SOARING beyond best practices
The soaring operating system gives you...
And, just as important, it gives you...
An extraordinary experience of yourself.
As I said on my home page...
Soaring asks a lot of you, an awful lot, but then it gives you back way more than it asks.
And the happy results are quite real. In this moment, though, I want to emphasize the first part of that sentence. I want to give you a warning about soaring.
I really mean it when I say it asks a lot of you. You don't get it for free. It takes diligent self-development and daily practice. It takes mastery, the kind that's a long-term journey not a quick leap.
Forget ten easy steps, this is a different world.
It's as complex as you are, and then some. Soaring takes a profound commitment to yourself. It means pushing through resistance. Which might seem strange that we would resist something so good, but many of us do.
It means learning to see your strengths and talents accurately and then putting them to work. Which for some nonprofit leaders can be more challenging than dealing with blindspots and limitations.
When it comes to the soaring operating system there are no shoulds. It matters that you make your own authentic choice about whether you want to pursue it or not. because...
Soaring is not for everyone.
You might decide to stick with the sustainable operating system, which makes for a good life, a very good life. There are plenty of people who do not feel called to go beyond it, who are perfectly happy to get there and then settle in.
But if you want more, then soaring is what's next. And though soaring asks a lot of you, with time the rewards do come...
First, a special kind of effectiveness.
And second, a special kind of love.
Let's start with effectiveness. This soaring thing is not airhead stuff. It's practical, as practical as dollars and cents. For example, the three operating systems generate three very different ways of relating to your funders.
In sacrificial mode, you beg for money.
In sustainable mode, you and your funders are colleagues. You speak with them as equals. You're thought partners for each other.
In soaring mode, you lead your funders.
What does that mean? Maybe something like this...
From time to time we hold a seminar for our funders to tell them what we've been learning and what possibilities we see for the future. We usually have 7-8 funders show up and we do a very vigorous kind of strategic thinking together based on our presentation.
And why wouldn't they want to show up for this? Funders want their money to make the biggest difference possible. They want to be at the cutting edge. And if we're cutting edge leaders, which we definitely are, then of course they want to stay close to us and go deep with us.
Or maybe it means something like this...
In one month last year, three different funders I had never contacted called me and said, "I've heard about your work and want to see about getting involved."
Or something like this...
We have a funder who calls us and gives us the right of first refusal. If they want a project done, they ask us if we want to do it, and if we do and if we have the bandwith, then we rework the idea with them and nail down the design and sign the grant, with no RFP going out on their part and no giant grant application to complete on our part.
And why do they do this with us? They tell us it's because we always come through for them. So our challenge is to make sure that if we say yes, we really can give them our best work, no exceptions. We want to wow them every time so we can keep this arrangement going.
An ED in the organization downstairs from us told me she was jealous. "What's your secret?" she asked. Well, there's no quick and easy secret. What got us here was years of disciplined effort developing our work—and ourselves. We get our funder's trust because we've earned it.
Now let's switch to another issue. One of the most debilitating things about our default nonprofit culture is how...
We take people with great leadership talent and bury them in administrative work.
What a perfect strategy if you want to slow or stop social change. And it counts as part of the sacrificial operating system because as a sector we are sacrificing leadership. And our leaders.
The soaring operating system sets us on a very different course...
While grinding through grant applications, I kept wishing I could be meeting with top decision makers to influence national policy. While preparing Board packets, I kept thinking I should be on the phone to high-end donors, bringing them into our community.
Then one day just before lunch, I was struggling with an especially stupid 20-page quarterly report and I started growling, out loud, and really loud. Staff gathered around my office door, then ventured in to see what was going on. I stood up and tore the report instructions into shreds and threw them in the air showering everyone. Staff were wide-eyed.
I told them, "You've just witnessed me doing my new kind of strategic planning. And here's my decision. By next July I'm going to be doing 100% leadership for our field on the national scene and zero percent administrative duties."
Talk about a radical commitment, but it felt just right. And here's how great my staff are, they started volunteering to take on admin duties to lighten my load. But I told them no I didn't want them heading backwards into burnout mode.
Instead I ran a relentless campaign with my funders to get their support for a high-level deputy director. And because I was so on fire with my plan they ended up getting behind me. No, that's not right. Passion helped, but it was hardly just that. It was really because of the years I put in developing the skills and charisma that would mean I really could succeed at national leadership.I was able to show that to my funders and that's what convinced them to help launch me.
So by June 20th we had our new deputy hired and started. It was a squeaker, but I beat my deadline. And in the past year, I can tell you, it's like you predicted, the difference in my effectiveness is exponential. My funders are happy, my staff is happy, and I'm thrilled. I wouldn't give this up for anything.
Notice the underlying spirit of rebellion or protest that can show up in the soaring OS. And how in soaring mode, you're taking a stand not only for yourself and your team, but for the larger purpose of meta-mission of social change and social justice as well.
Along with the challenges, soaring brings you treats, like how each element of progress reinforces every other element...
You attract top-performing staff who are eager to work with you and learn from you, which impresses your funders and donors and attracts effective Board members who want to be part of a premier organization.
And when you attract top-performing Board members that impresses funders and donors, and helps you attract the best staff who want to work in a place that is sizzling with success instead of drowning in dysfunction.
The synergy of soaring.
Like the rich get richer...
Soaring generates more soaring.
Instead of thinking of best practices as innert items on a checklist and we want to collect as many as we can and get the highest score, our perspective in the soaring operating system is that...
Best practices have chemistry with each other.
Lively and interactional.
They provoke each other. They nurture each other.Which means that the whole that is the operating system soars beyond the sum of the individual best practices. It's based on those practices, but then transcends them.
Now let's turn to that question of love which I mentioned at the beginning of this page. There are some people who really don't think love should be included in a discussion about leadership, because it's too mushy.
But I think love is the gutsiest thing there is. And it's central to how I view leadership. And if you've read even just a couple pages on this site, you'll see that love the underlying theme in everything I write. And I titled my site, "Nonprofit Hearts" which is a pretty big clue to my point of view.
So here's the deal. I believe soaring is the exact and extreme opposite of the sacrificial OS where you are working so very hard only to end up hurting yourself. Soaring is deeply nurturing. And I've heard leaders express in different ways this common experience of soaring...
I love being in it and when I'm in it, I love being me.
And there's more.
Irene is an ED who's absolutely in soaring mode, who over a couple of years did intensive staff development, which means she was intensely proactive about recruiting people and intense about screening them and then once she hired them, she was intense about supporting and mentoring them.
And she had high expectations. Everyone knew they'd better not coast, but no one wanted to because they were having so much fun playing at the top of their game.
What's the result of all this intensity? Not only do these women give Irene their very best work, not only do they love working for her, but...
They love her.
And I understand that not everyone wants this, but if you want it I want you to have it. And soaring is one path that will get you there.
What's ahead on this page? Next I'm going to do my best to give you a feel for the two most challenging essentials of soaring...
Then I want to give you the key...
But first there's something else to settle.
That word "soaring" is exactly right and it's misleading
What do I mean when I talk about "soaring'"? I mean what musicians or athletes are referring to when they talk about being...
"In the flow,"
"In the zone," or
"Playing out of my mind."
Time stops, the background recedes, your inner critic stills, and there is only this one thing in front of you, this sweet, compelling challenge, which, because you care so much about it, lets you in on its secret and yields itself to you.
Soaring is one of the very best things life has to give us. Even witnessing it can be thrilling...
