The Essentialness of Personal Care for Leaders

I loved the conversation I had yesterday with a colleague. We have a friendship and colleagueship that began twenty years ago, but connects once every few years. On a bit of a whim, we decided to have tea together. Via Zoom that helped shrink the 2,000 miles of geographic distance. Because we could. I love conversations that have the pace of tea. You don’t gulp tea. It’s slower. It has plenty of holding mug in hand, just for the feeling of the deeper warming.

As so often happens with genuine invitation to wander together, and with the lightest social agreement to light circle structure, there is tremendous richness that shows up. It’s friendship. It’s learning. It’s sharing story. It’s connecting ideas. It’s following a bit of mystery.

One of yesterday’s gifts for me in learning was both of us reaffirming the essentialness of personal care for leaders. And as my friend reminded me, this includes in particular, some reflective practice.

The story line goes quite like you would imagine:

These times are complex. Most are being asked to do a lot, and often within very short timelines. Most are needing to learn to be in relationship with many moving parts (or better, to learn to see these moving parts as a whole). There’s a lot of stress. And when stress meets stress in other, boy, we need some skill to not just slide into a hot mess of blame.

The timing of involvement is relentless. Yah, “relentless” is a rather burdensome word, but I think it’s accurate. There’s little or no spacing between. There’s often multiple projects that many of us are handling at one time. Expectations are really high (because we care about doing good). But it’s full on.

Many of us sacrifice personal care so as to be in the complex and relentless timing. There’s a certain seduction to a certain nobility in this sacrifice. It can have the appearance of being rather heroic. Oh dear, though there be a temporary rightness in that, it is rather short-lived.

My friend and I were naming how what’s missing in so many people’s leadership training and practice is self care and reflective practice as a way to best be in the complex and the relentless. We are all human. We aren’t machines. We aren’t crafted to merely and rotely persist in perfection as if on a gigantic cosmic assembly line. It’s good to be diligent and committed, yes indeed. But the longterm life of us and the systems we are in, are at stake here, addressed quite significantly by self care.

Here’s some of the small ones that I count on.

  • Periodic tea with a friend, like yesterday.
  • Even small chunks of time working in my yard, getting my hands dirty. And away from my computer.
  • Physical exertion, wether exercise or more of that yard work.
  • Reading just to read, for the enjoyment of it without needing to produce anything.
  • Tending to life needs. The floor still needs mopping. Or the wood chopping. Or the appointment with the dentist. Or the vacuuming. Or walking the dog.

My goto with reflective practice is meditation. Typically 20 minutes of quiet breathing in the morning. That and a few forms of writing. This blog. A personal journal. A collection of poems I’m writing and compiling. A hand-written journal that catches night-time dreaming.

The interruption in societal pattern here is that personal care and reflective practice are not superfluous and self-indulging, but rather essential and core practices. For health. For grounding. For expansion of ability. For kindness. For wholeness. For a pile of things.

The invitation is as you would imagine. Stick to this care and reflection. Or, start it again, even in very small chunks. Encourage others to do similarly for the good of all of us in this rather fascinating human journey.

Maybe start with tea, with someone you see as an old and very wise friend.



Fire & Water — Some Special Sauce

A couple of weeks ago I was in a conversation with a friend, colleague, and participant of the upcoming Fire and Water Leadership Cohort. It was thoughtful. In the way that I so often like it, we were naming some of what was at the core of this program. It’s naming essence. And special sauce.

Here’s some of what we came up with, scribbled onto the back of a piece of paper:

Wander — I’m no stranger to advocating a sense of wander together. Neither is my friend. For some, wander has a negative connotation. Like, wander because of “being lost.” Or wander because “there isn’t purpose.” That’s a different wander. This wander is more like, be willing (and courageous) enough to go into the unknown. How about that — the ability to wander as core competency in leadership. The ability to help create conditions to encounter emergence.

Radical Honesty — I don’t think that many in today’s varied organizational contexts are blatantly lying. Although, lying can become a habit such that it’s not even recognizable. I’m talking about the lies of what we are up to. Of over imposing a narrow narrative. Of speaking as certainty of what is really inherently known. There’s stuff in the journey, for all of us, that I would suggest is inherently scary and unknowable. So much of contemporary society has taught us to “fake it till you make it.” Yah, good, um, er, except when it isn’t, which is often. What if, we dared to be radically honest together, growing that familiarity so as to give us just a bit more chance of getting to the transformational? Honest with self. Honest with other. Developing a literacy of awareness.

Wildness — I love this one. It was my friend that named it as a question, encouragement, and concern. Will this be wild enough? Will it not be tucked into something overly reductive, neat, and tidy? My friend’s question about wildness was also naming an inherent wildness in us. I would suggest that we humans, seek a wildness and aliveness and life vitality. Individually and with one another. Most of us seek a relationship with wildness, a “not just tamedness.” Being willing to get messy — that’s got something to do with leadership these days also..

Navigating Complexity — Yup. Most of us identify with rather complex lives. Most of us are patterned into numbing ourselves as primary mode for coping with all of that complexity. I know this in so many ways in myself. Yet, I’m the kind of human that believes we are at a time when we must transcend (which often comes from rather painful descent) who we are and how we are together as human beings. This means leaning further in to the complexity, not away. This means daring to break patterns of isolation so that me might lean in as community. You can see how this connects to each of the above, right — wander, radical honesty, and wildness. Oy!

