Navigating crowds


August 14th, 2011

Most of my July was spent in time shifting. That’s what happens when you stay up till the wee small hours watching a certain cycling race on the television. Being in Australia, the Tour de France, happens during our night-time, and this year we had a particularly good reason to watch. I’ve been a fan of Le Tour for a long time, drawn as many are by the amazing scenery. Gradually, I’ve come to understand the dynamics of professional cycling – a strange combination of individual and team performance. It’s the individuals who are lauded – each day there’s a stage winner – and overall a GC (General Classification) winner, as well as winners of sprinting, the King of the Mountains and so forth. No cyclist, no matter how good, can win the Tour de France without the support of a team of dedicated and talented cyclists. Yet it is an individual winner who stands on the podium.

This is a great example of winning and success. Yes, there is a winner (did I mention it was local boy Cadel Evans?) and there’s the success of the team – where some individuals had to yield to ensure success (and winning). An example is one of the riders in Cadel’s, team, BMC, who rode back down the mountain after Cadel had lost ground due to a faulty bike and then rode with him to close the gap with the leading bunch.

On Friday, I stood amongst a few thousand other people to ‘Yell for Cadel’. I never actually saw him, although I was only a few metres away from the stage. I’d been to a meeting and was late getting to Federation Square in Melbourne. Usually I avoid big crowds. I knew where I was headed – to meet my husband who had a good position. I was weaving my way through the crowd, quite successfully I thought, until it became impossible. No-one was prepared to yield anymore. I was seen possibly as trying to push in rather than push through, and tempers were getting frayed. It seemed politic to stay put once voices were raised and glares appeared angry. It was supposed to be a celebration, so I figured I’d just give up my own agenda and go with what was now possible. I was surrounded by strangers – most of them quite nice. We all had cameras. I could see a large screen, but I couldn’t see the stage. I tried to tweet but couldn’t get on-line. It was fun. I cheered and clapped and had an a tear in my eye when Cadel saw a friend in the crowd and gave her a huge hug.

And after it was all over and possible to move, I walked the last few metres (albeit against the flow of people) to my original destination. It struck me then how the crowd itself had become the embodiment (or not) of winning and yielding. While a crowd can use their bodies to either impede or enable progress, I pondered the way we use our voices in the same way.

In those meetings, where our bodies become just a vehicle for our heads, we use what we can to impede or enable. We can use our voices as weapons – batting ideas, verbally hitting out or withdrawing by refusing to say anything and sulking. All quite aggressive actions. Or we can yield, let go of our own agenda and look for ways to enable success for the meeting as a whole.

Sometimes it’s not worth it. We need to be strong advocates for our view. Other times, enquiring into what others are thinking might just be what’s really needed. There’s no instruction manual. We each need to find our own path through the crowds that we encounter – crowds of people, crowds of ideas, crowds of need, crowds of expectation – whatever it is that is your particular crowd that you are navigating.

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