You're watching a basketball star as he snakes his way through his opponents, twists front to back like a dolphin as he leaps and slams the ball through the net with his own signature finesse, and it looks so graceful you can't imagine it takes any effort at all.
Your favorite singer sits down at the piano and sinks so deep into her music that she's no longer performing. She's gone lost inside. You never want this moment to end.
From the outside flow looks easy. From the inside, while it's happening, that's also true, the experience is one of ease.
When a peak experience ignites, you're not struggling, you're not working at it, you feel light, free, uplifted, because...
You're playing, not struggling.
Getting there, though, is anything but easy. Soaring is not a walk in the park...
It takes the total engagement of your mind, body, spirit, heart—all of you.
It's usually described with superlatives like: at my best, at the top of my game. Or with adjectives that reach for the skies: unparalleled, unrivaled, ultimate.
But sometimes I think such characterizations are trying a bit too hard to say something that maybe can't be said, because, of the three operating systems, soaring is the one that's hardest to put into words.
So on this page, rather than trying to capture it and pin it down, I''m going to do my best to point to the liveliness and contrariness of soaring so you can see it's more about possibility than prescription.
Now, let's pivot and bring this discussion back down to earth.
Soaring may feel like magic, but...
It's not magic.
It takes commitment and discipline to get to soaring not mystical powers.
Some people think "soaring," like so many happy words, is too lightweight. And in a way it is. I've cudgeled my thesaurus trying to come up with something better. When I'm working with a Board that I think will groan or grimace if I use the word "soaring," I plug in a substitute.
I put sustaining and soaring together and call them the premier operating system, then call sacrifice the conventional operating system.
Still when I'm talking with myself, I use "soaring," even though I'm never quite satisfied with it. There are two reasons why I stick with it.
The first, the minor one, is that "soaring" is not only the best name I've found so far, but it starts with the letter "s," so it alliterates with source, spirit, sustaining, sacrifice, savior, and soul, all key terms for me. And that just seemed too good to pass up.
But the second reason is the one that matters. Whenever I'm standing right there with an ED who's in a peak moment and I look into her eyes, what I see is this...
In short, soaring.
So you can see there's something essential in this word that I don't want to lose.
But remember that none of the operating systems can be summed up with a single name. There's too much to each of them.
For example, "soaring" implies reaching the heights, yet for some people the opposite is true. In a peak moment they feel...
That's how it is for me these days. Less excitement, more serenity.
Sometimes I put the two dimensions together by saying...
Soaring is the highest incarnation of what's deepest in your heart.
And since this is the most personal of the operating systems, please take what I'm saying here and rework it however you need to in order to make it your own. Give it whatever name works for you. Maybe you'll use different names on different days when you're in different moods. Or maybe, because it is so personal, you'll name it after yourself, like: Jennifer's OS or Johnny's OS.To most people the key feature of the soaring operating system are the peak moments it brings you and the tricky thing about peak moments is...
You can't command them.
Will power won't produce them.
They come as a gift.
Does this mean we have to sit on our hands and feel helpless while we wait for them to show up? No, because...
Those moments come from a system, one that arises from days, weeks, months, and years of developing yourself.
Soaring is like intuition. Try to grasp it to control it and you kill it.
But you can...
Prepare the way for it.
Whisper sweet somethings in its ear.
Make yourself so ready for it that it wants to come to you.
Know that the odds are against you
First, there's the challenge of leading human beings.
If you're a pianist, it's hard enough to achieve peak performance, but at least the keys all show up for work every day. And your C key doesn't get jealous of the B-flat. And your F-sharp doesn't decide to instigate trouble all up and down the keyboard. And if the keys get out of tune, you bring in a tuner and within an hour harmony returns.
But human beings are different. Yes, we're wonderful in so many ways. There's nothing like us—when we're giving you our best. Or when we inspire each other and gel as a team and the whole becomes much more than the sum of the parts.
We're also moody and changeable and complicated and temperamental.
Sometimes we come with blind spots or unfinished childhood business or current life crises.
So there's nothing easy about managing us. Which means the odds that you'll get to go soaring as a leader are not good.
Now throw in the challenge of social change and the odds really go against you. Not only are you managing complex human beings in complex teams, but you're doing that in the most difficult human territory and in the face of determined opposition, because...
Social change means changing in fundamental ways how power works so it stops mass producing suffering and stops killing the planet.
It means we go into the worst of being human to bring out the best.Finally, there is the challenge of mastering yourself. Why does that matter? Because you are the instrument of your leadership. Everything about you, your confidence, humor, caring, energy, imagination, and relational abilities will make a difference in how effective you are as a leader.
And mastering ourselves isn't easy. We aren't born knowing who we are. It doesn't matter that we live with ourselves day and night year after year, it takes serious effort to understand ourselves.
And then it takes even more effort to develop ourselves into appealing, coherent, focused, masterful leaders.
Leadership is a very human enterprise. It's personal to you and the people you lead. And that personal dimension, as promised earlier, is what we're turning to now.
THE POWER OF PERSONAL PRESENCE
Think about the typical nonprofit leader with their infinite to-do list: Busy, busy, busy. Giving, giving, giving.
When you're in soaring mode, though, it's different. You're no longer...
Just the giver of gifts.
You are the gift.
Who you are matters even more than what you do. It's not that you'll stop doing things, but now...
Your presence makes a bigger difference than the tasks you carry out.
What's that like? Here are some snapshots of presence...
I can't even say why Chloe inspires me so much, but I know that when I'm around her, I make a special effort to be at my best. Like when she's listening to me, I reach deeper, I say more, I'm smarter.
Whenever Judith walks in she lights up the room. Suddenly conversations are filled with smiles and sunshine.
We had a crisis at the shelter so our team met to make a response plan. But we were jangled and distressed. We were stepping on each other's sentences, feelings got hurt, tempers were on the edge. Then Jillian came in and sat down, off to the side, just listening, but her presence was like the "Moonlight Sonata" playing in the background. Within three minutes we were calm, coherent, and doing first class problem solving.
When Craig chairs our meetings, it doesn't seem like he's doing anything special, he just goes through the agenda, but somehow we meld into his sense of focus so five times as much work gets done.
Jimmie is a former client who's now a case manager. Whenever the management team works on strategy, we ask him to join us. He knows nothing about strategic planning per se, but in his quiet way he keeps us on track. When we get too fancy or too far afield, he gathers us back in. He's got the mission so deep in his bones that when he's present there's no chance of drift. I think of him as the soul of our organization.
And, if you'd like, here are four longer stories about presence in action.
Fact is, it's humans who lead humans, so the more authentically and openly human you are, the better. Playing it safe, keeping your distance, leading by the book, or holding yourself in check, those things mean that the best part of you is not engaged and not available to the people around you.
Soaring leadership is rich with...
The sacrificial operating system says...
It's all about the work. It shouldn't ever be about you. You should be modest. If you're the leader you should be invisible.
But mission isn't an abstract quality out there floating around in the ether. Our missions live in our hearts. That's where they find their sustenance and their power.
Soaring leadership means...
Letting ourselves be seen for what's deepest in our hearts.
And when we let ourselves be seen like that...
We're taking a public stand. We're saying to everyone who witnesses us in action, "I believe in this mission, so much so that I'm putting my life here."
When we let our light shine, kindred spirits can find us and come join us. And through us our staff get to see the mission as a living force, instead of words on a stale piece of paper in a drawer.
It's true that ideas and causes and slogans inspire people, but people inspire people even more.
And now there's science to explain how this works.
First, there is the discovery of mirror neurons, which are specifically designed to help us get inside the world of other human beings and feel for them and with them. So it's a basis for empathy.
