PREMIER OS: Soaring beyond best practices

Premier leadership gives you...

Extraordinary effectiveness.

And just as important...

An extraordinary experience of yourself.

Of the three operating systems, this one is far and away the most rewarding. There's nothing else that comes even close. But you don't get it for free...

Forget ten easy steps, this is a different world.

To become a premier leader takes daily practice and diligent self-development. It's a long-term journey of mastery, a journey that asks a lot of you. An awful lot. Sometimes more than what you think you have in you. But then...

It gives you back way more than what it asks.


Premier leadership is the hardest kind of leadership to put into words because it's so personal. And when people ask me what it means "to soar beyond best practices," I don't know any way to define that experience in a sentence, again because it's so personal.

So let me start with a story, because stories can transcend the words we use to tell them. Here's Holly...

Rich:  You said one of the things that changed for you when you crossed over into premier 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.

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.

Rich:  Because?

Holly:  I'm so intense. And reach so deep. And I'm still not quite used to it. Maybe I never will be.

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 with her whole heart, then time for me to do the same.

Rich:  Like?

Holly:  I wanted Maxine 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 overcommitted 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 know 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."

Have you ever seen a Board recruitment book that says, "If you want to get yourself a great Chair, first go have a baby." I haven't.

Holly's ask came, not from her professional smarts, of which she has plenty, but from her personal power, the kind that you find in the deepest place in your heart. This is the essence of premier leadership.

How-tos matter. They're worth studying. But in premier mode, you transcend them because it's your personal power that will generate the best surprises.

And by the way, Holly's not a paradigm for you to copy. She's just one inspiring example of the myriad possibilities for premier leaders, speaking of which...


Premier leadership is what's there for you after you've achieved mastery. Imagine you had all the basics mastered in your nonprofit, and then ask yourself...

What would be possible for me? For us.


You've put together a staff of 100% top performers. You've worked hard to get there. And so have your staff. They are dedicated to self-development. And with all of you working together you've created a culture of mutual advocacy. You have zero tolerance for acting out, personality battles, or relationship aggression, like negative gossiping or put downs.

People are so happy working for you that they'll stick with you even if someone offers them more money elsewhere.

Your reputation is so strong that top performers from around the country call you to ask if you have any openings.

And imagine...

You've built a Board of 100% champions, not watchdogs, or even governors. They're there to contribute. Every single one of them has a compelling need to make a difference in support of your and your team and your work. They understand that when it comes to following mission discipline, Board members should be exemplary not exempt. Instead of sucking energy, they really help you in exactly the ways you need them to help. Instead of being on an ego trip, they love being part of your team.

They've got a culture of zero tolerance for bullying and they enforce it. If a bully somehow gets on the Board, that person finds himself kicked off before he even has a chance to settle in and start doing damage.

Your Board's reputation is so strong that top people, people who have refused all requests to join other nonprofit Boards because they thought it would be a waste of their time, are now calling you to see if you have an opening for them.

And imagine...

You've done your own self-development work to the point that your inner critic doesn't slow you down anymore and you've cleared up your major blind spots. You've become one of the most self-aware leaders you know. And it makes you happy to be free of all those old, hidden drags on your leadership.

You've learned how to ask. You've found your own natural, authentic asking voice. And you're not afraid to ask big. You put the full force of your personality and personal power into your asking. You're not afraid to get a no. In fact, you give people explicit, upfront permission to tell you no. You understand that getting through the noes is how you get to the yeses.

You've learned how to negotiate. But not like they do in Hollywood movies or in those feature stories in Business Week. You've learned how to build the strongest possible working relationships through compassionate but honest and direct conversation. People find you both trustworthy and compelling because of this.

You know how to set limits whenever you need to. You say big noes, but you say them with even bigger yeses. Yeses based on your mission.

You've come to understand the fundamental psychology of how people work in groups. You know how to call forth the best in your people and in your teams. You've mastered the art of champion your staff proactively rather than waiting till you have to correct them.

You know how to build a constituency for yourself as a leader and for your organization.

You've learned lots about the politics of movement building so you don't get blindsided anymore. You're able to provide clear, strategic leadership for the coalitions you're in and the larger movement your work is part of.

You're not shy about claiming your place in the world. You don't care what status someone has, you don't care if someone is a VIP or even VVIP, you understand that in moral terms, in terms of the work you and your staff are doing to make the world a more loving place, you're anybody's equal. No need to be hesitant or apologetic or submissive. You absolutely own and honor your leadership.

