Deep Listening

Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture

Photo Credit: U.S. Department of Agriculture

Three weeks ago today I learned the result of the U.S. Presidential election.  I was devastated.  My candidate had lost, and to someone I thought was dangerous for my country and the world.

My stomach in knots, I talked with a friend and had a good cry.  I turned to wise leaders for a way forward.  Still wrestling with my emotions, I sought words of guidance and hope.

I found those words of guidance and hope in several places: Constance Fitzgerald, Elizabeth Warren, Cynthia Bourgeault, and a colleague at work.  While the importance of standing up for those who are vulnerable in this present climate was reinforced, I also learned the importance of listening.  And I learned the importance of humility.

For the past three weeks, I have been seeking to live into this wisdom.  It’s harder than I thought it would be. It’s hard to listen.  It’s hard to see self-righteousness in myself, and to let it go.  It’s hard to stand up for what I believe in the face of opposition.

The words of Steve Garnaas-Holmes resonate with me, as he reflects on how to turn swords into plowshares post-election:

“I bear them into conversations, my swords.
I hide them in my dark.
I launch them at the news, these spears.

Find them among me, God of Peace. Take them:
my bitterness, my defensiveness, my need to win.
Find the hidden swords, the secret spears I cling to.

Make them red hot in the furnace of your forgiveness.
Hold them in the tongs of your truth.
Beat them with the hammer of your love.

Take the hurt I mean to project, the defeat I wish others.
Free me of the swagger of hurtfulness.
Bend my righteous little swords into tools of life.

Let me stand before enemies with pure love,
prepared to break soil, to prune branches,
to do the hard work of growing peace.

For I will need stout tools to work this rough land well,
to bring fruits of justice out of this rocky earth,
to tend the muscular trees of mercy.”

The diversity in our world is a gift.  We see it in nature.  Can we see it in one another?  Because of our diversity of experiences, we can learn from one another.  As Quakers believe, no one person holds the entirety of truth.  Each person holds part of the truth, and we must listen to one another to allow the entire truth to emerge. In a diverse nation, different people experience life differently, and these life experiences shape political viewpoints.  Can we get beneath the political views to hear one another’s experiences?  Can I ask others, regardless of their political views, “What were your hopes when you voted for the candidate of your choice?  What are your hopes now?  What were your fears, and what are your fears now?”   And once I ask, can I listen deeply, really listen with curiosity, to the heart of the person speaking to me?

I know that there is much for me to learn in the weeks and months and four years ahead.  And, more importantly, there is much for me to practice.  John Woolman, an eighteenth-century American Quaker, serves as a role model for me here.  As Woolman traveled the American colonies speaking out against slavery, he both stood strong in his beliefs and at the same time listened respectfully to others’ points of view.  He exhibited both great strength and great humility.  How can I go deep and find that place of spiritual grounding that allows me to practice both strength and humility in these perilous times?

Staying Rooted in the Storm

Photo credit: Linda Abbott

Photo credit: Linda Abbott

I’ve just spent a weekend with the trees.  At Dayspring Retreat Center in Germantown, Maryland, the trees surrounded our group and spoke to me of groundedness through storms and sun alike.  The first night, we were battered by wind and rain.  As the rain beat down on the roof, the trees stayed deeply rooted and grounded, flexible in the storm.

All around me, the political storm rages.  With nine days to go before the U. S. election, attacks sharpen, hostilities increase.  Political hostilities, possibly the worst ever, tempt me to hunker down, batten down the hatches, and wait it out.  I’m beginning to understand those Facebook friends who say they don’t want to see any more political discussion.

Yet part of me knows there is another way.

I watched the trees outside my window on my first night at the retreat.  They bent in the storm.  Their branches blew wildly in the wind.  Yet they remained strong.  Their deep roots and flexible limbs allowed them to weather the storm while standing in the midst of it.  While doing so, the trees provided shelter.  Their root systems prevented the ground from eroding.

In Healing the Heart of Democracy, Parker Palmer brilliantly delineates the political storm in which we find ourselves.  He demonstrates how consumerism, scapegoating, and the mass media which fuels their fires erode the soil of democracy.

But Palmer doesn’t stop there.  He shows us how we can be like the trees, deeply rooted and grounded, flexible, standing strong in the midst of the storm.  He shows us how we can provide shelter, how, by developing strong roots, we can be grounded leaders who prevent the soil of our society from eroding.  He explores the outward and visible infrastructures of democracy and proposes ways to make better use of them.  For example, school teachers can be grounded leaders by helping students connect history lessons to their own lives. History lessons about Nazi Germany parallel discrimination against minorities today, close to home; any culture carries within it the seeds of oppression and violence.