Second, there is limbic resonance, the capacity for sharing deep emotional states which is based in the limbic regions of the brain. It's a force that pulls people together in coherent groups and common effort.
I find it so interesting to think about the deeper biological foundations of leadership. If you're leading from presence and empathy, that means your limbic system is bringing calm and focus and energy to the people working with you. And it means their mirror neurons are copying your emotional state. All in service of constructive, loving social change. How cool is that?
Now let's look at presence in acton and how very personal it can be...
Rich: You said one of the things that changed for you when you crossed over into soaring mode was how you do your asks. Would you tell me about that? Where did you start from?
Holly: Back then I believed leaders were supposed to be invisible, like a ghostly presence instead of flesh and blood. So my asks were timid and apologetic. Like there's anti-matter, these were really like anti-asks.
Rich: And now?
Holly: I don't cheat on myself any more. I show up.
Rich: And what's that like in the actual moment of asking?
Holly: I'm kind of taken with myself.
Holly: I'm so intense. And reach so deep. And I'm still not quite used to it. Maybe I never will be. While I'm doing my ask, I'm also half watching myself, entranced, wondering what I'm going to say next.
Rich: And where did this come from?
Holly: Not where I expected. I took the standard workshops on donor cultivation but that didn't do it for me. It was my daughter.
Rich: I'd love to hear that story if you want to tell it.
Holly: I don't tell it to many people because it's precious to me.
Rich: I understand.
Holly: But I do want to tell you. You know how serious I am about mothering.
Rich: Yes, I do.
Holly: When I came back to work after maternity leave, I made a big shift. I had to pick up Susie from childcare by 6 p.m., no excuses. So I had to leave the office by 5:30 no matter what.
Rich: What happened?
Holly: I got ruthless about my decision making. Once upon a time, I could dawdle through my day and pick up pieces of other people's work and do things of secondary importance, because I knew I had all those evening hours to make up for what I didn't get done earlier.
When Susie came along, though, I couldn't do that anymore. And when I couldn't do it, I saw I didn't want to do it. And I pushed right over the edge into a new way of leading.
Rich: And back at home?
Holly: Here was this little baby who I love more fiercely than I've ever loved anyone or anything and there was a moment when I was up with her in the night, nursing her, half awake, half in a dream, and I watched the two of us together as she was feeding, and this wave of feeling washed over me. I wanted to feed her with the best possible mother's milk I could give her. Which is why I eat right and take very good care of myself.
And then I had this flash, I wanted to feed her, as she grows up, with the best possible me.
Rich: And how did that change your asking?
Holly: If I wanted Susie to be able to ask for what she needs and what she believes in with her whole heart, then time for me to do the same.
Holly: I wanted Lee to be my new Board Chair. She's led fundraising for different Boards in our city over the years. She treats people with such kindness and at the same time she's so serious about getting results. And there's a depth to her that I don't understand yet, but I love being around her.
Rich: You had your heart set on her...
Holly: I really, really wanted her. I wanted to make her my Chair and she wasn't even on my Board yet. She had told me that she was way too over committed and there was a 99% chance she'd tell me no, but she did agree to talk with me.
So I talked. Just said it straight out. Wasn't strategic. Held nothing back. I told her how I felt about her. What I thought we could do together. I was in my middle-of-the-night mood.
Rich: And she?
Holly: Said yes. She quit two other Boards and came over here and she's kicking butt, and I love every minute of working with her.
Rich: Do you what made her change her mind?
Holly: I wanted to know that and she said, "Never in my life have I been asked for anything like you asked for me."
Now you see why I say that soaring takes you beyond how-tos, beyond even best practices. I've never read in any fundraising book, "If you want to improve your asking have a baby." Or, "When you ask, pour your heart out, transparently, vulnerably."
One thing we know about personal presence is that it becomes more powerful the more you believe in yourself. Mastery helps people believe in themselves. But many of us are so driven by the sacrificial standard of hyper-modest invisibility that igniting a powerful personal presence in our leadership feels next to impossible.
Yes, there are some leaders who step into it with graceful ease. I love seeing that happen. But for most leaders it's not easy to cross over. I've worked with leaders who have wrestled and wrestled hard for months with the challenge of letting themselves believe in themselves and letting themselves be seen and appreciated for just how great they are. And I love taking this journey with them, because when they cross over it's a hell of an accomplishment.
And let me be clear, I'm not talking about trading invisibility for braggadocio or arrogance. Sometimes when a leader is worried about that, I tell her, "Then let's think of this as science. We're scientists, just looking at the facts. We're only going to say what's true about you. Nothing more, but also, which is the real danger, nothing less. We're going for accuracy here."
And if the truth is that you are an effective leader, if the truth is that you are an amazing leader, then so be it.
And seeing the truth, then being with it, is a way of loving yourself.
Your core story
When a leader is on the verge of soaring, but is still struggling with claiming presence, one thing we do is to look at her life and find her "power stories"...
Oh, yes, there was that time that the coalition was dissolving into rancor before my eyes and I stood up and gave an impassioned speech extemp. I don't even know where it came from, except it came from my heart. I was so scared that all our good work was going to be gone in a single afternoon because of these erupting bursts of anger, but in the middle of my fear, I felt more present than at any other meeting ever. So now I know this passion and this power is in me. And I want to import them into every aspect of my leadership.
When a leader is working on seeing her talents and strengths, when she's trying to understand the effect her presence has on other people, I like to ask her to tell me the stories of her best moments, times when she felt she was making a difference AND loved being there in that moment making that difference. Loved being her. Best moment stories are a lovely way to get to know a person, or to get to know yourself.
But among all your power stories, there is probably one that has had the deepest and most lasting influence on your life and your work. And this I call your "core story."
And knowing your core story can be a way to evoke and claim your presence.
And it may take some digging. Your core story might well be hidden away in childhood or early adulthood. Or it may be something that you remember quite well but you have not yet understood the meaning of it and how it has organized the key decisions you've made all through your life.
It might be a story of a specific day or a specific moment. Here's Mariya...
My dad was mentally ill. And it was serious. But he was also a sweetheart. I really, really loved him. And he fought so hard against his illness. Oh, it hurt a lot to see him get defeated again and again when he wanted so much to win and to be a stellar dad.
I remember the day. It was July 3rd and the month of my 14th birthday, when I came home from school and there was Dad in the family room, home early from work, sobbing. And I sat next to him and asked him, Dad, what's it like to be you? And he poured out his heart."
That's when I realized that to me he was the most wonderful dad I could have. And I realized that I was on his side. He was living against the odds and I was on his side. And I liked being that person. A lot.
In the years to come, when the kids in my high school said mean things about my dad, I defended him. But I wasn't on the defensive. I was proud to take my stand with him. It energized me.
And now what is it that I do? I work at a center for at risk kids. Kids with all kinds of challenges, mental illness, yes, but also addiction and abuse and poverty. But I'm not trying to save them. I see a couple of the staff trying to play savior with the kids, but that's not me.
What I told my closest friends that I do is that I champion kids. Kids who are fighting against the odds. I'm on their side. I'm their advocate. I love it. And it began with my dad. Though he's gone now, this work keeps me connected to him.
And I celebrate July 3rd as my "Anniversary of Championing."
On the other hand, your core story might be more a summary of a underlying theme...
I still don't quite understand my family. We were lots of good things, stable, functional, and basically happy. But we were none of us a match for each other. It's like we just didn't get each other. There wasn't any chemistry between us. Not positive and not negative. We rarely had fights. At dinner time I felt like I was at a boarding house with a random collection of transients trying to the make conversation flow. I care about my family, but I'm not deeply connected to them and that is my abiding sorrow.
