Catalyst for commitment

Major observances, such as birthdays and holidays, often provide the catalyst for commitment, at least in my experience.

Last week, I celebrated with family and friends, near and far, the “achievement” of completing around rotation around the sun. I argue that luck and privilege served as the two driving forces behind that achievement. Still, I won’t squander the opportunity to give gratitude for more time to give and receive love; to build community; to learn; to fail; and to fight for a more just, equitable world [dismantling racism, white folks. Let’s name it.]

A re-branding of this blog seemed in order as I have (for the nth time) reaffirmed that I want to be a writer. And I want to be a good writer. Such ambition requires continual practice, reflection, and refinement. As a budding pianist, I recall drawn out fights with my parents, particularly my mother, when it came to carving out time for the dreaded “p” word. My seven-year-old entitled self truly believed that I could merely show up to each lesson and have improved by the grace of the Almighty without tickling a single ivory over the previous seven days.

I’m a tad ashamed to admit this, but this attitude followed me through much of my younger life. In 4th grade, I joined our elementary school concert band as a clarinetist. Again, I chalked up practicing as something other people did. That’s not to say that I never practiced throughout my  brief musical career. In high school, as I picked up the saxophone and melaphone, I recognized a need for me to spend time building my embouchure, finding the right pitch, and running through the various scales.

But how much better could I have been! (she types with regret)

This older (and much wiser) version of Katie recognizes and embraces commitment and persistence to a degree that younger Katie couldn’t fathom. However, I still find opportunities to derail myself in pursuit of how I want to be spending the limited resource of time.

Who do I want to be? When people look at my life, what would they say? While I’m not *quite* ready to write my obituary (a very uncomfortable exercise I experienced last year), I want to end the mindsets, attitudes, and behaviors that keep me from growing into my desired identities.  What I want to be requires work. I could continue to show up. I could continue to coast. But, why? And how would that reflect my core values? Short answer: it wouldn’t.

Passion. Bliss. Contentment. These outcomes thrive in settings when your actions align with your values, personal mission, and vision. I’ve spent the last few months (ok, let’s be real, the last 20+ years) defining and re-defining each of those based on new information received, relationships gained and lost, and experiences processed. I hope that I maintain a growth and stretch mindset when it comes to self-awareness and self-assessment. In order to be the type of person that I want to be — for you and for the rest of the world — I must continue to check my assumptions, my bias, and my adherence to positions.

As of May 28, 2018, I want to work toward being a person who is known as:

  1. A trusted, honest, and loving wife/friend/family member.
  2. A person committed to antiracist work in all aspects of life.
  3. A writer who avoids wasting your time or her breath.
  4. A student hungry for knowledge.
  5. A future farmer who wants to cultivate a healthier, more sustainable natural world.
  6. A leader who is unabashedly relentless in demanding respect and justice and who can throw her head back and laugh loudly without apologizing.

The mindfulness practice that I started six months ago has created the mental space for me to explore each of these six areas to various degrees. Now, with more mindful prioritizing of my time, I look forward to improving upon each of these hats, one day at a time.

Today is day one.

Knowing when to step aside

I’ve crawled into bed after 11:00pm the past two nights. As a conditioned morning person, I am feeling the grind this morning.

Speaking of feeling the grind: when it comes to leadership positions and the people who hold them, when is the right time for people to move on in order to bring in a fresh perspective and style to the work?

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Transitions in leadership have enormous implications for an organization’s strategic direction and culture. But, our nonprofit sector seems more comfortable sticking our heads in the ground rather than preparing and planning for the inevitable and necessary.

That’s right: necessary. Our society values longevity and gives credence to those who stay in positions of power for years. But, at what cost? That isn’t to imply that such leaders always fail or bring harm to the organizations they serve. That certainly could be the case. It’s more about recognizing that our influence and decision-making will put the organization down a series of paths aligned with our values. Yet, think of all of the other roads available to the organization that could have an even bigger impact. But, we’re not able to see those options, not because we don’t want to, but because we operate from what we know. If we haven’t walked a particular walk, then we’re not going to be able to find that way.

