
“What’s going on here?” says the officer in charge.
We’re about as threatening as a pack of panda bear cubs. Aitken, with his warm personable demeanour, makes direct and positive communication his business and quickly defuses the situation. A few phone calls and background checks later and the VPD leaves satisfied that we aren’t anarchists plotting wanton destruction.
Aitken Leadership Group
Aitken is a partner with Aitken Leadership Group, the firm founded by his architect father, David, in 1990 to help companies and individuals develop their leadership skills, and overcome the sort of negative relationships and behaviours that Aitken says stand between mediocrity and excellence. He says his father drew early inspiration from psychotherapists such as Fritz Perls, who pioneered the Gestalt therapy approach to enhancing awareness of sensation, perception, emotion and behaviour.
“We spend time looking into the structure of relationships, communication and accountability. These are black boxes for a lot of people,” Aitken says. The ninja idea emerged four years ago when Aitken began combining his personal martial arts practice with leadership workshops to create a “playful and creative space for learning.”
How we ended up at this skate park is part of a game that Aitken often deploys to begin his workshops. In this case, a predetermined meeting place was established via email: Pacific Station. Once there, we identified fellow participants through eye contact and a nonsensical phrase: “I was noticing your sleeves.” Then someone in a shocking pink one-piece skin suit – Aitken, it turns out – approached each of us with a chit of paper bearing cryptic instructions to proceed to the skate park. Once there, we were formally greeted by a transformed Aitken – sans pink one-piece – and handed our ninja costumes. The workshop began with some group calisthenics and stretching, which attracted the attention of Johnny Law. Yet not until we escape the rain (and the clutches of the VPD) for a rented loft space in Gastown does the relevance of the ninja costume emerge, albeit somewhat obtusely.
I’m reminded of the levelling logic of school uniforms; in a similar way, ninja suits aim to break down inhibitions and undermine egos. We are no longer identified by appearance, and in a subtle way, says Aitken, this liberates us for the real work – plumbing some of the ingrained beliefs that drive our behaviours. To be honest, it’s not complex stuff at the core of Aitken’s approach: don’t simply change behaviours for a better outcome; instead address the underlying feelings that drive those behaviours – financial insecurity, fear of failure, familial guilt, and so on. For Aitken, summoning the evocative symbolism of the ninja empowers people. Besides, it makes us laugh.