So what do I do now? I'm an organizer. And I'm passionate about it and I love it. I'm bringing together kindred spirits from all over my county and whenever any group of us goes out to eat, it's raucous and loving and feels like family to me. What I missed growing up, I'm making happen now, for me and for whoever wants to be part of it.
I grew up in an extremely close family. Each of us played an instrument and we loved singing together. We did that pretty much every evening even if only for half an hour after all the homework was done. Sometimes on Saturdays we'd play at local arts festivals and such. In my teen years a lot of my friends were embarrassed by their parents or their families. Not me. I was proud of being seen with them. I loved having adventures with them.
So what do I do now? I'm an organizer. And I'm passionate about it and I love it. I want my community to have the kind of togetherness I found in my family from the beginning. It's my favorite thing.
Here are two guys doing much the same kind of work. But one does it motivated by...
A core story of absence.
While the other does it from...
A core story of presence.
And it's their core stories which make their work deeply personal and that depth generates the power of their presence as organizers.
What does vulnerable mean? Check with the dictionary or listen to common usage and it means:
Defenseless, prone to getting hurt, open to attack, exposed, unprotected, unguarded, weak, woundable.
Would you ever want to lead from those places? Of course not.
But then what about the opposite? Invulnerable. Which means...
Impregnable, untouchable, up-armored, unfeeling.
What a choice. You've got either...
Vulnerable, which is victimy, or
Invulnerable, which is cold and distant.
And this is not just a theoretical discussion. Cold-heartedness works well for so many politicians and business leaders. How could Wall Street executives feel for people, the great majority of Americans and still do what they do? How could Congress feel for the next generation and still do what they do?
We who are fighting for social change and social justice have to lead in a very different way. We have to lead from our caring, with our hearts open, not shut down, and that makes us vulnerable, and what do we need to do about that?
How about a bit of alchemy? Let's take vulnerability, turn it into an adjective, and infuse it into something that might seem to be its opposite, to get...
On my page about sustainability, I talk about the two definitions of "discipline." It can mean...
A way to master something you care about, even love.
Same word, very different meanings. Similarly, there's the victim version of vulnerability and then there's the soaring version.
The soaring kind means...
Finding the sweet spot in vulnerability which makes you stronger.
Developing your personal presence means looking inside yourself to see what's there for better or for worse...
did want to be a leader, I knew that, but I was also scared of it, the
magnitude of the responsibility. Most of my staff are parents of young
children. Sometimes at the end of the day, just as everyone is getting
ready to go home I look around the office and think how much
they depend on me. My fundraising is what produces their paychecks so they can take care of their families.
Rich: So how did you respond to the fear?
Anna: I'm a worker-bee, so I went to work on the problem and set myself to learning best practices of fundraising and leadership. Actually I did better than learn them, I demanded excellence of myself. That's something I know how to achieve. I always knew how to get the A's in school. There's a method to it and if you follow that method you get the grade. So I used the same strategy here.
Anna: It didn't work.
Anna: I became a leader who had how-to excellence, and I'm proud of that, but I was missing a piece, the relationship piece. The part where you inspire people, where you shape them into a team that's got the fire for the mission.
Rich: So then?
Anna: I went home one night feeling both like a failure and like an egg way overdue for hatching. I stopped in front of my hall mirror and started talking with myself.
Rich: How did it go?
Anna: At first I criticized myself because I was so frustrated: You've worked so hard, how come you're not doing better? Where's your A+? What's wrong with you?
But there I was standing in front of my mirror and saw the sour look on my face and didn't like it. And then, I don't know why, I thought of my keepsake box on the shelf in my closet, and in that box was the magic wand I used to carry with me as a little girl when I'd dress up as the fairytale princess, the only thing I ever wanted to be on Halloween for ten years in a row.
I got it out, and came back to the mirror, and saw how big my eyes were, and then touched my mirror forehead with the wand.
I realized I was scared of my personal power. I had the professional side of power down cold. But that was the problem—cold. I needed to add me, all of me, to warm it up.
My mom says October is still her favorite month because of the memories she has of how I enrolled family and friends in my fairy tale adventures all month long leading up to Halloween. She said she loved following me into my imaginary world because I was having so much fun with it myself.
So holding the wand again, and remembering, and looking at this person in the mirror, who was smiling, not looking directly at me, but giving me these sweet, shy glances, I heard myself whispering yes, not to competence, but to adventure.
Rich: And then?
Anna: The next morning at work I noticed my staff noticing me, trying to figure out what was different. I was in such a playful mood but I didn't want to tell them my secret, I wanted to show them. I bantered with them, I flirted with them—not the romantic kind, but the kind where you're flirting possibilities—and then I started dancing them into anew relationship with me which they took to like ducks to water.
Rich: And being scared of your power?
When I finally stepped beyond my fear, then I could see for the first time what it
was made of. I had been scared that if I wasn't a proper ED, exuding the
conventional kind of polished confidence and jingling all over with
standard best practices, then people wouldn't accept me.
I was scared that if, instead, I let myself be inspired by my own creative delight, and led from there, people would think me odd and pull away. Then I'd be one of those leaders who's lonely at the top. And I really didn't want that.
Rich: But now the difference was?
Anna; I brought my childhood talent for enrolling people into my adult world. I took that risk, and it worked. It couldn't have worked better. My staff are so much happier. And once I saw that, my spirit took off, and that was my soaring debut.
Anna looked inside and found a happy something. What Eddie found was very different...
Eddie: Everyone else declared me a success, but I didn't feel it.
Rich: What did you feel?
Eddie: The doldrums. Like being an ED was not the right match for me. And yet it was so right for me and I was doing good, solid work. But how could it be right if it didn't make me happy?
Eddie: I went to see a therapist who also did career counseling and told her I needed a new line of work.
Rich: And her reaction?
Eddie: She started asking me questions, all kinds of questions. It puzzled me, so I said, 'Where are we going with this?" And she said, "I have no idea. Do you?" And I said, "No idea." And she said, "Then let's go there!"
In our third session, she suddenly pulled up short, and said, "Okay, this is out of the blue, except maybe it's not: How does shame show up in your life?"
Well, that was a shocker. Shame is not a word I ever used and it wasn't something I ever thought about. I blurted, "Why would you ask me that?" I could feel my defenses rise up ready for a fight.
And she said, "Oh, because now I know where we're going, because notice your response. There's something here for you. A gift. But it doesn't feel like that, does it?"
"It sure doesn't."
"Take a breath and tell me how easy is it for people to give you things, like when it's your birthday?"
"I don't like celebrating my birthday. I try to slip past it without anyone noticing."
"Do they notice?'
"Yes, and they give me a party."
"I grin and bear it."
"And what about when people love you, how easy is it for you to take that in?"
"Oh. I see. I'm not good at that. Everyone says I'm a sweetheart. But Cindy, my last girlfriend said she was so frustrated because I always treated her so well but then I never let her love me back. She said she had so much she wanted to give me but I didn't let her give it."
There's a lot more to this story, but the short version is that Robin, that's my therapist, got me talking about shame. At first I was tentative, but then it all came out in a rush. I think because it was such a relief to quit covering up and tell the truth.
And what I came to see is that from childhood on up, my core belief about myself has been that I'm not lovable. But for me it wasn't just a belief, it a stone-cold fact. Immutable. So no wonder I didn't let people love me. I didn't want them to waste themselves on me.
Rich: And then in terms of leading?