A lot of people have asked me this year how it feels to no longer be on the YNPN Triangle NC Board of Directors. Did I miss it? Was I sad to no longer be a part of a tight-knit group of motivated, dedicated leaders?

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This was the North Carolina contingency in Atlanta for the 2017 National YNPN conference. What an easy group to love!

When put that way, of course. The organization brought incredible people to my life who have become some of my closest friends and trusted confidantes. But, when it came to my role, particularly after serving as Chair for three years, I knew that I had given all of myself on the playing field. While I had the institutional knowledge that can be a justifiable reason to encourage a leader to stay, I also had the baggage of my five years of experience dragging behind me.

As a leader, it is my responsibility to prepare the organization to continue moving forward without me in the picture. When people have asked me about my feelings related to leaving YNPN Triangle NC, I could confidently respond that I knew the chapter was going to flourish because of the committed people around the table.

One of the best lessons I learned as Chair: surround yourself with people who aren’t like you. Leaders need to be challenged in their ideas, assumptions, and visions. It is not only unfair but impossible for one person to have all of the skills we’ve identified as necessary to be a successful nonprofit leader. Nope. Not a real thing. Unfortunately, the nonprofit sector still operates in this mindset (a la the solo Executive Director model aka martyr aka magician).

I was struck the first time I heard “One Last Time” from Hamilton. George Washington, through what historians have discovered, recognized his limits as a leader and took action to transition the power of the Presidency. Such forethought was not the norm during that period (nor in present day, sadly).

One lyric in particular stood out to me:

If I say goodbye, the nation learns to move on
It outlives me when I’m gone

Yes, let’s acknowledge there is some trace of ego laced in this idea of building something that will outlive us. Yet, I would argue that it’s more purpose than ego: who doesn’t want to be remembered? Who doesn’t want to leave some sort of positive mark on the world that is lasting? Isn’t that the reason many of us work in the public and social sectors: not necessarily for individual recognition but to have a hand in shaping better outcomes for all people and our broader world?

There’s no blueprint for knowing when it is time to step aside. I believe it comes from a combination of internal reflection (gut-checking) and being open to receiving feedback from others. It’s hard not to take it personally: you want me to go?! No no. It’s not about you. Let’s say that again: it’s not about you. These organizations are about the people the mission seeks to serve: you just have the privilege of being on other side.

Let’s make a commitment, especially as emerging leaders, to be willing to step aside and not grind our organizations/staff to the ground. Let’s commit to having open conversations about leadership transitions — preparing for them as we would any 990 or board report. Let’s commit to building a team around us full of people willing to challenge us, bring new ideas to the table, and share the responsibility of achieving collective goals.

We’re gonna teach ’em how to say goodbye.

 

 

How to help? Stop the advice and create space

In the last week, I’ve had two interactions where — with all of my being — I wanted to be able to help but felt hampered by not having a clear action to take. One situation centered around my mother experiencing a deeply personal loss of a friend, and the other involved one of my close friends who had a fairly tumultuous 2017.

As both leaders and people who generally care about others, our first reaction in these situations is often to offer advice, provide comforting words, or relate a personal experience. But, this desire to fix or help may only benefit our own selfish desire and not the other person.

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Oh, you want to get healthy? Here is a gym you can join! (But seriously, if you live in the Triangle, you should join the 360 Approach family).

What can we do instead? Create a nonjudgmental space for sharing, reflection, and even silence. For me, this is hard. And uncomfortable! Sitting in silence with another person is not how I would describe a good time. I start to fidget; my brain begins racing; sweat beads at my wrists and temples.

Why does this happen? Our culture doesn’t embrace silence as a value. In fact, we want the opposite of stillness: movement! sounds! notifications! Fill the void with chatter, innovation, progress.

These actions can make us feel like we’re moving forward. In reality, these actions can limit our ability to fully connect with our own emotions and with the emotions of others. While we can now check off a box, the jumble left behind inside of us remains just that: jumbled. This mess often finds its way out of us through less desirable means: anger or sadness; overindulgence; self-harm; fighting with others; sickness.