Don’t Know Where We Are Headed — This too is woven into the above. When I’m a follower (let me be so simple for a moment), I can be OK with not knowing where we are headed. Often, that okness is soothed by an assumption that surely the leader knows, or that someone knows. Hmm…, hold that thought. When I’m a leader, or cohost, or consultant, or some other position of perceived knowing, to not know can be scary as hell. And shameful. You can see the edge of a new culture bumping into the tight holding of an old culture.

I’m grateful for what became alive with my friend in our conversations. That lead to such scribblings. That lead to such a palpable feeling of “now we are getting somewhere.”

Excited, and a bit scared, to do this soon with our Fire & Water cohort. Get to a transformed core. And hold it together. Some spaces available. Apply if you feel the shimmer of called. Special sauce.

Fire & Water at Hope Springs Institute

Yesterday I visited Hope Springs Institute, the physical home venue, and hearth, for what will be Fire & Water, A Leadership Journey and Rite of Passage. I often think of place as participant. Yesterday in seeing the Studio, Spirit House, Farm House, and ample grounds on which to wander — I got very excited. This is a place to hold community in well fed, well nourished, well spaced, and well convened ways. See below for a few more pictures of Hope Springs, near Peebles, Ohio.

Fire & Water starts this October. Applications begin here.

Fire & Water,

convened by Quanita Roberson and Tenneson Woolf, is a 16-month leadership cohort program that includes three 4-day residential retreats (October 2019; April 2020; November 2020 — Hope Springs Institute, Peebles, Ohio), a designated virtual learning platform, and structured ongoing coaching. It is a cohort program to cultivate wise leaders and community — not just busy leaders and commotion — through a proven participative leadership platform that relies on gaining tools and experience found in shared learning, building community, rites of passage, and applied practice.

Fire & Water,

is groundbreaking and innovative work that grows from our 25 years of experience. For Quanita and me, it comes from a growing awareness and concern that few people experience the conditions for the wisened leadership that is needed for our times. Many are so often responding to crisis. Fire & Water is an effort to grow and create more of what we know is working, but has been sorely missing in leadership development. Yes, we anticipate participants to come out better equipped with tools, and community. But further, we intend a transformative environment in which all will gain more ability to go further with skill-set and heart-set for times such as these. 


Taking Part

“Sun, moon, mountains, and rivers are the writing of being, the literature of what-is. Long before our species was born, the books had been written. The library was here before we were. We live in it. We can add to it, or we can try; we can also subtract from it. We can chop it down, incinerate it, strip mine it, poison it, bury it under our trash. But we didn’t create it, and if we destroy it, we cannot replace it. Literature, culture, pattern aren’t man made, the culture of the Tao is not man-made, and the culture of “humans” is not man-made; it is just the human part of the culture of the whole…The question is only: are you going to take part, and if so, how?” ~Robert Bringhurst, Canadian Poet, Author, Activist

I appreciate a friend for sharing this Bringhurst passage with me. I love the invitation to look to a different scale, a geographic scale that repositions the temporal gaze.

I also love the fundamental question — Are you going to take part, and if so, how?

“Taking part” is a pretty good header for most of the work that I’m engaged in. I help to create containers for people to be able to take part together. It’s more than the razzmatazz of good facilitation, though that is interesting, isn’t it. For me, it’s more about re-storying how we even conceive of ourselves as connected and belonging together. Perhaps this has been relegated to the domain of poets and philosophers for many a years. I love it now that contemporary life — the workplace, government, education, systems — are learning to lean in to the “taking part” story (in a “power with” narrative rather than a “power over”).

I don’t like to overstate it — it’s easy to get unintendedly cheesy — but a key part of the work these days is about how to learn to go together. Not as obligation. Not as indulgence. Not as what you tolerate before getting to the real work. Going together, taking part together — this is the story that I would suggest contemporary society is daring to reclaim. Beyond obligation, indulgence, or tolerating is awakening to the added life field that is only activated when we are together. Yes, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. That’s the cute way of saying it. And, reclaiming a reliance on wholeness, daring to lean and feel our way into that — well, that is the game these days.

I’m excited about a few projects that are attempting to change the “taking part” story. One is with my friends at the Rocky Mountain Conference of the United Church of Christ. Together, we’ve created a 9 month leadership initiative, IGNITE, that is about helping ordained clergy and lay leaders deepen their own being, amplify relationships and connection, and be church in a different way for times like these. We’ve created this program to help people reanimate in the spirit that is only found together — as we make stories and questions the central strategies for our learning together. We are two months into it, having met face to face, and now supporting monthly and weekly practices.

Another project is with a group of educators at University of North Texas in Denton. I love the daring invitation from their VP of Academic Affairs that has created two three day trainings to learn participative leadership together. It’s deans. It’s department chairs. It’s support staff. It’s senior leadership. It’s a few wild cards. They want to interrupt the silo behavior that has become part of so many large and complex organizations. They want to reclaim the way that education occurs at large universities. They want to reclaim how “taking part” can improve. It takes courage, guts, and a willingness to explore the unknown, doesn’t it.

I’m glad to be a part of such good work. I’m glad to be a voice that encourages the simple narrative of taking part, and with reminder from a few other good people that we can remember with the generosity of sun, moon, mountains, rivers.