Furthermore, in school, students can practice democracy as well as learn about it.  Or students can engage in service learning opportunities in their communities, integrating their classroom work with the world around them.

Palmer also explores how congregations and community groups can practice deep hospitality, welcoming the stranger, engaging more fully with those who are different.  He points out how often relationships in such groups become superficial and how learning to risk vulnerability with one another enriches the soil of community.

Grounded leaders in schools, congregations, community groups, and (I would add) businesses can build the relationships and ways of being that form the foundation of a democracy.

I ask myself, “In what ways am I like the deeply rooted tree in the storm, exhibiting grounded leadership, providing shelter and preventing erosion in the political storm?  In what ways can I learn from the tree, incorporating more of Palmer’s practices into my leadership?”

May we all resist the urge to hide from the important tasks of shaping the world, instead remaining fully engaged and deeply rooted as political storms swirl around us.

(This is a slight revision of a similar article that appeared in the Executive Soul blog in October 2012, “Grounded Leadership: Staying Rooted in the Storm.”)

 

Business Success

Photo Credit: nguyen-hung-vu, via flickr

Photo Credit: Nguyen Hung Vu, via flickr

The U.S. Presidential election has raised the question of what successful business is.  Is a business successful simply because it makes a lot of money?  What if the money comes through cheating customers or suppliers?  For example, is a rich person who runs a drug cartel a successful businessman?  Is someone who becomes rich, at least in part, through tax evasion, a successful businessman?

Business requires trust.  I pay money for goods or services because I believe in their value. I trust that what I am paying for is being represented accurately and is priced fairly.  Often I shop online, which requires the further trust that the product I can’t see is what it says it is and that it will come to me in a timely fashion.  I trust the seller’s promise that I can return anything that doesn’t meet my expectations and that my money will be refunded.

Business requires good relationships.  A businessperson develops relationships with suppliers and customers, convincing them that they can craft a win-win relationship.  Honesty forms the foundation of these relationships.  If a businessperson proves dishonest, suppliers and customers run in the other direction. As the saying goes, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”

Businesses built on trust and good relationships contribute to the social fabric of the larger society.  Businesses lacking trust and good relationships tear the social fabric.

So, what is “success” in business?  I posit that the answer is not simply “more money.”  To be sure, a business must make money in order to survive and thrive.  Yet the purpose of business is far more than money.  Saying that the purpose of business is making money is like saying that the purpose of life is breathing.  Breathing is necessary to life, yet breathing is not the purpose of life.  The purpose of life is to love and to give.  The purpose of business is similar: to give goods and services that contribute to people’s well-being.  A successful business provides useful goods and services, operates with integrity, and thrives.

For example, Wainwright Bank in Boston, under Bob Glassman’s leadership, aspired to become the leader in lending to nonprofits.  Naysayers claimed that Wainwright Bank would suffer financially for its idealism, claiming that loans for homeless shelters and food banks are risky business.  In fact, the opposite proved true: Wainwright Bank’s community development loans totaling over $700 million experienced zero losses during the time of Bob Glassman’s leadership, in sharp contrast to other banks’ loan portfolios. I posit that Bob Glassman is an outstanding example of a successful businessman, making money and serving people in his community at the same time.

Instead of evaluating the merit of a business solely on its money-making capabilities, let us hold a higher standard for businesses.  Let us assess the value of a business not only through its financial success but through its ability to serve the community, to contribute to the well-being of the world. Our time here on earth is precious, as is our opportunity to create legacies for future generations. May the businesses we create not only thrive but also embody the highest ideals of our humanity.

Heart Leadership

Photo Credit: AFGE via flickr

Photo Credit: AFGE via flickr

The month of July has seen police shootings of black men and shootings of police in the U.S., an attempted coup in Turkey, and acts of terrorism in France, Baghdad, Kabul, Nigeria, and the rest of the world, rounded off by the Republican National Convention and the Democratic National Convention in the U.S.   The world watched the conventions carefully to see how the rising leadership in each party would address the violence in the U.S. and around the world.   

An important response came from a surprising corner: the clergy.  In a party that has had a conflicted relationship with religion, Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, a self-described “theologically conservative liberal evangelical Biblicist,” spoke powerfully at the Democratic National Convention.  “I know it may sound strange,” he stated, “but I’m a conservative because I work to conserve a divine tradition that teaches us to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God.” Pastor of Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, NC, and the son of a pastor, Barber started the Moral Mondays movement to put his faith into action.

Barber diagnosed America with a “heart problem.”  He called his audience to “love the Jewish child, the Palestinian child, the Muslim and the Christian and the Hindu and the Buddhist and those who have no faith.”