You realize that premier leadership is so deeply rooted in you now that nothing can ever take it away from you. Which gives you peace of mind even in the midst of taking on very big challenges.

Now imagine...

If you had this kind of foundation in place, what might now be possible for you and your team?


What might happen that you can't even imagine right now?

Does this picture of premier leadership seem too good to be true? I can promise you it's not. I know leaders who have achieved exactly this kind of mastery. It wasn't easy for them. For some, it took years, it was an awful lot of work. And yet every one of these leaders would tell you...

The rewards are absolutely worth every minute of the work.


Does it sound too hard to become a premier leader? Is it depressing that it can take years?

Do you have to wait for full mastery before you get to have any of the rewards of being a premier leader?

The good news is that you don't have to wait.

Just this past week, I started working with Camila who's 24 and has big ambitions for herself, yet is very aware of how much she still has to learn.

But here's what struck me most about her...

She already has the premier mindset.

In that deepest place in her heart she already has the desire to be a premier leader.  She wants nothing to do with the sacrificial-savior default operating system. It's like she has an allergy to it. And there's no way she's going to settle for sustainable leadership. She wants more than that, much more. Which means...

She already has the spirit of a premier leader.

And this gives her a big advantage over people like me. I started out under the spell of the sacrificial-savior mindset and was stuck there for years.

But for Camila, the journey will be really different. Every minute of every day she's on the premier track. Her core is strong, so she's learning much faster than I ever did. She radiates her desire to be her best and make her best contributon, and that draws in people who want to support her. She's already good at asking for what she and her organization need, she's already good at taking a stand for what she believes in, she's already good at inspiring the best from her staff, and one day she's going to be great at those things and more. And she gets to take pleasure right now in knowing she's going to get there.


Premier means taking a moral stand
Premier leadership is not a matter of techniques. It's way more than any collection of even the best practices. It's not just a professional goal. It's a life commitment. It's something you are committing yourself to in the deepest way possible. You are giving yourself to it.

The word "moral" has been so diminished in common usage. It has become a nasty word used in righteous attacks. People who say they believe in a gospel of love use that word as an instrument of hate.

But it's such an important word for any community, because what it means at core is...

This is how we want people to treat each other. This is how we want people to live together in our community. We want to practice love and care and mutual advocacy. We want there to be no room for abuse and exploitation.

A premier leader is not just a technical leader producing service units with no bigger picture in mind than to just keep her numbers up. A premier leader is much more...

She is a moral leader, taking a stand every day in everything she does to make the world a more loving place.

And she begins at home, meaning...

She makes sure that within her organization there is a culture of love and care and mutual advocacy. There's no way she'd ever let her team descend into in-fighting and acting out and the kind of personal pain that too many nonprofits suffer. She believes in that often-quoted thing Ghandi said: "Be the change you want to see in the world."

She also takes a stand for how she wants to treat herself... 

No, I will not let leadership hurt me. I will not let it burn me out. I will not sacrifice myself for the cause. I don't believe in that. I'm going to do leadership in such a way that it grows me. I'm going to be a model for people in my community that social change work can be good for you. Nurturing. Invigorating. Enlivening.

And she takes a stand how she wants to treat her family...

I will not neglect my family for the cause. I will learn how to be so effective as a leader that I have plenty of time for my family. I will learn how to go soaring as a leader and when I do I will bring that sweet energy home with me.

The truth is the odds are against anyone ever becoming a premier leader...

Leading human beings is such a challenging thing to do. Maybe the most challenging.

And if that's not enough, social-change leadership is the most challenging kind of leadership. You're working to change how power works so it stops hurting people and killing the planet. And as you push for change, the powers that be who want to keep the status quo push back on you and push back hard, and have seemingly unlimited resources so they can keep on pushing.

And premier leadership means that you master yourself. Which is a remarkable thing to do. And so very serious. It means identifying your strengths and talents, which is not always easy, but it also means discovering your blind spots and then clearing them up, which is guaranteed to be painful before it is liberating.

So the odds are against you.

Except, if you discover the premier spirit in the deepest place in your heart...

Now the odds are with you.

That one thing makes all the difference.


Taking a stand for the freedom to lead
The Premier OS is not just a nice idea. It's as practical as dollars and cents. And how you raise money goes beyond conventional fundraising practices. And as you succeed, the money you raise gives you a special kind of freedom to lead that is unusual in the nonprofit sector and draws premier funders and donors to you.

