Partner Spotlight: Gordon Watanabe of Personal Leadership Seminars

Gordon Watanabe and I recently sat down to discuss the history and practice of Personal Leadership. Full disclosure: our conversation felt so timely and interesting to me, especially in relation to issues of inclusion, equity, and social justice, that I’ve enrolled as a participant in the upcoming PLS Foundations Program at the Whidbey Institute in February. —Marnie Jones

“Living and working across cultural differences can be both enormously rewarding and tremendously frustrating—all at the same time. Maybe this is because having some idea of what to do when faced with the unfamiliar (intercultural knowledge) and actually doing it (intercultural competence) are two very different things, especially when our deeply held values or sense of identity are affronted by cultural difference.”—Personal Leadership Seminars

Gordon Watanabe teaches practitioners and facilitators of Personal Leadership (PL) in Oregon and Washington and elsewhere around the globe. With PLSeminars co-founders Sheila Ramsey and Barbara Schaetti, he also leads a worldwide community of senior and associate facilitators who teach PL in widely diverse contexts and cultures. In anticipation of two upcoming sessions here at Chinook, we spoke about the PL system, as well as the life experiences that led Gordon into the work.

As a US born, third-generation Japanese American, Gordon has been shaped by intertwining national and cultural identities since childhood. He remembers weekly childhood Sundays at a Japanese-American baptist church in a barrio of Southern California, where he heard from his parents and others of their generation about their adventures at “camp”.

“They put a spin on being interned during World War II,” he said. “My mom was a sophomore then. Camp sounded like it was fun. Then I read a book on American concentration camps in high school, and sat my parents down. I needed to hear another perspective.”

Gordon said that he was able to gain new understanding of his parents’ experiences through the conversation which followed: who his mother and father were, the historical and social contexts they were in, and what it was that made them see the world and their personal history in a less painful way.

Years after this experience, Gordon went with his parents and brother on a roots tour to Japan. “That opened my eyes. I became more proud of my Japanese heritage than I was before, but it made me realize ‘I’m not that’. Learning how American I really am was a fascinating process.”

Gordon remembers additional experiences of being perceived as “other”, or not. He remembers his first year teaching at a rural junior high school, when he drew a very rare 100% parent participation rate in parent-teacher conferences because of the community’s curiosity about his ethnic minority status. In contrast, he remembers the surprise he felt when first visiting Hawaii where, for the first time in his life, he was “passing”. “People assumed I was from there. Asking me for directions! Hawaii is the only place on the planet where I’ve experienced that feeling,” he said. “It has a lot of meaning for me.”

Steeped in these life experiences and in professional experiences which demonstrated the power of intercultural collaboration, Gordon found his career in teaching being shaped by a desire to apply the theoretical background of interculturalism to traditional “diversity” work. He said that working with Jack Condon at what was then the Stanford Institute—now the Summer Institute—for Intercultural Communication—felt like “the whole world opening up.” In a career ranging from teaching science to directing offices of international student affairs, he chose to steer his graduate work away from science education toward the blossoming field of diversity and multicultural education. Later, he served in faculty positions at WSU, as Asian Pacific American Counselor and at Whitworth, as a professor of education and as Special Assistant to the President for Diversity. “We soon changed it to ‘Special Assistant to the President for Intercultural Relations’,” he said.

There’s significance to this titular shift. Relationship, after all, is foundational . . . and how we relate to others, deeply and fundamentally, comes from how we relate to our own internal expectations, responses, and personal, cultural stories.


Gordon and Barbara in the early 1990s at the Summer Institute.


The Personal Leadership system, developed and refined in the early 1990s at Portland, Oregon’s Summer Institute for Intercultural Communication, is based on what the founders call “a belief that a choice for self-reflection, self-development and creative collaboration is present in all moments, made especially vibrant by the differences in values, world-views and behaviors of those involved.”

PLS was conceived—but not yet refined or named—in 1992 and 1993. Sheila Ramsey was teaching courses at the Summer Institute at the time, while Barbara Schaetti and Gordon Watanabe were coordinating the organization’s intern program. Interpersonal issues, with their roots in culture, family, and personality, frequently arose among interns and faculty from around the world.

“I walked out emotionally exhausted after my first summer,” Gordon said. “We found that even professional interculturalists, who had all the head knowledge about working across difference, started defaulting back to their own styles and cultures as soon as stress was added to the mix.”

Gordon recalled triggers for conflict from his first year at the Summer Institute—some as mundane as asking people to arrange flowers in guest rooms. “We learned that there is a cultural context for what people think is pretty, or aesthetically valuable, in terms of color, picture, flower heights, what a vase should look like, and where it should go,” Gordon said. “Before they were more conscious of what was going on internally, people were just saying NO. That sort of tension began to wear thin after just a little while.” He and Barbara were surprised by the levels of interpersonal conflict at play, and began to search for alternative ways of being together that honored both the self and the other. “We were baffled to see that even faculty were challenged by one another and their differences,” he said.

Soon, they connected with Sheila and the three started looking around, trying to figure out what people were actually doing when they were successfully interacting across differences – not just talking about it but actually doing it.  Their explorations led them to research in leadership development, intercultural communication, educational models, wisdom traditions, positive psychology, and other schools of thought. Eventually they articulated the two principles and six practices which together make up the Personal Leadership approach, and began to apply the work informally at the Summer Institute and elsewhere.

“We took this framework we were developing and applied it to a high-intensity Master’s program at Whitworth,” Gordon said, “then to the intern program at the Summer Institute. It had no name then, but we noticed a gigantic difference in the quality of interactions. We began to realize that this works with anybody, across any culture.” He acknowledged that the system was clearly designed by westerners, in western contexts, but said that others who come from non-western cultures or philosophies have also found the system useful. “We’ve had wonderful conversations with people from all over the world about its utility across national and cultural boundaries,” he said. “People took it the way they needed to, in their own contexts.”

The PL process covers six practices which are at the heart of communicating across difference, and which invoke a fundamental necessity to look inward: to self-reflect, in order to shift from conflict toward understanding. “An individual is responsible for their own responses,” Gordon said, “and those responses may be personality driven, culturally driven, or family driven. Therein lies the opportunity for the person to learn more about oneself.”

Gordon invites students of intercultural communication to stop and ask, “why is it I’m reacting the way I’m reacting? What is going on, and how can I find out more about myself?” At that point, he explains, one can mine the experience of conflict for a greater understanding of one’s own belief systems and their origins—thereby shifting the entire conversation toward a place that is generative, respectful, and welcoming of diverse perspectives.

Now, after 30 years as a teacher and 15 as a college professor, Gordon is semi-retired—holding roles as professor emeritus in education at Whitworth College; faculty of the Fellows Program of the Summer Institute; and a partner in a consulting business. A key takeaway from decades of experience? The value of self-reflection.

“While you may want to learn about somebody else,” he said, “intercultural work is really a matter of learning more about yourself—then you learn to see the other in a very different light.”

December 7, 2015

People & Partners