Building a Community of Alignment

“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” — Margaret Mead

In my first post on alignment, I wrote “Alignment is the art and craft of creating or identifying a unifying purpose and a set of elements or parts, and then connecting those elements together to move towards that purpose.” I’ve written about identifying a purpose to aspire to and mobilizing others towards that purpose, but realized I was missing a key step, which is “creating or identifying… a set of elements or parts”. In other words, how do we find the others who we want to include in our community of purpose?

The first question may be why do you need to find others at all? “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together” is a proverb of disputed origin that shares the appealing idea that we can do more together. If we commit ourselves to an impossible aspiration of changing the world, it’s likely going to take more than our own actions to bring it into existence. We are more powerful in community than alone.

But such community and togetherness starts with treating others as equals and collaborators. Alignment in this sense starts with acknowledging people as they are, understanding their backgrounds and skills and motivations and dreams. When we see them fully in that way, we honor and respect them for who they are, rather than who we want them to be.

  • In a hierarchical power model, we would try to force or browbeat others into serving in the roles that we decide for them. This may work short-term, especially when there’s a power differential, but you will not get their full commitment or best ideas with that model.
  • In the alignment model, we invite them to collaboratively join forces to build a future together. As Nilofer Merchant puts it in her book The Power of Onlyness: “You will claim an idea, find allies with a common purpose, and doggedly organize together to make a dent in the world, all because you, collectively, dream of a better way.”

How do you find those allies? Merchant writes that to find them, “you have to know how to both signal your passions and interests and to seek out theirs.” She goes on to note that “indicating [your] interests clearly encouraged others to surface – to rise up and signal their own interest.” This is why the previous steps, of aligning with yourself, and with your aspiration, and with reality, are necessary before building your community; developing your own clarity about yourself and your purpose allows you to then signal that clarity to others so they might join you.

But to build a community of alignment, we must offer them a free choice to join, and be willing to accept “No” as an answer from others. If we make a choice for them, that is using the hierarchical power model that most of us have been acculturated to accept: parents saying “Because I said so!”, teachers telling us there’s a right answer and grading us poorly if we don’t do things their way, managers telling us our performance ratings will suffer if we don’t fall in line. Alignment involves people choosing to come together to pursue a common purpose; if somebody is not a hell yeah, we must trust they are better served by finding another path as we continue searching for the allies that choose to stand with us.

We must also be vulnerable to inspire people to join us in our mission. We create an authentic connection and alignment by showing up fully and sharing why this mission matters to us. Surface motivations like money and power and status will create superficial connection with others; soulful alignment can only be created when we share why this mission is something we are dedicated to above and beyond whether we succeed. It is scary to put ourselves out there like that, as there will be those who diminish or dismiss our aspiration. And yet only by taking that risk can we also find those who will partner with us to bring our vision into reality. Just as in investing, taking a greater risk can lead to greater rewards. Here are a few examples of vulnerable actions one can take:

Leading with vulnerability to find others illustrates an apparent paradox in that building community with others starts with your own actions. I also mentioned an apparent contradiction in my alignment to reality post, that an aspiration starts with having no agenda to change things. I suspect that these only seem like contradictions because I’m conditioned to a Western culture that believes we have far more control over our environment and others than we do. If we accept the premise that all we actually control is our next action, these apparent paradoxes fade away because change is only possible is through our actions; in other words, be the change you want to see in the world.

Aligning with others also requires a humble curiosity. You don’t know their world, their history, their experiences. When you try to impose your worldview on theirs, you are engaging in a scarcity-based zero-sum power struggle that doesn’t create the generative possibilities of alignment. So I like to approach people with a sense of inquiry, wondering “What might be true in their world (but not mine) that would explain their actions?”. With that curiosity, I can often find a place of overlap, and I can build a connection from that common ground. I admit that I still have to really consciously focus to do this, but it’s a skill I aspire to keep practicing and developing.

So that’s my suggestion for building a community of purpose: Vulnerably sharing your intention, and approaching other potential fellow travelers with humble curiosity. You’ll have to put down the mask of conformity and reveal some of your true self so that others can find you as the seed around which a community can form. Somebody has to put themselves out there first – will it be you?

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