Barber drew the analogy of a defibrillator used to shock weak hearts back to healthy functioning with the need for the weak heart of America to be shocked back to healthy functioning.  He exhorted Americans to be “moral defibrillators.” “We must shock this nation with the power of love; we must shock this nation with the power of mercy.”

Barber stands as an example of a moral leader who dives deep, beneath the superficial cacophony of voices that constitutes much of American’s political discourse.  Barber stands on the bedrock of his Christian scriptures and of prayer: “We need to heed the voice of the scriptures.  We need to listen to the ancient chorus in which deep calls unto deep.”

American culture’s obsession with consumerism, violence, and self-centeredness needs more than a Band-aid approach.  America needs deep healing.  Barber, for one, understands this need, and knows the deep well from which healing can come.  As Maggie Ross, an Anglican solitary, points out in her book, Silence: A User’s Guide, “The human race is sleepwalking into extinction.  If we are not to destroy our beautiful planet and ourselves with it, then we must learn to live more simply, more carefully, more joyfully.”  Ross calls her readers to the deep well of prayer and silence to awaken them, a well that Barber knows.

Those who have ears to hear awoke when Barber spoke at the DNC.  May more leaders arise who call us to the deep places, out of which we can exercise “heart leadership.”  Our world is depending upon it.

Independence and Interdependence

Photo Credit: Margaret Benefiel

Photo Credit: Margaret Benefiel

This weekend America celebrates Independence Day, the day she declared independence from the British crown.   America’s founding fathers, of course, knew the importance of independence – that’s why they fought so hard to win it.  At the same time, they knew the importance of interdependence, both the interdependence of forging alliances among the colonies and the interdependence of maintaining alliances abroad.

We would do well to learn from America’s founding fathers and to apply their lessons to organizational life.   How can organizations and the people who work in them exhibit both strong independence and strong interdependence?

As I come to the end of my first year in my new role as Executive Director of the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, I’m musing on independence and interdependence in Shalem as an organization. A few days ago, the board met for its final meeting of this fiscal year, so it has been an opportune time to reflect on these themes in relation to the board and staff.   On the one hand, individual board members and staff members are independent of one another.  It does not serve an organization well to be in the grip of “group-think.” We need differences of opinion and freedom to speak those different opinions in order to maximize the wisdom in a group and in order to learn from one another. On the other hand, individuals at Shalem are interdependent.  We listen deeply to one another, and seek to discern the wisdom that arises corporately from the group.

Similarly, on the one hand, the board and staff are independent of one another.  Each has clearly defined roles and responsibilities.  It’s important not to have duplication of effort.  It’s important to respect one another’s areas of work and not second-guess one another.  At the same time, the board and staff are interdependent.  The two groups listen together for wisdom and direction, and they collaborate to help make Shalem thrive.

I’m also musing on independence and interdependence in the larger world of which Shalem is a part.  In October, the founders of four organizations similar to Shalem, all committed to nurturing the contemplative way of living and leading, will be meeting.  Soon thereafter, the current Executive Directors of these organizations will be meeting.  On the one hand, these four organizations are independent, even “competitors.” They were founded independently.  Each must find its own way without copying or relying on the others.  Each has its own staff and board and each has its own core values to which it must be true.  On the other hand, these four organizations are interdependent.  We all seek to nurture contemplative life in a world which hungers for it.  We speak to some of the same audience.  We long to collaborate, to listen to what is being invited from each of us and from the four of us together to meet the needs of today’s world.

Like Shalem, every organization can benefit from reflecting on the way these two modes of being operate within the workplace. Are there areas where more independence can be encouraged, allowing a greater diversity in viewpoints to shine through?  Are there spaces in which a deeper interdependence between coworkers or departments can be nurtured so that their communal wisdom can better shape the organization? In what ways does the organization offer something completely unique to the world, and in what ways can it find kinship with other like-minded organizations?

In the modern western world, where independence is so highly praised, it can be easy to forget how connected we all are. Yet our abilities to think independently and to collaborate with others are equally important and should both be nurtured. This Independence Day, let’s take a lesson from America’s founding fathers and strengthen both independence and interdependence in our organizations.

Sacrifice

Photo credit: Chris M. via flickr

Photo credit: Chris M. via flickr

Having recently returned from Italy, where images of sacrifice surrounded me, I find myself contemplating sacrifice and suffering.  In the midst of co-leading a pilgrimage, I saw everywhere biblical images of sacrifice (Abraham and Isaac, Jesus), as well as images of saints who sacrificed wealth, health, and life itself.