Eddie: Direct parallel. Just like I didn't let people give me their love, I didn't let my staff give me their following, if that makes sense.
Rich: Say more.
Eddie: I've learned that following is a gift. And a leader needs to be receptive, needs to take it in, really take it in, and love taking it in. And then people want to give more.
My sense of shame was blocking that. Of course, you don't make a lifetime of shame go away overnight, but I can tell you, when I could finally see it for what it was, the spell was broken. I started opposing shame with everything I've got. I just wanted to be free. And that's when soaring started for me, the minute I got into that fight. And that's when I started letting my staff touch my heart.
Dangers inside and outside
Along with vulnerability, of course, come dangers, and soaring has them. So let me give you this caution:
The more you go soaring,
The more serious you need to be about taking care of yourself.
Which includes most especially having a circle of people around you who believe in you and care for you.
Opposition might come from inside your movement...
When I really started to take off, it was so fun, because I suddenly found myself in the middle of serious conversations with all the key decision makers in my field. I was honored and accepted and making a bigger difference than ever.
Before long, though, a handful of people in my movement started taking shots at me, badmouthing me, poisoning the atmosphere. I was dumbfounded.
Then my deputy director said, "They're jealous. And they've got it bad. You're moving ahead of them so quickly, but they have no idea how to keep up with you. Too bad they don't ask you to mentor them instead of turning on you."
And opposition might come from outside your movement...
Here's the kicker. My adversaries saw me step into my new power well before my allies saw it. And that makes sense, because those folks on the other side are hypervigilant. They really don't want the kind of change we're pushing for. They keep doing everything they can to shut us down.
And then here's me showing up as a much bigger blip on their radar screen. But even though it still shakes me up every time they target me personally, I've got to say I also find it affirming.
As great as soaring is, still I want to caution you, never underestimate what might come up for you when you get there, because while you might feel more alive than ever...
You might feel everything more than ever.
Soaring has that kind of effect. Done right, it doesn't make you blissed out and happy-faced...
It makes you more present and real and committed.
These days when someone criticizes me, the criticism cuts deeper. They're not just criticizing something I did or a role I'm playing. My leadership is now so much more about me that the criticism is more about me, too.
Tomorrow, I'm going to have a very forthright conversation with my new program director. She's brilliant with the work, but sometimes she completely misses the pitch with her staff. Wow can she be off. But then every once in a while she gets it just right, so I'm hopeful. But I want to deal with this now, I don't want to let it drift, because I want her to succeed. I want her to be able to go soaring if she wants to.
I don't know her all that well yet, and we're just starting to develop our working relationship, so I don't know how she's going to react.
This kind of conversation is something I've gotten very good at, but still it's risky. She might not be willing to hear what I have to say.
And if she falls apart behind it, then what soaring means to me is that I don't pull back or walk away, saying, "Too bad that didn't work." If I step into a serious conversation with her, then I'm going to stick with her. I'm going to do the relationship work. Take the journey with her through whatever feelings come up.
If the conversation stumbles and falls, it would be so easy to be the distant manager I used to be and write her off, bail out on her. Which means I'd be bailing out on myself, too. And I won't do that to either of us.
The pain of the past
Some people get to soaring and never look back. Some, like me, do look back. Get sucked there. For us getting to soaring opens us up to the past...
When I was a sacrificial leader, I had to keep the lid on my feelings, because if I had really let myself feel what I was doing to myself, I couldn't have done it. But now that I'm solidly over here in the soaring zone, I don't need that lid anymore. Now I'm free to feel anything. And up they come, all those old feelings like they're a brand new experience for me. Which they are.
And what's coming up most is sorrow. From all those years of making myself do leadership the hard way. All those years of hurting myself. All that wasted time. I so wish I had known then what I know now. That's such a trite thing to say and my friend Stella keeps reminding me that I had to take the journey I had to take and now I'm here and it's time to be happy. And I know she's right, but still, I wish, I wish.
In the midst of celebrating my new way of leading and how good it is for me, I suddenly realized that I'm also in mourning. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad those years are behind me, but I'm so sad about how bad they were for me.
It might shake you up when you find that you're...
Falling in love with soaring.
Because once you experience it, you might not ever want to give it up, and what it wants from you is your whole self, heart and soul.
PRINCIPALS AND PRACTICES
For the rest of this page, I'm going to give you some of my favorite principles and practices which you can weave together in your own way to create your own version of soaring.
What' I'm offering here is by no means comprehensive. There's so much more to this operating system than I could cover in a single page. And luckily I don't have to because every other page on this site is dedicated to helping leaders get sustainable so they can go soaring.
But even with everything I've written down, please remember, just as one picture is worth a thousand words, one experience of soaring is worth a million words.
Scary and exhilarating at the same time.
Let's take a look at the scary part.
When you initially cross over into soaring, it's an unknown, and that might throw you...
Gina: I thought I was soaring, but I'm feeling scared so I can't be, right?
Rich: That depends. Is the scary part shutting you down?
Rich: Is it more than you can handle?
Gina: Actually it's not. I'm still trucking.
Rich: Is it a soupçon of scary?
Gina: No, more than that.
Rich: A good dose?
Gina: Yes, a dose, a good one. I see, not a bad dose. It's not hurting me. So what's it doing here?
Rich: Is it pepping you up?
Gina: It's got me out on my edge.
Rich: Not scattered, not distressed?
Gina: Not at all.
Rich: Are the scary feelings taking anything away from you?
Gina: I can't think of anything.
Rich: Are they giving you anything?
Gina: They're making me pay attention and stay focused.
Rich: So could we say they're helping to keep you in soaring mode?
Gina: Well, yes we could.
Rich: What if we call this helpful scary instead of harmful scary?
Gina: That sounds about right. Oh, I like this. Thanks. Bye.
Soaring is scary because...
You're being yourself without a net.
And it's exhilarating because...
You're being yourself without a net.
When you put yourself out there in the world, especially in the difficult territory of social change, you are definitely taking a risk—with your self.
And there's more. It seems to me that...
It's an act of great love to take leadership on an issue that's close to your heart, because that means you're also taking on serious risk. You could fail. You're only human. And you can't control outcomes. There's no guarantee of success. Not in a game as tough as social change.
And if you do fail where there's so much at stake for you, it can really hurt.
So how do we make the scary part of soaring work for us?
I remember when I was doing child abuse prevention, I went on TV a number of times to promote our programs.
Sitting there looking at the camera, with that red light burning, knowing that a million people were watching me, was freaky.
What if I said something stupid? Which I was quite capable of doing. Or what if I didn't get our message across? What if I failed? It wouldn't be in the tiny venue of a few people back at the office, it would be in front of the whole world.
Then there was the fact that I was there to teach people about saving kids lives. And how could I live with myself if I failed at that? Or what if the performance I turned in was so bad that no TV station would ever invite anyone from my organization on again?
Even back then when I knew so little about soaring, I knew enough to know this was the wrong kind of scary. It wasn't helping...
I needed to find a new kind of scary.
I hate performing, but I love giving people what they need. So this is where I put my attention.
I could still fail at meeting needs, too, but at least here I was in my element. It focused me whereas performing unnerved me. So I stopped looking at the camera and looked instead into the faces of the people in the studio audience and made a connection with them one by one as I talked and answered questions, concentrating on what I could give them that they might need.
And when there wasn't a studio audience, I had to do something else. So I looked at the camera, then into the lens, and then through it. I imagined just one mom sitting at home in front of me needing to hear what I had to say so she could keep her child safe. And seeing her there I dearly wanted to give her my best, and did.
