Tag Archive | Leadership

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

image

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.

image

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.

image

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

image

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.

Women’s Leadership: Integrating the spiritual and professional dimensions of our lives

Sr. Mary Pezold, Bridget Flood, Sr. Annette Pezold, Nancy Hawes, and Sr, Helen Ann Collier

Sr. Mary Pezold, Bridget Flood, Sr. Annette Pezold, Nancy Hawes, and Sr, Helen Ann Collier

I was privileged to speak at the Women’s Leadership Lunch sponsored by the School Sisters of Notre Dame, Central Pacific Province. Here is what I shared with them.

Women’s Leadership: Integrating the spiritual and professional dimensions of our lives

Good afternoon and thank you all for coming. I always love coming back to Notre Dame where almost all of the women in my family went to school. The foundation has had many meetings here at Maria Center, and I keep thinking that any minute my daughter Carolyn will pop into the back of the room wearing a uniform skirt that had definitely seen better days with her shirttail out, picking up trays of food to take to the art room. But she lives in Nashville now.

I want to thank the School Sisters of Notre Dame for inviting me to be a part of this today—looking out I see so many leaders from our community. I think about the women leaders who have blazed the path for all us of like my mentor, the late Sr. Mary Ann Eckhoff, SSND and current leaders in our community like the women from Let’s Start, and the future leaders like my daughter, Amelia. It is just wonderful to be back here at Notre Dame where my leadership journey began.

So much of what I have learned about leadership I learned from women religious. My mentor, the late Sr. Mary Ann Eckhoff spent many years teaching here before she became the first woman and sister to be the superintendent of the Catholic schools for Archdiocese. I remember my first encounter with Sr. Mary Ann. I had left a really terrible work environment to go to the Today and Tomorrow Foundation at the diocese and on my first day I wrote a letter for sister to sign. After she read it she told me I had a done a great job, and I immediately starting backpedalling saying –no it could have been better, and she cut me off and said, Bridget just say thank you

How many times as women do we cut ourselves down and put ourselves back rather than accept recognition in the workplace and move forward?

That day was the beginning of a mentoring relationship that I will always carry with me. I learned so much from working with Sister. As a leader she had a way of pulling the best out of the people around her. There are two things she always said that come to mind—People live up or down to your expectations. I think that is so true. As a leader, if you expect people to do a poor job, that will be communicated to them in so many subtle and not so subtle ways. It will get in the way of getting things done and it makes people miserable in the process. She also believed that everyone has some type of talent—some people have one talent, others many, and that your job as a leader is to identify the talents of each individual and help them use their talents to the fullest.

I guess you could say it was leadership by affirmation.

That isn’t to say that Sister couldn’t be tough and make difficult decisions. When it came to doing what was right to carry out the mission and reach a goal she could be one of the most fiercely determined people I have known. One trait she and I both share is persistence. But she didn’t shy away from the tough decisions. I remember going to her agonizing about how a decision was going to make some people very unhappy. Her take on it was, “Bridget when you make a decision that some people don’t like you need to keep in mind that there are other people who are going to be happy with that decision. Don’t focus on the negative. Focus on the benefits and go from there.”

I’ve also learned a great deal from the Incarnate Word sisters who sponsor the Foundation. Over the past few years I have been interviewing our sisters to capture their wisdom (and actually I need to take a minute to thank my wonderful friend, Pat Thibodeau who transcribes these interviews in exchange for me knitting her socks).

It seems like everything I’ve learned from our sisters stems from their Incarnational Spirituality, a belief that God is present in all people and in the relationships we have. And what it has taught me is that effective leadership is grounded in relationship.
Sr. Mary Pezold, CCVI was the Foundation’s Board chair for nine years and in that time I learned so much from her about leadership. One of the main things is to value relationships. And that sometimes relationships are more important than being right. By that I mean that when you are working with people with a variety of views, there are times when leadership means taking a back seat and telling yourself that even if the group doesn’t do things your way, that’s okay. That’s hard for me since I’d like to think that I have perfect wisdom but the sad reality, is that I don’t. And there are times when what looks like “giving in” is in reality choosing a path that is going to advance everyone to the ultimate goal—a goal that can’t be achieved if you trample on relationships to get there.

Her leadership style is centered in respecting the contribution that each person makes to carrying out the mission. She also embodies gratitude. Taking the time to thank people and recognizing the contributions large and small that people make to achieve the goal is so important and often overlooked. To my mind taking the time to thank people, and to not take credit for their work but to acknowledge their contributions to the larger group is a key attribute of a successful leader. It may seem like an oxymoron in our world today, but the most effective leaders are humble and in that humility is great power. Because in being humble and putting others forward, their power is added to your’s and suddenly one plus one equals not two, but four or five.

Being a leader is also about adapting and continually growing. Sr. Annette Pezold, CCVI shared that with me when she talked about all the changes that she has seen in religious life and in the world. We can’t be stagnant. Leadership is about new experiences and being open to change, not being stuck in the past. One thing that drives me crazy is when people say, “We’ve always done it that way.” Well when you look at some of the issues facing our world today—where has that gotten us? Like our sisters, we need to continually be open to walking new paths and identifying new solutions to the problems we confront.

Being a leader is also about being contemplative. It is about taking the time to reflect and to step back. Sr. Helen Ann Collier, CCVI shared some insights with me about the importance of taking time even if it only for a few minutes to reflect on whom we are, and what we did, and how we did it. It is about asking where God was today, and what did I do in response? It is about forming a contemplative spirit because in that time of prayer we find the strength to bring God to birth in ourselves and in others. I know when I don’t have any time to step back I get stressed out and overwhelmed. That is when I head to my studio and put everything aside and work with the clay. After just 30 minutes there I feel renewed and just so much better. We can’t be leaders if we let ourselves get burnt out. And reflection time clears our minds to enable us to see new solutions or different ways to address nagging problems.

There are many days when I go next door to Sr. Mary Margaret Bright’s office to vent about a problem and her response is “What is God trying to tell you?” My first reaction to that is—“Who cares—this problem is driving me nuts!” But afterward, if I take the time to think about it and reflect, many times I see it differently and it is much more likely to work itself out.

Leadership also means being authentic—being true to who you are. And that is something I learned right here at Notre Dame. One of my teachers, Sr. Joanne Hanrahan, SSND is here and I can still remember how she emphasized that we needed to speak our minds in her world cultures class. That has stuck with me because one thing people I work with in the community say to me is that I tell it like I see it. There isn’t a lot of beating around the bush. And perhaps that’s because I have gone to so many meetings where women will come up to me afterwards and say, I am so glad you said that. Or I wish I had said that.” Well speak up. Because if you don’t you can’t count on someone else to speak up in your place. Your ideas have as much validity as the next person’s.

And finally, being a leader is being happy in what you do. If you don’t find joy in the mission you are trying to carry out then it is going to be very challenging to involve others in working toward the goal. One of our wisest sisters, Sr. Neomi Hayes, CCVI told me once that her work in life is to bring joy to the world. And I’d like to end with a quote she shared with me from Kathleen Norris.

“Imagine yourself at a party. Introduced to a stranger you ask, “What do you do? And comes the reply: “My work is loving the world. . . My work is mostly standing still, and learning to be astonished.”. . . This work is available to us all. It is the work of someone who takes the time to listen, to smell, to taste and see. We live in a time when anxiety and road rage are rampant while gratitude and wonder seem to be in short supply. All the more important, then, to take the time to imagine something better in yourself, in this exotic and beautiful world we call home.”

As women leaders, perhaps that is our special gift—to bring a new perspective grounded in joy.