Let's start here. 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 premier mode, you lead your funders.

What does that mean? Maybe 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."

I've never once seen a fundraising book that teaches EDs how to field surprise calls from unsolicited funders. There aren't any how-tos for this. It's being a premier leader running a premier organization that draws these kinds of surprises to you. And you find that...

Instead of being stuck playing by conventional rules, you get to play by premier possibilities.

Here's something else that might happen...

We held a seminar for funders about the future of our work. We had no idea if anyone would come, but eight showed up, four who already fund us and four who haven't yet. It was a vigorous conversation. Lots of good questions and strategizing all around. At the end I was going to ask them why they came when one of the new people said, "This really helps me understand the field. You guys are so obviously the leaders to pay attention to. Will you please be sure to invite me to any future seminars? And I'd like to set up a meeting with you at my office."

Not many nonprofits get to run seminars for funders, let alone really successful seminars. If you've done the work of mastery, if you have developed outstanding expertise in your field, and if you know how to play at the top of your game as a leader, then funders will want to know you. They will naturally start looking to you to be a thought partner, and then to be a thought leader.

Or what about 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 earned it and we keep earning it.

Whenever I've asked funders what it's like to give away money, the most common response I get is almost word for word this...

It's not that easy to spend money well.

And why? Put yourself in the place of a program officer at a foundation. It's very challenging to give money to nonprofits, first because so many nonprofits are malnourished that it's hard for them to come through on their promises. And there's this problem, too. In order to compete for a grant most nonprofits have to promise bigger than what they're really ready to deliver on. That's just how the system is set up.

So at the end of the year, the program officer might have a number of grants that have underperformed. Maybe a large number. Or maybe one or two of the nonprofits she funded imploded behind staff divisions and internal battles. And how often can she go to her foundation's Board of Trustees with failed grants before she gets fired?

You can see, why a program officer might have a great deal of anxiety about grant making. And that's why...

If she comes across a premier organization with a great leader, staff, and Board, she's going to feel safe and secure in funding them.

This means that becoming a premier organization gives you a significant advantage when it comes to funding. It means that...

The premier operating system in and of itself is an economic driver for success.

Now, there's one more thing I want to address. It's radical. It's the core purpose why premier organizations engage in premier fundraising: They want the freedom to lead.

I know a leader who was sitting in his office one day hammering out a grant proposal when a woman he had never met appeared in his doorway. She had something in her hand. He invited her in. She sat down and said, "I heard you speak last week and over the last few days I've been looking in to you." Now he's starting to worry.

But then she put what was in her hand on his desk. It was her checkbook. She wrote out a six-figure check, reached it over to him, and said, " I believe in what you're doing. Use this money in whatever way you think is best. I trust you. I trust your judgment. And do not waste a minute your time sending me thank-yous or reports. I don't need any of that. I just want you to do what you do best."

Much like a MacArthur genius grant.

It strikes me that this is the perfect match for premier leaders. Let's call this a Freedom-To-Lead grant. I just made that up. But why not give it a name so we can lobby funders to offer them.

One of the saddest things about the nonprofit sector is how we take great leaders and bury them in administrative duties so they have no time to really lead, to do the big things they originally hoped they could do. They have no time to do the serious movement building that needs to be done if we're ever going to solve the kinds of problems that social change and social justice organizations take on.

Burying our leaders in paperwork drudgery is a great way...

To kill any kind of serious progress.

And it's the perfect way..

To kill the spirit of a great leader who in her heart wants more than anything to lead on issues she cares deeply about.

And this makes me want to urge foundations and major donors to honor premier leaders for who they've become and what's possible for them to do if they are given the freedom, including the financial freedom, to really lead.

I want to recommend that when you come across a premier leader...

Just give her the money.

Premier leaders don't need all the restrictions and watch-dogging that goes with the conventional grant process. They don't need that kind of drag on their leadership.

They need the freedom to pursue opportunities in the moment. They need to be able to follow their well-developed intuition. They need to be able to move quickly. They need to be able to run experiments. They need to have the freedom to make mistakes and fail. Because that's how movements learn. Not by playing it safe, but by being out front, out on the front lines of change, pushing the boundaries, making the new things happen.

We need funders and donors to understand that...