By contrast, I remember a presentation I did one night for a group of 60 people. This was a slide show on male violence, two hours with 250 slides. Intense. Usually some of the audience would be in tears by the end. So my heart was usually in my throat.
When I got up in front of this particular audience, though, there were no butterflies in my stomach. Not a ripple of fear. I was so pleased with myself that I could be so cool with such dark material.
Afterward my buddy Chris said to me, "Nice presentation, too bad you weren't here for it."
That's when I understood that fear could be my friend. I needed it in the mix to be at my best. So then whenever the camera panned to me in the TV studio or I began a presentation in front of even a tiny audience, my intent, my hope, was to keep that just-right kind of fear with me all the way.
Now, how do you know what's the right touch of scary and what's too much? Where do you look to find the kind of scary that, instead of throwing cold water on your exhilaration, spices it up?
The place to look is...
In the gap.
What gap? That's next.
Want to take the mystery out of flow? Zero in on the challenge-skills balance.
If you don't have enough challenge...
Your life goes to sleep on you.
If you have too much challenge...
You get overwhelmed and shut down.
So what you want is a challenge that's...
Just right for what? For your skill level. But what does "just right" really mean? It doesn't mean you stay with what's comfortable. You push beyond the boundaries of your past success. You take one step forward—one serious step. And there's risk in doing that. Which is what makes flow exhilarating. And scary. And it's what makes you feel so alive.
When people who study flow talk about the challenge-skills balance, they mean something more complex than an easy equilibrium, because in this place...
Your skills are a little off balance with the challenge.
The challenge is running a bit ahead of your skills. That's the gap. And it's in this gap that you find what's called "the zone."
The art of this off-balance balance is something to master if you want to have peak moments. And it's something you can master. You can't take direct control over peak moments, but this CS balance is different. You can take control with it because it's part of the soaring system, the system of readiness.
So, for example, as your skills move up you can make the conscious choice to move your challenges up, too.
Of course, you might be thinking...
I don't have a choice about challenges. They just keep coming at me fast and furious.
One of the blessings of the sustainable operating system is it helps you take control over your work so you won't be so much at the mercy of external events. But still, even the most masterful leader can get hit by a surprise challenge that feels way too big.
So then the rule of thumb is go get help. Which is a leader-like thing to do. You put together a team that does have the capacity to handle the challenge. Which thus shifts the CS balance to just the right place and puts you back in the zone.
Now having preached this uplifting gospel of peak experiences, let me take a moment to blaspheme.
You don't always have to push. You don't always have to be out there at your edge. One step back from the edge is also a wonderful place to be.
I want you to be able to enjoy, not just the highs, but also...
The quiet moments of soaring.
They're part and parcel of the everyday experience of the soaring system...
I've learned how to negotiate with our elected officials. I'm not scared of meeting with them anymore. I still pay big attention in case someone throws me a curve ball. And I still have plenty of growing edges elsewhere, like asking major donors for money.
But with the politicians, I enjoy every minute of the mastery I worked so hard to achieve. I don't have the highs I used to have when I was still learning how to work with these folks, but now I have many moments of pure pleasure because I know what I'm doing.
One more note about the gap...
It's in here that you find the secret to mastery.
If you practice the same-old, same-old, you might add polish to your skills, but you don't really develop your abilities. If you reach too far ahead and try to practice things you aren't ready for, you'll just fail, fail, fail.
Top performers work on what's in their challenge-skills gap. They work on the skills that are just right for growing them.
And when they grow out of the gap they're in, well, there's another one just ahead, so they never have to quit developing themselves.
Focus on focus
Another way to take the mystery out of flow is to put your attention in the right place.
When I first learned about flow, I read that time stops and the background recedes. Those were essentials.
So I thought I had to make time stop and make the background recede. Wrong idea. There was no way I could do that because that's not the way flow works. Those two things are examples of the...
Consequences of flow not the causes.
Flow comes from focus, so that's the place to focus...
Time stops because you're so intent on what you're doing that you have no attention left over to think about time.
The background recedes because you have no bandwith for it.
What helps you focus? Many things. Here are four of the most important...
When you you feel your mission deeply, when it's innately compelling to you, when you pursue it not because you believe you should, but because you love it, then it can sweep you up and away from distractions.
When you work in deep alignment with your natural talents and the strengths you've developed from them, then you're at your confident best. Which makes it so much easier to focus than when you're struggling and stumbling and second guessing.
When you have a daily practice of mastery, a system for continually developing your skills and your core abilities, then you're learning from everything you do all day, and day by day you're steadily becoming a stronger leader.
When you have a team around you of people who get you and get what it takes to be a soaring leader and they stand by you and love doing that, then you're getting what you need. And you'll be able to relax into focus. And you'll want to soar, not just for yourself, but also for your team.
Put just those four together and you'll become a force to reckon with.
What hurts focus? Many things, including...
The default, sacrificial nonprofit operating system, where you chase crises and use yourself up, and where relational aggression so often goes unchecked. It's very hard to go soaring when you're exhausted in the middle of a battle zone.
Lack of resources and support will hurt you, too, of course. It's very hard to focus deeply on anything when your to-do list is way too long and you feel overwhelmed and you're trying to manage too many things at once and everything and everyone is demanding your attention urgently in this instant.
This whole question of focus often flies under the radar...
So many organizations have lackluster mission statements. They're very pretty, maybe even flowery, but not gutsy. They don't have that primal depth that can set people on fire. So the work drifts into drudgery.
Or certain practices become so familiar and so common and so many people are doing them that we accept them and stop noticing how bad they are for us. Let's take multitasking as one example to illustrate this.
Multitasking prevents flow. Makes it impossible...
Lots of leaders feel they have no choice. Multitasking seems like the only way to get through their day.
Nonprofits in general place high value on multitaskers. Just look at the job ads for nonprofit leaders.
And then there's multitasking paralysis. I've been there...
I remember one day I was standing in the middle of my narrow office with piles of papers on my desk in front of me and piles on my work table behind me, and on top of each stack was something urgent that needed to be done yesterday.
I was good at prioritizing, but every single one of these priorities was an absolute top priority and as soon as I reached for one task my mind flashed to another and I started turning from pile to pile, from desk to table and back again, until I was literally spinning in my office.
It really is a radical thing to...
Start leading through focus.
But it can make such a difference to take charge of your leadership, and do it with the soaring spirit...
In the morning when I come in, I say hi to everyone, head back to my office, hang a sign on my door that says, "Focus time," and then I close the door. For two hours. Period. I don't answer e-mails. I don't take phone calls. I protect myself.
I've got my staff trained to respect this now. And most of the time they're supportive because I'm so much more productive this way. They're especially glad to see me power through my grant writing, because that's what keeps them in paychecks.
And I love it, too. I've got plenty of projects that take serious concentration—appeal letters, campaign design, strategy, reports, new initiatives. I do way better work on these things now because I'm doing them when I'm at my best.
And this is my time to think. To consider how we can be stronger, how we can do better. To look at myself and consider how I could be stronger. To think deeply about what my staff really need from me. All things great leaders are supposed to do, but which I used to believe I didn't have time to do.
And I've seen again and again that even a little bit of thinking time can make a very big difference.
Most of all, though, I value these two hours, because that's when I get to commune with my mission. And I say it that way because that's exactly what it feels like. And that precious time is the heart of my leadership.
So then when I open the door and the deluge begins, I feel great. I've started the day with a bang. Jason complained last Friday that he couldn't get to me until 11, and I just said, "Would you rather work for a happy boss or an unhappy boss?" He got it, and burst out laughing.
