What if you could really live by what's deepest in your heart?
But the how-tos are secondary because...
What matters is you.
Or more specifically...
What matters is what's deepest in your heart.
Which is why, if you're leading social change work or will be in the future...
I hope you'll put yourself first.
I understand this is a radical thing to do given how our sector pushes leaders to do the opposite...
You should put your work ahead of yourself.
You should always come last after you've taken care of everyone else.
You should keep on working no matter how much you're hurting.
Add these up and you get the sacrificial mandate which says...
You have to produce results no matter what price you pay personally.
Sacrifice is still the most common way of running a nonprofit. It's still the default.
I know there are people who argue sincerely in favor of sacrifice and even find something sacred in it. I used to be one of them because I thought it was the most effective way to work. But I don't think that anymore. I've seen how the damage of sacrifice outweighs even its best results.
What about mission, though? How does that fit in?
I believe in the discipline of mission. It's where organizational health comes from. Whenever I see a nonprofit swamped by personality battles, I take that as a sure sign that people have lost touch with the mission, that it's become a verbal decoration rather than the vigorous guide for daily decision making that we need it to be.
Deep accountability to the mission cures many, many ills. It's a blessing for any leader. You can't create a sustainable organization without it. And you can't go soaring without it.
So I say a big yes to mission discipline. But there's one more chapter to this story, the first one:
Where does mission come from?
It comes from our hearts. Hearts that call us to heal our communities and the world.
So now we're back to you because you are the source of mission. You choose it. You shape it. You deepen it. You articulate it. You fight for it.
That means you matter more than the mission, because without you there would be no mission. And you matter more than the work, because without you there would be no work.
The state of your organization is tremendously important, but the state of your heart is even more important.
And if you burn out, if you turn bitter, then we've lost what is most precious to us.
Trusting in yourself
If you feel yourself deeply called to social change and social justice, that means...
You have a need to make a difference.
You have a need to stop the suffering you see in the world.
You have need to change how power works so it doesn't go on hurting people or killing the planet.
And this need runs deep. It's not optional...
It's who you are.
You don't need anyone to hammer you with shoulds because your heart shows you the way.
I have no hesitation in saying I hope you'll put yourself first, because we're not talking about some superficial version of your ego.
We're talking about your deepest self. Which includes your need to make a difference.
Let's trust in this need. Let's have faith in our hearts. Because when we do, our work wins and it wins bigger.
A hundred shoulds don't have the same power as this one need. We can drive ourselves with shoulds, but we can't sustain ourselves with them, we can't love ourselves with them.
Taking a stand for yourself
Do you want to be a...
Or do you want to be...
A force to reckon with?
You get to choose. You really do.
Burnout is the default. So much so that it might seem like the only option. But...
Why should good people with good hearts get ground up by the dark side of nonprofits?
Especially since that doesn't have to happen. We know how to stop sacrifice. We know how to stop the damage it does. It's not a mystery, we know exactly how to do this...
It's just that it's a gutsy thing to do.
And it begins with taking a stand for yourself.
Saying yes to your personal power.
And of course most of us have very complicated feelings about that word "power." We've all been hurt by power used badly. We've all seen the damage done by power when it's used to exploit and dominate and destroy.
So it can be a challenge to claim power for ourselves. But it matters that we do. If we're up to big things—like changing the world—that means we have to go out there and take on the...
Powers that be.
And we can't do that with...
Powers that aren't.
Social change activists, by the work we do every day, give new meaning to power. We make it something healthy and nurturing as we make it our own.
So on this site when I talk about claiming your power, I mean...
Using your inner resources,
To take effective action,
In service of what you believe in, and
In service of what you love.
And there's another challenging word—love.
It's funny how much easier it is in our sector to talk about capacity building than about love. But isn't love right at the heart of it? So many of us got involved in social change because...
We cared about people enough to do the work it takes to change the world.
And if you want to do the work of love, the rule of thumb is this: You don't hurt yourself, you don't sacrifice yourself...
You love yourself.
Sacrifice weakens us, but love strengthens us. It takes us places where shoulds can't go. It deepens our working relationships. It keeps us true to ourselves.
And one way to stay true is to...
Make your own leadership path.
You've seen the how-to books that tell you the one way, the right way to lead. But...
You don't have to be a generic leader following someone else's shoulds,
Because that's a way to diminish yourself.
Instead, you get to turn your own talents and strengths into your own kind of leadership.
