In the non-profit, social justice fields, often people end up in leadership positions out of their personal passion toward addressing a certain social ill. Someone might decide to dedicate their life to ending homelessness in America, or fighting racism against Latinos, or protecting the Northwest old growth forests. Out of that passion they found new groups of activists or they rise through the ranks and assume leadership positions in existing organizations.
But sometimes that individual passion to address a particular social problem does not translate into effective leadership. You might bring a lot of energy to your own work, but fail to impart that same drive to people that work for you. Or you may inspire others but dismiss or ignore the views of people who don’t agree with you.
This past week at the Rockwood Art of Leadership training in Sonoma, I was thrust face-to-face with my own leadership weaknesses and strengths, the gifts that I bring to the table and the handicaps that keep me from being as effective a leader as I could be. It was a powerful and a sobering experience for me.
I realized in Sonoma that I have embraced this view that leaders are
born not bred. That leadership is something that is instilled in
someone at the DNA level, not something that can be taught or imparted.
This deterministic model is one that my parents have instilled in me
from an early age.
Whereas I have tried to live my life as one of continual
self-transformation and growth in new directions. From expanding my
mental capacities (learning French, Spanish), my physical abilities
(dancing, martial arts), to my place in the world (travelling to
Tunisia, the Philippines, Cuba).
And yet there is a part of me that has not wanted to learn to be a
better leader. I have resisted the idea that I could be a leader, even
when the opportunity has presented itself to me again and again.
Instead I have settled for being simply a manager, a coordinator, a
This past few days at the Art of Leadership retreat have really
challenged that aelf-perception and made me confront parts of me that I
have avoided looking at.
I realize now that I am going to be in positions of leadership
throughout my life, whether I like it or not. Leadership moments
follow me wherever I go whether it is facilitating a committee at
Quaker meeting, heading up an event for Yehoodi, coordinating the
building of a new sim in Second Life, or running a workshop at a
I am learning to embrace and appreciate the leadership skills that I
already bring to the table: the capacity to organize and task-manage
others, to find common ground between differing viewpoints, to display
confidence and competence, to model hard work and commitment, and to
put the good of the community ahead of my own needs.
At the same time, I see much more clearly the ways that I need to grow
as a leader if I am going to be as effective as I can be. As part of
the leadership training, we were asked to solicit the anonymous views
of people that know us as leaders and to rate our abilities. It was
not easy reading how several people see me as at times “curt” and
“dismissive” of others views and not seeing the Big Picture over the
task at hand.
Clearly I need to find it in me to place more of my own passion and
vision on the table for others to draw from and to be enlisted by. And
I need to be learn to not let my desire to task-manage to override the
need to nurture human relationships and empathy for my team members.
Fundamentally, I need to invest more of me in my work. Not to let Rik
the Quaker, Rik the dancer, and Rik the manager exist in these seperate
spheres but really let all these integral pieces of myself come out in
whatever settings I find myself leading.
I need to learn to trust my own voice more. To let my light shine, as the song says, even
when I see what appear to be so many brighter lights around me. I need
to learn to listen to my instincts and speak out more clearly and
loudly when I feel that call.
It feels really good knowing where my strength lies and the things that I need to work on developing.
I am looking forward to leading this dance.
4 thoughts on “Learning to lead”
What great reflections Rik. I have felt similar ambivalence about exercising leadership at times.
My experience of leadership in a Quaker context (which could be a whole, messy, complicated essay, but I’ll avoid that here), has been that there are at least three elements that have contributed to my leadership: skill and two kinds of giftedness.
First is the gifts I just carry with me: self-confidence, an orderly intelligence, being an INTP.
There are skills on top of those gifts, which can be developed, that add to or extend them: ease with public speaking, good filing skills (or not!), education on the topic.
Then there’s another kind of gift I’ve experienced, that I’ll describe in religious Quaker terms: God gives gifts to the community, through individuals. The gift is exercised by me, but neither comes from me nor belongs to me.
I’ve experienced these three things most clearly in the various times I’ve been a recording clerk. I clearly have inherent gifts and skills that are put to good use in being a recording clerk, but unless the second kind of giftedness is present, it’s not pretty.
Thanks for sharing that, Otenth.
In the Quaker context, effective “leading” has a totally different connotation from other communities in my experience. Quakers are a strong-willed, individualistic and passionate bunch.
Sometimes it can feel like herding sheep. At other times its like just feeling the direction we’re all headed and honoring the leading.
I realize that much of my problems in leadership in a quaker context have to do with the stronger emphasis on the affective and nurturing aspects of leadership, which I often am lacking.
nice and important post.
when you write, “Not to let Rik the Quaker, Rik the dancer, and Rik the manager exist in these seperate spheres but really let all these integral pieces of myself come out in whatever settings I find myself leading,” i say, “yes!”
Great post, Rik. I’ve heard from many people that Rockwood is amazing, and it seems that you really got a lot of out it. What an incredible opportunity to stretch and grow.