When you get to soaring, the crude attacks of your inner critic don't work anymore, those old standards like...
You'll never be able to lead.
In soaring mode, it's so obvious that you're smart and successful that attacking messages to the contrary just sound ridiculous.
So what's a poor inner critic to do?
Put on a disguise.
Pretend to be an advocate for soaring.
Which means it will start telling you things like...
Soaring is the best kind of leadership there is, so you should be there.
You had a peak moment this morning and then you lost it. You should have stayed with it. What's wrong with you?
These are noble shoulds. On the surface they sound supportive, but they're not. And how do we know that? Because...
Shoulds kill soaring.
And especially the smooth-talking shoulds.
Soaring is a choice not a should. If you don't want to go soaring, don't do it...
I don't care about peak moments. I grew up in turmoil in a desperately dysfunctional family. What I care about is calm and stability and I've got that and I'm sticking with it. It's right for me.
And if you want to go soaring, you get to do it your own way. Sometimes people think soaring is synonymous with grand. But it doesn't have to be. It can be synonymous with intimate. And everything in between.
So the most important question to ask yourself is, "What kind of soaring is right for me?"
I know myself quite well. God knows, I should after all these years of therapy. And one thing I know is I'm a shy person. I do really well leading a small, intimate team. But put me in the limelight and I freeze. I'd work on that, except there's nothing in me that wants to be in the limelight. I can do all my soaring right here quietly at home in my happy little nonprofit, thank you.
Attack us, and
Lie to us.
And the noble shoulds are the worst. If our inner critics really wanted us to go soaring, they'd just shut up.
But here's something really neat. In peak moments, you are so focused on what you love that there is no room for inner critics or judgment or blame or shame to elbow their way in. It's a delicious kind of freedom.
Rumi, the 13th-century Persian poet and Sufi mystic, said...
"Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I'll meet you there."
Soaring means you get to meet yourself there.
Sometimes I'm talking with a leader who's had a string of peak moments, but now...
"I feel like I've fallen out of soaring and I'm scared that it's not coming back. I think it's over for me. Back I go to the drudgery."
I simply ask how she feels about soaring...
"I love it, I'm crazy about it, I miss it, I want to be back with it, I feel lonely without it."
Now she's looking at soaring in relationship terms, not on the terms of her inner critic. And then I might say...
"You love soaring so much, I can guarantee you it's not going away. You're a fighter, you're not going to give up on yourself."
"Okay, I hear that."
"And where are you now in terms of your operating system?"
"I'd say I'm in some twilight zone between sustainable and soaring. What is this place?"
"Have you ever noticed the difference between your peak moments and the operating system that generates those moments?"
"Not till you just asked me that question."
"What do you see?"
"If I fall out of a peak experience that doesn't mean I've fallen out of soaring. I'm still in readiness, which means more peak experiences are on the way."
"And what if you never had another peak experience in you life?"
"I'd miss them, but soaring even without those moments is a very good way to live. I'd still be thrilled to be here."
"Let's look at your relationship with peak moments. What's it like on your way into one?"
"It's like falling in love. No, it's calmer than that and more trustworthy. I'll just say it's my favorite place to be."
"And when you fall out of a peak moment, what's that like?"
"Oooo, I hate it. I panic. A little should on my shoulder tells me I'm a failure."
"But what's really happening? Again in relationship terms..."
"Oh, I'm still in the relationship. Because it's not about the peak moments. They don't exist on their own. When I'm having a peak moment I'm in my relationship with soaring, and when I'm not having a moment, I'm still in my relationship with soaring."
"Nothing to worry about, not when I take my focus off the moments and put it on my relationship with soaring. Then I can relax and trust."
"Have you ever heard of anyone living in peak moments 100% of the time?"
"For some people these moments are rare, for others frequent, but no one is there all the time. And by the way, what would it be like if you lived 100% in peak moments?"
"Exhausting. Yikes, I never thought about that. I guess I like the in and out of it, the variety. I can see I need the time out to recover for the next high."
"That's what I call the in-and-out dance. When you fall out, you deepen your relationship with peak moments. When you go back in, you remember how much you love it there, and that deepens your relationship. And meanwhile the soaring operating system is home."
"And that's the most important part of it, to have this home."
Mastering the art of failure
In our society there's so much shame around failure, and I think this hurts us and holds us back.
We need a different relationship with failure because there's no way to do something as contrary as social change and not have failures. We're going up against a whole lot of resistance when we do what we do, and some of that resistance is very well funded.
So I like John Maxwell's concept of...
Thomas Edison is often cited as an example of this. He tried out over 6,000 filaments before he got to a working light bulb. It took him over 8,000 attempts, or failures, to invent the Edison battery. His attitude was that each failure brought him closer to success.
And notice these were not random failures, but failures that went with a smart game plan.
And isn't succeeding at social change a lot harder than inventing the light bulb?
So we're going to have failures. And when an inner critic—or an outer critic—attacks you for a failure, that attack can take you outside yourself, outside your focus, outside soaring. But the more you're able to feel failure is an integral part of success, as the genuine and necessary partner of success, the more likely you'll be able to stay in your zone.
So here's a strategy I like...
Take the risk you need to take, really take it—while doing everything you can to reduce that risk.
This means you take your risks as part of a smart plan. You make sure you have a strong team around you to take the risk with you...
If I fail, I know what I'm going to do. I'm not planning to fail, but I am planning for if I fail.
I used to crash and shut down and then take a long time to get going again. Now if I fail, I feel it, I don't like it, I might need a little time to regroup, but I get how it's part of the game I'm in. So I keep playing. And that part feels good. Really good.
Good to great
Do you know the saying...
The good keeps us from the great.
Or the more intense version...
The good is the enemy of the great.
What does this saying mean? It describes a situation where you have lots of good things going for you. Your life is, in fact, filled up with good things, maybe jammed with them. And they keep you so busy that you never stop and think and then decide to go for that one thing that would make your life great.
In other words, you settle, but it doesn't feel like that so it's hard to catch.
In contrast to what's good...
Great is what takes your breath away.
What gives you your deepest sense of peace.
It might sound like this...
When I finally found my true calling, my life was filled with resonance like when you strike a Tibetan brass bowl.
I've never felt so unfamiliar to myself—and so much at home.
But the concept of great comes with this warning...
Pursuing what's great is a very serious choice.
Because if you're going to say the big yes, the great yes, then you're going to have to say a lot of noes. Including very big noes.
And what will you be saying no to? How easy it would be if all you had to do was say no to bad things. But it doesn't work like that.
You have to say no to good things. Maybe very good things. Things you wish with all your heart you could say yes to. But you can't because the great thing requires your full commitment.
So going after what's great for you will likely be a serious challenge. It might even be wrenching at first. And not everyone will necessarily understand the noes you say. Because you might be saying no, not just to good things, but to good people. Really good people...
Robbie: I'm leaving here.
Rich: You've made the decision?
Robbie: Yes, and I'm so torn apart.
Robbie: This is where I've grown up as a leader. They given me really important opportunities and constant support. Five years, and I've grown very fond of the people here. I'm so attached to them, I can't imagine leaving. But I have to go.
Rich: And why?
Robbie: Because I've started growing apart from them, and I look at the trajectory I'm on and I can see our paths are going diverge even more. You know, there are consequences to this soaring thing.
Rich: Yes, there are.
Robbie: What I know about myself is that I have to make a bigger difference tomorrow than I'm making today. I need to do that. I need that steady forward motion.
Rich: And the split is?
