Tag Archive | Leadership

Prayer Flags and the Four Winds: What Is God Telling Us?

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My friend Pat just sent me a set of her prayer flags. Bright symbols of faith and aspiration are tossed by the four winds in my garden. Each morning the bright colors, symbols and messages catch my attention. They are beautiful and it is easy to not notice the wind itself.

At the foundation where I work, I often go next door to Sr. Mary Margaret’s office to debrief after a meeting or a phone call. She possesses a tart realism leavened with affection and wisdom; she is an excellent colleague and mentor. Her German practicality is the ideal counterpoint to my Irish intuition.

There are times when I’ll tell her about a particularly frustrating meeting. Or I may have encountered what appears to be an unjust situation that hurts those who are powerless. Perhaps it is a project that is going awry, a set of policies that actually mitigate against accomplishing the goal.

When I voice my aggravation and annoyance, Mary Margaret’s response is not to commiserate, but to say, “What is God telling you?”

My first thought is usually, ‘I don’t really care what God is telling me. What I care about is how bad or wrong this is and how frustrated I am.’

But later I return to Mary Margaret’s question: What is God telling me using this situation?

And that question leads to others.

What is the underlying message that I am missing when I focus on situation itself rather than on what we are working toward?

How can I stay attuned to what actually needs to be accomplished rather than get mired in negativity?

What is the other perspective that is present and what is the good to be found in that perspective?

Where can we turn to move past the obstacle and build consensus around a solution?

How do I emphasize the inherent value of human relationships rather than get bogged down in being political?

I take time to feel the wind. Because while it is important to see the prayer flags, it is the wind that makes them flutter and dance.

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What’s Important Is How We Do It

Surprise Lilies in the Parkway

While I was walking this morning, I was reflecting on a quotation from the woman who founded the School Sisters of Notre Dame.

With God, what we do is less important than how we do it.
Blessed Theresa of Jesus Gerhardinger, SSND

She said those words a century ago, but they speak to my heart today.

At the Incarnate Word Foundation I see many agencies working to serve those in need. Those of us in the funding world pressure them to show measurable outcomes. We want to know that they are effective in delivering services, that they measure their progress toward goals in quantifiable ways, that they are efficient in their use of resources. In response, agency leaders develop elaborate logic models and hire consultants to create service delivery systems.

And while good stewardship is necessary and important, the danger in that is an over-emphasis on what is being done rather than how it is being done.

Are we grounding what we do in compassion, love and respect?

Are we taking time to listen with our heart?

Are we walking with them on their journey?

Do we sit and hold a woman’s hand?

Do we see the spark of the Divine in each person?

So often we focus on getting things done, on accomplishments and outcomes. While we may reach every benchmark, we can lose the love and humanity that should be present whenever we are with others.

Because with God, what we do is less important than how we do it.

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Quiet Leadership

photo by Taline Manassian

photo by Taline Manassian

We had a day of silence while at Aldermarsh for the PeerSpirit writing workshop. I didn’t know how that would work for me. Life is loud. We are always talking, sometimes all at once, pushing our points of view. But this is a space where cell phones don’t work.

Rather than stare at the wall or cheat by getting on the internet, I took a walk.

In my work at the Incarnate Word Foundation, we are called to the table many times. Board meetings, committee discussions, agency collaboratives and community workgroups–all of these require leadership, and there as many leadership styles as there are leaders. But should leadership be equated with whomever has the loudest voice, or who convened the meeting, or who has the most community standing?

Sometimes the most effective leadership style is quiet.

Sr. Mary was the foundation’s Board chair for nine years. During that time she practiced what I have come to think of as quiet leadership. The fundamentals are simple:

Listen to the ideas of others before you speak.

Don’t become consumed with anxiety about getting your idea out on the table.

Focus on making the outcome one that incorporates the best thinking of the group rather than furthering a personal agenda.

Stay calm and respect the integrity of each person involved in the discussion.

Speak quietly.

When I began walking the woods at Aldermarsh, I started in aimless silence only to become aware of murmuring sounds at every turn, leading me down the path and through the labyrinth.

Photo by Taline Manassian

Photo by Taline Manassian

Robins Know Their Own Minds

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When I was in Ireland I stopped at a country fair where local craftsmen were selling their wares. I brought home a nesting box for robins simply constructed of pine with a slate roof. It is charming. In the three years I have had it up in the eaves no robin has nested. Obviously my assumption about what robins think is wrong.

Recently, I spent several days with a colleague, Jane. Her boss had stopped her with some questions about a project as she was leaving for a three-day conference but she was in a hurry and as they finished their conversation she made a flip remark.

She doesn’t know her boss very well. Her boss is relatively new and she finds her hard to read. Their last conversation weighed on her mind and Jane was convinced her boss had found her remark offensive or rude. I suggested that she e-mail as a follow up on the project and in passing mention that she hoped her comment hadn’t been taken the wrong way.

Even after Jane did that, however, she was still worried and continued down the path of assuming she knew what her boss was thinking. Then she received a message that her boss wanted her to call, a message that engendered more speculation about what her boss was thinking and why did she want to talk to her.