In this country we're more than a little obsessed with how-tos. We've got them for everything. And don't get me wrong, I love how-tos, I know tons of them, they're our collected wisdom, but...
How-tos don't run your organization—you do!
How-tos don't wake up in the middle of the night worrying about the budget. They don't go out and ask for money. They don't deal with a bully on your Board. You're the one who does those things.
So, again, you come first. Which is cool because you're a whole lot more interesting than any how-to.
I want to encourage you to make your leadership personal to who you are, because...
If how-tos become have-tos then you get lost in the process.
Please always remember...
That's so obvious, why even say it? Because so many how-to books give advice as though one size fits all. And that's just not true.
For example, both a shy person and an extrovert can be great fundraisers, but they're going to do it differently.
A visionary can be a great ED and so can an implementor. But they're going to follow very different game plans. And in being true to who they are, they're going to be way more powerful than if they each tried to be a copycat version of a standard-issue leader.
Whenever the topic of best practices comes up, I always want to ask, "Best for whom?"
What I recommend is this...
Study the full range of them,
Then turn them into a menu...
And pick the ones that work best for you.
And what if there isn't one that's right for you? Then you get to invent one. Which is a whole lot of fun and which, of course, is where best practices come from in the first place.
Having a rich store of how-tos is a blessing for any field of endeavor. But the how-tos are only ever there to play supporting roles. You are always the main character of your leadership.
Choosing your operating system
Many leaders have little time for professional development so they grab bits and pieces of advice from here and there.
But a random collection of how-tos is not enough. Not for any leader. Leading a team, an organization, or a movement is way too complex. So, yes, you want to get good at picking the how-tos that are just exactly right for you personally.
But then there's something even more important, and that is to...
Consciously choose your leadership operating system.
And of course I hope you pick...
A system that works for you instead of against you.
I talk about social change leadership in terms of three operating systems: sacrificial, sustainable, and soaring. My reason for putting up this site is to help leaders...
Get sustainable, and then
And right there you can see my bias. I believe that sacrifice works against you, and that both sustaining and soaring work for you. Two against one. I like these odds.
When you're up against a big challenge...
Sacrifice says: "Be a savior. Work harder. Work longer. Do it all yourself."
Sustaining and soaring say: "Be a leader. Be an organizer. Rally people. Empower people. Bring in more people to help. Create an organization deep with leadership."
But this OS stuff can be tricky...
If you go to a workshop on burnout prevention you might hear advice such as: "Treat yourself to a massage and a hot tub on Friday evening at the end of your hard week." This advice is fine in and of itself.
But if that massage and that hot tub only serve to refresh you enough that you get up Saturday morning and go back into the office and work through the weekend, then you're digging yourself in deeper. You're only making the sacrificial operating system last longer and hurt you more.
It matters that we really and truly break free of sacrifice, whether it's the bald, obvious version or the sneaky version.
And I think it's important that we as a sector get this OS thing right, because otherwise we're killing our future...
I was talking not long ago with Taschi, a bright, articulate, personable young woman just out of college. Her passion was environmental justice and she was in the process of figuring out her career.
So I asked her, "Have you ever thought about becoming the executive director of a nonprofit?"
She shot back, "Oh, no! I like myself too much."
If our default leadership style is scaring off talent like Taschi, then that's a hell of a way to run a sector.
Luckily there are emerging leaders who are determined to lead but who refuse to put themselves on the traditional burnout track. I can't think of better news for our sector than this.
There's a kind of romance of sacrifice that's been endemic in our nonprofit culture. I remember thinking, "Well, yes, I am sacrificing myself and, yes, I am hurting, but it's for a good cause. It's for the work." That gave me a rush. It made me feel noble.
But now I look back and I can tell you if I had taken care of myself, my work would have been 100 times better.
So in the end what was my sacrificing for? Nothing. When I finally understood this, it was such a very, very painful moment. But also liberating.
Here's how I see things now:
The better you do, the better your work will do.
I know this is so, and not just for me. I keep seeing it again and again with my coaching clients...
When they move out of sacrifice into sustainable leadership, suddenly they're 2, 3, 4 or more times as effective.
When they move into soaring leadership, they become exponentially more effective. I know that's a big claim, but that's what I see.
Here's an interesting truth that has a touch of paradox to it:
Sustaining and soaring are more challenging, but
Sacrifice is harder.
Does that make sense? Let me say a little more. Sacrifice is a dead end street. The harder you work at it, the more hopeless it becomes.