Let’s make a pledge together in 2018 to try and create spaces for others when they need it. We’ll keep our mouths closed and our advice to ourselves. We will be present, and we will listen. Actively listen. We can ask open-ended questions that give the person we love more opportunities to unearth what they want (and likely need) to say as they process. We need to grow more comfortable with silence and with allowing things to be left unsaid.

During the conversation with my mom, I fought myself to not interject with some trite commentary on grief and loss, on friendship. I wanted to so badly, but I could also hear in my mom’s voice that she needed to just talk. For many of those that we love, they often carry the burden of being the sounding board for their family members and friends. When faced with their own hardships, they don’t necessarily have anyone offering their ears and time.

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A #throwback photo: sometimes creating space involves booze.

After reading this post, what resonates with you? Has someone created space for you recently? How did that make you feel?

Applying a ‘beginner’s mind’ to leadership

Do you consider yourself a goal-setter? Do you derive pleasure from crossing off items from your to-do list?

Gray brick wall with black painted soccer goal with "gol" written above

No matter the language, goals matter

Have you ever put an activity on your to-do list that you already did but wanted to release those oh-so-coveted endorphins as you drew a line through it?

Yeah, me too.

Here’s the good news for any of you who identify (even at times) as a Type-A person: we can still be mindful leaders. But, it’s not something that we can knock out of the park in one swing. It’s a process — at times, a painful one. It requires us to challenge our modus operandi and the behaviors deeply ingrained in our brains.

Fortunately, leaders like Robyn Ferhman are here to help. I had the opportunity to attend Robyn’s workshop last Saturday at Carolina Yoga Company entitled: “Attention to Intention: A Mindful Start to 2018.” You can see what was covered in this two-hour block of wonder and exploration here. Needless to say, I wasn’t ready to leave when time was up.

One of the key learnings that I took away from the workshop involved the concept of “beginner’s mind,” which is one of the core attitudes that make up a mindfulness practice. It is exactly like it sounds: approaching situations as if it were your first time ever experiencing it.

Imagine: how routine is brushing your teeth? How many of us spend that time up in our heads, running through memories or thinking about the events awaiting us tomorrow? What would happen if we approached brushing our teeth each morning and night like it was the first time? We would focus on making sure we addressed our gumlines; used circular motions to eliminate the plaque from those problem areas our dentist reminds us about every six months. How many fewer cavities would we have collectively? How much more in-tune would we feel with our bodies?

What does a “beginner’s mind” approach in leadership look like? Meetings are often a place where leaders are called upon to provide direction, make decisions, and build consensus. What if we approached the next meeting on our calendar as if it were our first ever meeting to run? What questions would we ask or anticipate others asking? How would we want to feel in the meeting? What baggage would we be able to leave outside of the door so we could fully participate, without judgment, in the space? How would a fresh perspective add value and contribute to your ideal workplace culture?

How about bringing a “beginner’s mind” to building relationships with others? Whether with our co-workers, fellow board members, or even our friends, we have a shared history, whether shallow or deep. This often results in us pre-judging outcomes or perhaps not investing our full attention into our time together. While our co-worker is sharing a new project idea, our mind drifts to: “How is this going to impact me and my time?”

A real hamster between two stuffed hampsters on a shelf

With a beginner’s mind, the impossible may appear a bit more real.

In my search for ways to incorporate a “beginner’s mind” into life, I stumbled upon this post from Amira Posner, a Mind-Body Fertility practitioner at Healing Infertility, featuring a well-known eating meditation credited to Jon Kabat-Zinn:

Take a raisin and put it in your hand. Pretend you have dropped off from another planet, and you have never seen a raisin. With an inquisitive, open, non-judgmental perspective, examine the raisin. Explore it. Smell it, feel it, taste it. Engage your senses, in the moment, in a non-judgmental way. With all your attention, be one with the raisin.

Note: if you’re not a fan of raisins (or happen to be participating in a Whole 30 program), another food item can be easily substituted.

Upon first reading, it can sound and feel a bit silly. But, I would pose the question: hasn’t the way we’ve been operating — passively, automatically, re-actively — silly? We have kept ourselves from being fully present and engaged in our world; a world in which we only have so much time to be present.

How could a “beginner’s mind” alter your relationships with other people, with your career, and with yourself?