As it turned out, she just wanted to confirm a few details about the project that they had discussed. And perhaps the motivation for the call was an effort on her part to put things back on an even footing, or even to reassure Jane that no offense was taken.

We can’t assume we know the mind of another.

When I went to the studio the other day, I walked past an old gaslight by the steps and was startled to see a robin sitting on its nest inside. Evidently, robins know their own minds.

Relationships: Begin as You Mean to Go on

Blue/Purple Vase, Carondelet Pottery

Blue/Purple Vase, Carondelet Pottery

When I am throwing at the wheel, typically I begin as I mean to go on. As I center the clay, I am intentional. For a vase, I keep my left hand firm against the side to maintain a centered clay column; I push down with my right fist and strong arm the clay into a flat disc to create what will become a plate. I begin as I mean to go on.

Recently, a friend was worried about how she would work with a new colleague. She liked this person but, as an introvert, she was worried about being overshadowed. Would she be second fiddle, not because he put her in that place but because she placed herself there?

I told her quite simply,

Begin as you mean to go on.

At meetings, continue to share your perspective and not hold back because your new colleague is the extrovert. Continue doing your part of the work, and don’t carry his water.

It may appear to you that he doesn’t have all of his ducks in a row for a meeting, but don’t begin by assuming he is unprepared and then put yourself in a support role to provide what you think he needs to make his presentation a success. He is a professional and his way of preparing might be quite different, but still successful. And if turns out you were right and he wasn’t as prepared as he should have been, he will learn to do a better job the next time.

You need to establish an equitable relationship from the start and not place yourself in a subordinate role. You are, in fact, colleagues. If you represent yourself as support staff, that is how he will treat you.


When I throw that vase, I establish the parameters from the outset. Because if it starts as a plate, it is almost impossible to force the clay back into a cylinder and pull it up into a vase. The clay particles have been pushed in a different direction. Even if you do force it back, the results are usually not happy.

Begin as you mean to go on.

Doing Our Part

Magnolia tree in the garden

Magnolia tree in the garden

The magnolia tree is blooming in the garden this week. I try to spend time every morning and evening taking in the heady beauty of creamy brushed-cotton dinnerplate blooms bound to bare branches against the early April sky. One strong spring storm and it will be over, the ground splattered with petals bruised and brown.

And while there might be one or two errant blooms over the summer months, that’s it. What’s the point of a magnolia tree? Two weeks of beauty at most, some years not at all if there is a late frost. The rose of sharon flowers for a much longer period. Lilacs at least have the added value of strong perfume. Magnolias definitely have limits.

Often that’s the case when we take on a project, work in a community, or build personal or professional relationships. No matter how well things go or how hard we try, there are limitations that can lead to disappointment or even a sense of futility. At those times, we need to refocus and consider what we have accomplished or how the relationships do sustain and fulfill us. It is so much easier to see limitations rather than all the good that has occurred.

They are predicting rain for the next few days. But until the storm sets in the magnolia will keep blooming. They continue to do their part, in spite of limitations, and so will I.

Being Intentional: A Path to Equity

Vase, Carondelet Pottery

Vase, Carondelet Pottery

At my pottery studio I mix my own glazes in a century-old cool gray stone cellar with half-windows that provide dappled natural light. Silica is usually the dominant ingredient, followed by ball clay and kaolin. They are heavy flour. Neph sy is lighter and a bright white while strontium carbonate that makes me think of NASA and the space program for some weird reason.But no glaze is complete without the colorants–the green patina of copper carbonate, the dirty mustard of rutile, and the deep red of Spanish iron oxide. My favorite is finely milled cobalt, its delicate lavender a paradox given that the smallest bit can color glazes the deepest midnight blue. There is nothing random about mixing a glaze. It is intentional. Each ingredient is essential and no measurement is left to chance. And that is the same when you are leading a work group; the involvement of each person is essential to the best end result. Everyone has a critical role to play.

How we interact with others is fundamental to the issue of equity. Have you ever attended a meeting where the only people speaking are the white participants? Or the older participants? Or the male participants? Are the contributions of those in the minority dismissed? Is a suggestion made by those in the minority ignored, only to be accepted when it is given later by someone from the majority? This calls us to be intentional. When we are working in a group, it can be as simple as being deliberate in how the meeting flows.

  • Recognize the ideas of each person and acknowledge those.
  • Take an intentional approach and use processes at meetings to ensure everyone’s voice is heard by going around the table, or start the meeting by asking someone who is typically overlooked or not in the majority to lead off with their comments or thoughts.
  • Invite those who are heard the least  to speak first.

Be purposeful in everything you do–who you invite to the table. It’s not enough to have stereotypical diversity–go deeper–mix old powerbrokers with new voices, large established groups and new innovative grassroots organizations, senior staff and the new intern.

Take a moment to be intentional to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to be heard and that there contributions are recognized and respected.   Sometimes small things make  big difference.

A pinch of cobalt added to a copper carb glaze changes a green into turquoise.