Robbie: Everyone else here is satisfied. They're not hungry like me. They do good work, really good work. But I can see how our work could be great. I've had talks with different staff about their ambitions and my ambitions, and on that one point alone there's a mismatch. I so wish there weren't. My first choice would be to stay here and for all of us to go soaring together.
Rich: But you feel sure that's not going to happen?
Robbie: That's right. I've explored it. Right up to the point where I started to annoy people. They're clear about their choice.
Rich: And what do you think about their choice?
Robbie: I think it's right for them. I mean they're solidly in the sustainable zone, and it works for them, and they're genuinely happy, and they don't feel called to more, and they do good work, and the world needs good work so badly, so what's not to love, except...
Rich: You're feeling...
Robbie: Sadness, so much sadness.
Rich: And what if you did stay?
Robbie: I know what would happen. I wouldn't get what I need and I'd start resenting them. And they matter too much to me to let that happen.
And if I stayed here, restless and tugging, they'd resent me. Even if I never said another word about what I wanted, they know me well enough, they'd be able to read me. And they'd feel bad for not giving me what I need. And they'd bristle at my silent demands.
Robbie: God, is it ever. I thought soaring was supposed to fix everything, but it's put me in the middle of this terrible decision.
Rich: And you've decided?
Robbie: I have. I can't not move forward. But it hurts and I don't know how I'm going to say goodbye to them. I don't want to hurt their feelings. I don't want to lose them. I want them to stay in my life.
Rich: What if you started by telling them that? What if you talked them through your decision? What if you let them feel the pain you're in making this choice? Just be true instead of strategic.
Robbie: Yes, I like that. That's a relief. I can take a breath again. I've been forgetting the relationship we have. We've been through five good years together. I need to make sure that when I tell them, we have plenty of time to talk this through so I can tell the whole story.
Rich: And I hear you wanting to keep these relationships.
Robbie: Yes. I know how great it feels to be wanted and I do want to keep them in my inner circle, and I want them to keep me in theirs.
Rich: You know, I'm not hearing judgments at all and judgements are what wreck relationships. I'm hearing so much caring that I can't see how judgments could elbow into the conversations you're going to have with them.
Robbie: Yes, if things get bumpy, I'll keep coming back to my caring for them and ask them to come back to their caring for me. Okay, now I can see how to do this.
Rich: And what would be the best outcome?
Robbie: If this goodbye deepened our relationship. If it's better tomorrow because today we told the truth to each other about what we need. I've been worried about the exact words I'm going to say, but now that I've got the spirit, I see I don't need a script because I know the words will come.
Rich: And what's next for you?
Robbie: Oh, I'm cooking that! I've launched my campaign. My friend Josie told me there's going to be an opening next month where she works. So I've been coming in here Saturdays and going over there to volunteer on Fridays. Not for small stuff. I'm working with them on their biggest project.
Jerilyn, their ED, is getting to know me. She likes me so far. In another two weeks, she's going to see me as indispensable. Then she won't even post an announcement, she'll just hire me. That's my plan.
Rich: I love seeing this aliveness in you.
Robbie: I have to have that.
Rich: And why this place in particular?
Robbie: Because I want Jerilyn as my mentor. She treats people really well and, wow, does she ever have ambitions. She's a program generator. They've tripled their budget since she came. And their work is relentlessly innovative. People are coming to them from around the country for training and inspiration.
And Josie's right, I've seen it for myself, everyone on staff loves playing the biggest game they can.
Rich: Your kind of place.
Robbie: My kind of place and my kind of people—for my future.
Under the sacrificial system...
You learn from struggle.
When you get sustainable...
You learn from the work of mastery.
When you go soaring...
You learn from pleasure.
And you follow its lead.
Does pleasure strike you as a strange word to use in the context of nonprofit work? It's about as opposite as you can get from the sacrificial paradigm of the exhausted leader on the burnout track.
I know there are people who think pleasure is a distraction from the seriousness of the work. But I think it goes right to the heart of our work.
As I said on my home page, making the kind of difference you're deeply called to make—that's so very serious, and so very fun...
It's pleasure you feel with your soul.
It's the pleasure of power.
The power you find within yourself to build relationships, then teams, then movements in service of what matters most to you.
Social change work is something we often have to do in the face of adversity in difficult territory, so the pleasure of it burns all that much more brightly.
But like soaring itself, this pleasure can be complicated. Even though many leaders are 100% happy with soaring once they get there and they feel like they're living in a state of grace, still soaring is not a happy-talk, new-age kind of thing.
Soaring might ask you to make some of the toughest decisions you'll ever make, decisions that don't stop being tough even after you've made them. And yet you love that you've made them. Soaring can be filled with crosscurrents of feelings and contradictory layers of meaning that come together to make a strange impossible kind of harmony. And what more do you need for an adventurous life?
No end to discovery
Here's something that makes me sad: when a leader has her first taste of soaring and then stops, when she takes one step over the threshold and concludes, "I've arrived. I'm done."
Soaring is a way of leading that can continue for the rest of your life. Crossing the threshold is just the very beginning. I've worked with some soaring leaders for years, because they're always finding more that's possible.
And if you've gotten to soaring, that means you've beaten the odds. It means you've put in a whole hell of a lot of work to achieve mastery so you could launch into soaring, and if you've done all that, then I want you to have the rewards of your work.
Again, soaring is not for everyone. No one has to go for it. But you can tell from reading this page that I'm a big fan of soaring, and maybe a bit of an evangelist for it, because I think this is where the best fun of leadership is.
And when you have found a home for yourself in the soaring operating system, that means that not only will you be leading your organization, coalition, or movement in an extraordinary way, but you'll be a model for others. Just by your very presence, you'll inspire them, challenge them, provoke them into going for their own version of soaring.
So you'll be doing a meta level of leadership. You'll be helping to create the future (we hope) of social change and social justice leadership.
Do you remember Tolstoy's famous opening for Anna Karenina?
"All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."
That's a great first line for a novel, but I find when it comes to the happiest nonprofits with the happiest leaders, the reverse is true.
I've seen lots of unhappy organizations over the years, rife with acting out and personality battles, and it always strikes me that I'm seeing exactly the same kind of suffering over and over. So much drama, yet so helplessly clichéd and boring.
With soaring leaders, though, there's surprise after surprise.
That's because soaring is the most personal of the three operating systems, so it comes in as many different flavors as there are people who go soaring...
Out of common principles they generate original stories.
The analogy for me is going to the movies. I love romantic comedies. I've seen a zillion of them, but I'm always eager to see the next one—as long as the characters are fresh and personal. If a film executes the classic structure of romance in a mechanical way, then it falls flat for me. It even makes me mad because I'm so disappointed.
By contrast, if the lead characters really are characters in their own right, if they find their own idiosyncratic way into love—that I want to see as many times as you can show it to me, because those stories enrich my understanding of human relationships, and because I simply enjoy watching two compelling people caught up in surprising adventures, giving everything they've got to try to make love work.
You can't go soaring by following a routine list of how-tos. It's just not that kind of thing.
There are plenty of how-tos that are helpful to soaring but what makes the difference are the core principles. When you master those, when you put them into practice in your own way, in accord with your personality, talents, strengths, and calling, then your leadership story will be...
Alive with you...
And with your team...
And with your community...
And with love.
OS for leaders
The overview of the operating systems.
Source and spirit
This is where your leadership starts,
with what's deepest in your heart.
This hurts you and keeps on hurting you.
This grows you and keeps on growing you.
This makes you exponentially more effective.
© 2010 Rich Snowdon