Becoming an “unemotional” emotional leader

mochavodkavaliumlattePrior to leaving my last job, I had the opportunity to participate in an “Emerging Leaders” program as part of our national organization’s commitment to developing the next generation of conservation leaders. Pretty cool, right?

Similar to other leadership development programs, we were asked to take a self-assessment through the University of Washington’s Center for Leadership and Strategic Thinking. From this assessment, each participant received a developmental readiness score based on their perceived willingness and ability to…? You guessed it — lead!

Willingness stems from the person’s actual motivation to develop (i.e. learning goal orientation, leadership self-confidence, internal motivation to learn, and motivation to lead) and the ability to make a change in one’s leadership (which requires emotional regulation, taking different perspectives, metacognitive awareness, and self-concept clarity). A lot of terms and phrases to say: what kind of leader am I right now and where can I improve to be ready to lead?

What did I glean about myself from this initial assessment back in September 2017? Here are some of the takeaways:

  • I’m very self-motivated (i.e. I believe that have the ability to effectively create complex plans, problem solve, understand & inspire others as well as accomplish the demands of a leadership role).
  • I have a strong sense of identity and knowledge about areas where I excel and areas where I need further development.
  • I like learning from challenges and see increases in workload as an opportunity to be more resilient (wait, what? Is this the most nonprofit skill ever?)
  • I’m much less confident in my beliefs that I have the ability to determine and use the means necessary to effectively lead others (i.e. knowing what resources and supports to employ, policies and procedures).
  • My internal drive to be a leader is more than 2x that of my external drive (i.e. extrinsic factors).
  • I DO NOT CONSTRAIN MY EMOTIONS WELL ESPECIALLY DURING DIFFICULT SITUATIONS.

Emotions from Inside Out movie

You better believe that when I turned to the emotional regulation section and saw my abysmal score, I immediately became defensive and hotheaded.

Oh, right, that should have been the moment when the lightbulb above my head turned on; alas, it did not quite yet.

I’m pretty confident that at this point in our large group, I questioned the validity of this section and threw out a query around gender dynamics at play in perceived leadership models. Not to say that my question wasn’t probing into a real implicit bias rooted in the data…but…I think I was letting my emotions run wild and dominate the discourse.

For those of you who know me well, you may be shocked that I was this unaware of my lack of emotional constraint. Personally, I thought that I had made great strides in tempering my emotions over the years, particularly my anger. But, I was not connecting the dots that emotional regulation is more than shifting moods and using a calmer tone during times of strife. Emotional regulation for a leader also demands that the leader be aware of how their emotions are impacting the room through verbal AND nonverbal cues.

If I’m upset, it is written all over my face; if I’m disappointed, you will feel the weight of that disappointed through my sigh. When I’m frustrated, the static in the room puts all of your arm hairs on notice. I’m a fiery mess of emotional distress when the ship gets rocked.

On the flip side, when things are rocking and rolling, feelings of excitement, energy, and happiness swallow the space. Woo!

Still, as someone who wants to be ready and able to lead, I can’t let any of my emotions — the good ones or the bad ones — take center stage. That is not fair to the people around me, and it holds me back from being able to be the leader that I want to be.

How does one improve their emotional regulation? I’m glad you asked. One of the suggestions from the Center for Leadership and Strategic Thinking is to take time to reflect on what emotions are being surfaced to understand how you feel. Perhaps keeping a journal where you can notice what feelings are arising and name the feeling. What led you to that experience? How are you thinking about it and expressing it?

At the suggestion of my friend Sandy (who also happens to be the incredible editor of the Philanthropy Journal), I purchased a year-long subscription to the meditation app Calm. I had tried a couple of other meditation apps that were free but never fully invested my time into either. Calm has been a game-changer. The combination of the narrator’s soothing voice, the well-paced meditations, and the multiple areas of focus have already had a positive impact on my ability to regulate my emotions (not to mention be more mindful overall). I’ve developed a stronger awareness of what triggers certain emotions; I can acknowledge those emotions and be aware of them without giving them the platform to take over.

As with anything, shifting my behavior remains a process, one that I’m certainly committed to as I can see the benefits of becoming more in tune with my emotions and how they play out in life and with others.