Sustaining and soaring ask a lot of us, ohmigod do they ever, but then...
They give back way more than what they ask.
No longer at odds with yourself.
Your need to make a difference out in the world,
Comes into conflict with...
Your need to make a personal life for yourself?
This is the problem of life-work balance. I think it's the central dilemma of social change work. And it's in resolving this seeming opposition that we become whole as leaders.
Here's the conflict...
1. I need to make this suffering stop—whatever it takes.
We see people hurting and feel compelled to do something about it. I remember when my friend Kate and I started our nonprofit to take child abuse prevention programs into the schools, our decision came from one core impulse: "Abuse has to stop. It just has to."
We put together long eloquent paragraphs about why we were doing what we were doing and why people should join us and make donations.
But when all was said and done, it really was this simple and this primal: "Abuse has to stop. Children have to be safe."
In short order our work became successful. Kids were actually saving their own lives from what they learned in our programs. They were getting away from kidnappers and molesters. Kids being abused at home were getting help for themselves and their families.
The more success we had the harder it became to say no to people. How could we possibly turn our backs on kids who needed our program just because we were maxxed out?
2. I need to sustain—whatever it takes.
There's this life force in us. It's also demanding. It's also primal. And it says, "I want you to take care of yourself. Just because. Just because you're a real person with real needs.
"I see how much this work means to you and I want you to be able to love it for years to come, not crash and burn.
"And I want you to be able to give of yourself deeply and well to your loved ones. I want you to have a home that's really a home."
We could ask, "How do we find the balance between these two different needs?" But let's not, because that's an oppositional question. It's zero sum.
Instead let's ask:
How do we turn these two primal forces into a partnership?
When your work and your life stop fighting each other and start feeding each other, both do so much better.
When your life insists, "Don't sacrifice me," this inspires you to get radical and upgrade your operating system at work.
Then when your work takes you soaring, you can bring that happy energy home.
What's possible for you?
It matters that we know what game we're in, that we understand the odds we're up against, because...
Social change leadership is supremely challenging. Supremely.
It's not ten easy steps. Not even close. It never has been and never will be because...
We're trying to make the most major changes with such minor resources.
We push on the status quo to move things forward and the status quo pushes back, and sometimes it pushes back hard.
Quite a few of our issues are very long term. They won't be resolved in our lifetime. It takes something special to be able to work in a time frame like that.
Different organizations focus their work on different specific issues, but it seems to me there is a common, underlying theme that we all share:
Social change means changing in fundamental ways how power works in our society.
You could call this our meta-mission. And whether we're face to face with this theme every day or whether it's in the background, what it seems to me we're doing at core is this...
We're going into the worst of being human to bring out the best. We're going into toxic territory with our hearts open. We getting intimate with evil so we can stop it.
What could possibly be more challenging?
And yet how exhilarating this work is. It calls us forth like nothing else. It's in putting our hands on the world and trying to change it that...
It's when we meet this depth of challenge with our own personal depth that we ignite our best leadership, because it's in the deep places that we find both our power and our magic.
And this is what makes social change leadership...
And this is what makes it fun. That word might seem out of place in this context, but I'm not talking about light-hearted fun, though I hope you have plenty of that in your leadership and your life.
I'm talking about what I call serious fun.
Making a difference, one that matters to you, one that compels you—that's so very serious and so very fun. It's...
Passion, resilience, aliveness, mastery, joy—all fun things—I'll set those against the exhaustion of sacrifice or the boredom of generic leadership any day.
My page About Coaching is mostly stories of people making big, invigorating changes from asking this little, unassuming question...
So let me ask you now...
If you had all your inner resources working for you, and
If you had the right operating system working for you,
What could you make happen in the world?
What would that mean to you?
Now we've come to the end of this page, and I want to finish by saying...
Please don't hide your light under a bushel...
The work you do runs deep. It comes from your core. It's an expression of your love. I want you to be seen for that—simply because it's true.
If you aren't seen for who you are,
you can't attract kindred spirits,
and if you can't attract kindred spirits,
you can't lead.
If you believe in meeting the basic human needs of everyone on this earth, if you're working to stop suffering, if you want compassion to triumph, then...
I want you to be as powerful as you can be—personally, professionally, and politically.
If you're someone who takes the world to heart, that's such a risky thing, such a courageous thing, such a precious thing.
My wish is that you take yourself to heart, too.
© 2008 Rich Snowdon