“What do these images have to do with me?” I asked.  Coming from a culture in which the pendulum has swung to the other extreme, I find the medieval preoccupation with sacrifice distant, strange, and even repulsive.  Yet, precisely because of their strangeness, these images, I sense, have something to teach me.

Back home in the U. S. now, this is Memorial Day weekend, the day we honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives for their country.  In the midst of a “me”-centered culture, soldiers understand sacrifice in a way that most of us don’t.  Soldiers sacrifice the comforts of home, risk life and limb, and ask their families to sacrifice their presence. If they are lucky enough to return home, they return with the physical and emotional scars of battle, facing the often insurmountable challenges of adjusting to re-entry into family and work.

What can we learn from these men and women in our midst who understand sacrifice so much better than most of us do?  How can we begin to practice sacrifice in small ways, to contribute to the betterment of those around us?  How does sacrifice relate to our day-to-day work lives?

Possibilities for small sacrifices abound. An employer might hire a veteran suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and provide him or her with the support needed to heal.  Such an act is a small sacrifice compared to what the veteran has given.  Or, in these tough economic times when layoffs become necessary, executives might give up part of their profit by investing in retraining workers and assisting them in finding new employment, as CoreStates Bank in Philadelphia did.  Or, when layoffs occur and employees are asked to do more with less, someone might step in to go the extra mile and support a stressed co-worker.

What am I being invited to sacrifice?  Perhaps it is something as simple as sacrificing an evening out in order to prepare well and offer my best work to participants in a program in which I am teaching.   Or to sacrifice my carefully planned schedule to support my husband when he’s facing a work deadline. Or to sacrifice sleep to sit with a friend in the emergency room of a hospital.

Medieval saints and modern soldiers all have something to teach me.  Inspired by them and with gratitude to them, I want to learn to practice appropriate sacrifice in my daily life.

 

(This post is a slight revision of a post that appeared in the Executive Soul blog in May 2012.)

 

3 Leadership Lessons of St. Clare

photo credit Fr James Bradley

Photo credit: Fr James Bradley via flickr

St. Clare of Assisi (1194-1253), best known as St. Francis’ “little plant,” eventually emerged as a strong leader in her own right in thirteenth-century Italy and beyond.  While St. Francis took center stage with his extraverted charismatic leadership, St. Clare quietly built stronger structures behind the scenes.

As I muse on St. Clare and her contributions, three leadership lessons stand out for me.  Clare teaches me about prayer, community-building, and persistence.

First, Clare knew the power of prayer.  She knew that prayer provided the foundation for all of her leadership.  Without prayer, without her radical trust in God, she could do nothing.  She prayed for strength and guidance when she was called to lead her community of “Poor Ladies” as a young adult.  Later, when an invading army swarmed her vulnerable convent of San Damiano, outside the protection of the city walls, she prayed.  Upon praying, she felt led to stand at the window in front of the army, armed only with the host, the body of Christ, and her trust in God.  Faced with Clare’s shining strength, the army became confused and fled.  Thus, through prayer, Clare saved not only her convent but also the city of Assisi.  Finally, Clare’s prayer undergirded her day-to-day leadership in the convent.  When faced with lack of food, with illness, with cold, she prayed.  People brought turnips, medicine, and blankets, and year after year, all the Sisters’ needs were supplied.

Second, Clare knew how to build community.  Though she lived in an enclosed community at San Damiano her entire life as a Sister, she built community both at home and afar.  She showed her 50 fellow Sisters how to live together in compassionate service in cramped quarters and difficult conditions.  Beyond San Damiano, she instructed Agnes of Prague, a princess who left behind wealth and status to found a religious community like Clare’s, in building a convent.  While Francis’ communities faced divisive conflicts, Clare taught her communities to work through conflicts in ways that built stronger relationships.  And she also built relationships near and far, with St. Francis and his brothers, with priests, with bishops, and with Popes.

Third, Clare lived perseverance.  Her entire life, she fought for a way of life like Francis’ in which she could be true to the gospel as she understood it.  For her, this meant living in poverty, in total reliance upon God.  She appealed to every Pope in her lifetime to approve the rule she had written to regulate life in her community.  When Pope after Pope said no, she didn’t give up.  Finally, on her deathbed, the Pope sent word that he had heard she was dying and he wondered if there was anything he could do for her.  When she said, “Approve my rule,” he relented, and she received papal approval two days before she died.

Leading with soul is never easy, whether one lives in thirteenth-century Europe or modern times.  The way is often fraught with stresses, discouragements, and obstacles that challenge our commitment to walk our path with faith.  However, we can turn to those who have come before us, those like St. Clare who embody the qualities of a good leader. They show us not only that it is possible to lead with soul but also that we are not alone in the journey.