Are you a leader who struggles with emotional regulation? Do you tend to over-emote, like me? Or are you more of a constrainer, a person who tends to mask their inner feelings and outward displays of emotion during stressful situations? Or, are you the Goldilocks of emotional regulation and do it just right

Woman sitting in kayak holding oar facing away from camera

Finding leadership metaphors in kayaking

I’ve started the last two Sundays like this:

Woman sitting in kayak holding oar facing away from camera

Ready to take on Falls Lake.

The changing weather means dusting off the kayak and spending mornings on the water. Aaron and I have been frequenting Falls Lake due to both its proximity to our home and the seemingly endless opportunities to explore the 12,000+ acre reservoir.

I still consider myself a beginner in the ‘yak (and perhaps calling myself out even more by referring to it as a ‘yak). Adding more upper body strength workouts to my routine has made a difference. But when boats motor by, sending cresting waves towards my 7’ vessel, staying the course requires more than brute force. It’s about keeping my mind focused, remembering to breathe, and taking it one stroke at a time [leadership advice 101, am I right?]

Without falling into too deep in what could be a cheesy metaphor, I reflected about my own leadership style while kayaking these past two outings. My need to control the outcome of my trip results in me paddling without taking many breaks. But, when I do stop and sit, even for a few moments, I allow nature to guide what happens next. If I’m lucky, it’s a sighting of an osprey diving for a fish or a heron squawking across the lake, letting us know that we’ve disrupted its morning routine (sorry heron!) I try to ask myself in the real world: how can I let go of what’s not in my control today? Believe me: easier said than done.

Wind brings another element of surprise and struggle on the open water. On our first Sunday out, we faced choppy waves as we headed back towards the beach. It was exhilarating: the kayak bowed and dipped, spraying water into the air and all over me. I feel this way when new ideas bubble up from within me or from working in collaboration with others; those times when we’re in sync and progress is being made and the momentum is on our side until..

until is it not. Turning the final corner, my forward motion came to a screeching halt. Fatigued, I tried to find my rhythm with the oar once again, but the natural elements didn’t let up. Was I even moving forward? Or did someone spread molasses on the bottom of my kayak?

Do you know that feeling too? Even when pointed in the right direction, it can feel insurmountable to get to the end point, or at least to the next stop. For me, this feeling can stem from the tasks required of me. There are some tasks that come easy to me, and some that I put off…and put off…and put off…(did someone say data analytics? Because I’m pretty sure my calendar says lunch and then nap).

However, these laborious items often need to be completed for the purposes of evaluation, accountability, or preparation in order to hand the project off to someone else. (Note: if there’s no reason or context for a task existing outside of saying you’ve done said task, I’d stick a let it go sticker on it and find something more useful to do with your time.)

I needed to get off of Falls Lake at some point. Aaron would probably want to head home. I was getting hungry (and didn’t want to slip into hangry mode). So, I had to grit my teeth and press on. Sometimes that’s what leadership looks like: gritting one’s teeth (or biting one’s tongue) and looking ahead to what you can do to improve the situation or to find a different solution.

One of the greatest gifts I’ve received serving as Chair of the YNPN Triangle NC board of directors these past three years is this lesson. I can’t – and won’t – ever make everyone else on the board happy. I’ll be too soft; too mean; too unapproachable; too hands on. I told a former board member today that I fail frequently as a leader; when I do step on toes or make a mistake, I apologize and try to learn from the experience.

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What brings me fulfillment: lip sync battles with some of my fellow YNPN Triangle NC board members.

Even after one year as a kayak owner, I’m still a bit clumsy in the boat. Sometimes my oar handle hits the side. I’m not sure if I always have the best form. But I do what I can, each time, to improve while also allowing myself to enjoy the experience.

As a leader, if you’re not enjoying the experience, what are you there for? Despite the obstacles or challenges I’ve faced with YNPN and in other leadership opportunities over the years, I still find joy and fulfillment. Most of the time, it’s from the people I’m surrounded by, the dedicated volunteers or co-workers who show up, work hard, and fight for necessary change.

