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Leadership Is Acknowledging the Elephant in the Room

Published: 25 June 2013

There are almost as many definitions of the term “leadership” as there are ways to lead. A superficial perusal of dictionary definitions and quotes yields results as generic as “the action of leading a group of people or an organization” to something as specific (or convoluted) as “the challenge of leadership is to be strong, but not rude; be kind, but not weak; be bold, but not bully; be thoughtful, but not lazy; be humble, but not timid; be proud, but not arrogant; have humor, but without folly.”

Fresh off both InterpretAmerica 4 and Critical Link 7, two conferences that bring together interpreting leadership from across North America and around the globe, I was struck by how many in leadership now seem determined to point out “what is” and are less insistent about what “should be” or ‘what shouldn’t be” than in past gatherings. And I was heartened by the universally expressed solution to addressing “what is:" Organize.

The phrase “the elephant in the room” is most often used as a metaphor for when an obvious truth is being ignored or when there is a clear problem or danger that no one seems to want to discuss. It can also mean to obscure what is beyond the elephant's bulk. It isn’t just what we ignore, it can be the large obstruction that blocks our view of where we want to get to, or of what is waiting for us on the other side. It can be so easy to fixate more on what is blocking progress rather than how to navigate past the obstacle in our way.

The interpreting profession has many such elephants. At InterpretAmerica, we often focus on technology and the rapid changes transforming our workplaces and lives. But there are others as well: the greying of our profession; the deep and increasingly common cuts to language education and training; the looming shortages of proficient, skilled bilingual individuals coming into our profession, to name a few.

A sampling of presenters from Critical Link 7 illustrate this trend towards that "what just is:"

Melinda Paras, CEO of Paras and Associates, brought her past as a community organizer to the table with her astute analysis of the job and wages pressures interpreters face. She made a rousing call to “organize, organize, organize” as the best way for individual practitioners to start bringing power to the table instead of getting handed their shirts by companies and workplace practices that don’t include our voice.

Dr. Sarah Bowen, Professor at the University of Alberta’s Public School of Health, and a revered figure in Canadian language access issues, walked Critical Link participants through the implications of neoliberal policies throughout the developed world that reduce public government in favor of private sector solutions. The result? Increasing cuts for interpreting and translation services, and for services of all kinds for the most vulnerable populations interpreters and translators serve.

Dr. Bowen also discussed how these same policies are colliding with worldwide migration patterns and negative population growth in developing countries. This will ensure that the need for qualified, professional interpreting and translation services remains critical for decades to come, at the precise moment that there is increasing pressure to do away with public support for them.

Jonathan Levy, Director of Training for Cyracom, got a lot of minds churning with his perspective on how the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan will shape our field in unpredictable ways. Citing the US government as “the largest classroom in the world,” he drew a perfect triangle between dollars spent, the rapid technological innovation spurred by the need to bridge language gaps on the battlefield, and the thousands of military linguists and soldiers with multicultural experiences now entering our civilian workplaces.

Veterans have a proven tendency to enter into the civilian job sector and rise to positions of leadership and influence. Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans have all experienced working with interpreters and translators and have specific notions of what is what in our industry. How do we connect to them and bring them into the civilian side of our profession?

Finally, top conference interpreting leadership from Europe and Canada participated in several panels designed to share out important lessons from their sector. How can community interpreting learn from the work and wage agreements conference interpreters have achieved in international organizations? How can they fight for quality and competency?

Despite the variety of topics addressed, each of these presenters made a distinct call to organize as the only way to collectively tackle the elephants in our profession. Melinda Paras urged interpreters to unite in their professional associations and through attendance at conferences such as Critical Link and InterpretAmerica. Representatives from the European Commission and European Parliament and Canadian interpreters did the same. Jonathan Levy encouraged direct conversation and interaction with returning vets and military linguists, and Dr. Sarah Bowen shared a free resource, Promoting Action on Equity Issues, a handbook designed to help those with knowledge take effective action.

Here at InterpretAmerica, we believe in another kind of leadership as well, perfectly summed up by the late great author Ken Kesey:

You don’t lead by pointing and telling people some place to go. You lead by going to that place and making a case.

We are headed off into the unknown to make our case everywhere and anywhere for the interpreting profession. We invite you to come along for the ride!

The blog title "Leadership is acknowledging the elephant in the room" comes from a Slideshare presentation which can be viewed here.


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