That feeling is the same on the water. Aaron’s enthusiasm and sense of adventure are what makes our Sundays on the water so special. Yes, I’m still smitten to see a bald eagle perched in an overlooking tree. But, I’m even more smitten in watching the sheer happiness consume my kayaking partner, one moment at time.

American bald eagle sitting in a tree

These birds, I tell you what. Photo credit: Aaron J. Todd

Getting expectations out into the open

“What are your expectations for me?”

A fellow board member posed this question to me as we sat at the bar inside the new Harris Teeter [note: it’s not critical you know where this conversation occurred but I feel it would be a missed opportunity to not highlight THAT OUR GROCERY STORE HAS A BAR].

I appreciated this fellow leader’s straight-forward approach to a topic that we don’t spend enough time on within the nonprofit sector. In my opinion, we often confuse “expectations” with “deadlines” as if task completion was our key responsibility. Yes, we should get the projects done and programs executed that move our organizations closer to achieving our missions (and ideally best serving our constituents and the greater public good). But, establishing clear expectations between supervisors and employees; between colleagues; and even within ourselves requires honesty, transparency, and prioritization.

I have been accused of having “too high” of expectations for people I’ve worked with over the years (including unrealistic ones for myself). That’s true. My mother shares this similar challenge, and it can lead us both to feel disappointment and hurt. I don’t think the immediate answer is: “well, it’s time to temper those expectations!” A better initial step is to start having conversations with others around these expectations. Perhaps they are unfair or too lofty; but maybe they’re just right and the person on the other side simply needs to hear them.

In general, I have three consistent expectations for people. These expectations aren’t exclusive to those I work or volunteer with; they extend to my friends and family as well. In no particular order:

Be honest. I recognize the time to be sensitive with information, where answers may be dusted in sugar before delivery. But, don’t lie. Ever. It’s pure poison to a relationship and erodes the foundation of trust immediately. We’re imperfect beings, and we need to extend to each other the grace that mistakes happen, things get forgotten, and sometimes you just don’t FEEL like it. Far be it for me to judge what is happening inside your head space and heart. All I’m asking is not to be strung along with responses that “sound good” but are pure fluff.

Comedian Kevin Hart holding microphone with his right hand extended out as it to make a "stop" motion. Text: "Let's Just Be Honest Let's Just be Real."

Ask for help when you need it. Y’all: martyrdom was so 500 years ago. Let’s drop the charade that we can “do it all” and lean on each other when necessary. Full disclosure: I struggle with this expectation. Asking for assistance feels like an imposition, and I certainly don’t want to add more to someone else’s likely overfilling plate. But, here’s the thing: I’m making a whole slew of assumptions. And, I’m likely, as you are too, willing to be the helper when summoned. Break free from those self-imposed handcuffs and adopt a new four-letter word: help. This ties back to being honest: if you can’t do something, for whatever reason, using it as a moment to reach out to a trusted companion allows for something beautiful to happen. Is there something you need help with right now? Call me!**

Help

Do what you said you are going to do. Have you read Don Miguel Ruiz’s “The Four Agreements’? If not, I highly recommend picking up a copy at your nearest independent bookstore. One of the cornerstone agreements from Toltec culture is: Be impeccable with your word. What does this mean? Speak with integrity. Say only what you mean. While this belief extends far beyond accomplishing specific goals or fulfilling responsibilities, it touches on how important it is for us to come through. Whether it is using our words or actions, people depend on us when we give them reason. If we need to let each other down, refer back to expectations one or two.

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In certain spaces, the number and types of expectations may be more specific and may shift to adapt to the situations. But, for me, these three are the glue that binds our ability to connect and remain connected to each other. Be honest; ask for help; fulfill your commitments. Sprinkle it having fun, showing compassion and understanding; and remembering that we’re all in this together. This world is tough; it’s unjust and inequitable. But, it is full of people who want the world to look different: to be equitable and just; to be a place where we aren’t fighting for basic human rights because they’re woven into social and institutional fabrics.

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What do you expect from others? From yourself? Do you have expectations or do you let others create the expectations for you?

**unless it’s related to anything electrical or plumbing. You may want to call a professional. It’s not my wheelhouse. But, I’m happy to hang out until an expert arrives!