The mistakes premier leaders make are premier mistakes: interesting, revealing, productive, generative.

My old teacher, Jim, used to hammer this home to us to make sure we got it:

Leaders make decisions. Not perfect decisions. They make a decision and if it's not quite right, they make another decision and then another until they get to the result they're looking for.

Playing it safe is the opposite of this and it keeps people and organizations and movements and societies stuck in mediocrity or worse, suffering.


Following the lead of pleasure
Under the sacrificial system...

You learn from struggle and pain.

When you get sustainable...

You learn from the work of mastery, which is nurturing work.

When you go soaring into the premier mode...

You learn from pleasure.

And you learn to 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 soul-satisfying fun.

I know it's radical to advocate for following the lead of pleasure. For those of us who started out as sacrificial leaders even learning how to follow pleasure was like culture shock. It took a while.

Maybe it helps to think about it like this...

It's similar to building on strengths. Instead of focusing just on your negatives you focus on your positives, on what you've got going for you, and not only is this more effective, but it's more nurturing and more fun and thus pleasurable.

And you come to know that if you're being hurt, if your spirit is missing in action, if you feel dragged down, then somethings wrong. That's not okay. And you stop everything at take action immediately to get your spirit back whatever it takes.

Or maybe it helps to think about it in terms of needs...

It's a deep pleasure to make sure that your core needs are being met, and the needs of your team and your community. The sacrifice that goes with the default nonprofit mode of leadership throws us off, misleads us, confuses us, because we are working day and night not meeting our needs. And not getting that core pleasure that we deserve.

Of we could talk about it in terms of power...

There is a pleasure in being powerful, in putting to work the power you find within yourself to build relationships, then teams, then movements in service of what matters to you most.

And here's something else...

The Premier OS brings a special dimension of love to leadership.

in a quiet moment, you might hear a premier leader say in talking about the premier zone...

I love being in it and when I'm in it, I love being me.

And then there's more.

Irene is an ED who's absolutely in premier mode. Over a period of 2-3 years she recruited top performers for her staff, and then she was intense about supporting them and mentoring them and making sure they had what they needed to be a success.

Her expectations were high. 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 nine women give Irene their very best work, not only do they love working for her, but...

They love her.

I understand that not everyone wants this, but if you want it I want you to have it.


It's so personal
Of all the pages on my website, this has been the hardest one to write. I've been so frustrated with it, re-writing it time after time, never feeling I got it right.

I'd go out to a coaching session with a premier leader and come back home so high on the work we did together and the breakthroughs she got, then I'd look at this page once again and see that it didn't capture even half of the power of what I had just experienced.

I kept struggling, until one day it finally dawned on me what the problem was...

This is the most profoundly personal of the leadership operating systems.

So no wonder it's so hard to capture in words.

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 premier leaders, though, there's surprise after surprise.

That's because the Premier OS is the most personal of the three operating systems, so it comes in as many different flavors as there are people who become premier leaders...

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 get to premier leadership 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 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.


The power of personal presence
When you're in premier mode, 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.

Premier leadership is rich with...

Personal chemistry.

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.

Premier 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?

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 a super effective leader, if the truth is that you are a premier 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 full-on, masterful premier leadership, 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 herself. 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. It hurt so much to see him get defeated again and again. But I saw the fight in him.

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. And I was blown away by how strong his spirit was and how hard he was trying to be a stellar dad, despite the odds against him."

That's when I realized that I couldn't have a better dad. And that by his example he was teaching me the most important of life lessons. And I realized that I was on his side.

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.

Every year, 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.


Gutsy vulnerability
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...

Gutsy vulnerability.

On my page about sustainability, I talk about the two definitions of "discipline." It can mean...

Punishment, or

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 premier version.

The premier 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...

Anna:  I 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.

Rich:  And?

Anna:  It didn't work.

Rich:  Because?

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?

Anna:  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?

Rich:  So...

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."

"And you?"

"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.


The vulnerability of showing up as your most powerful self
Along with vulnerability, of course, might come trouble. So let me give you this caution: The further you go with premier leadership...

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 and understand the kind of support and championing a premier leader like you needs.

What kind of trouble am I thinking about?

Perhaps you'll find yourself having to deal with a new kind of opposition coming 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 you might find yourself dealing with a new kind of opposition coming 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 hyper-vigilant. 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.


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."

Deepening premier leadership can continue for the rest of your life. Crossing the threshold is just the very beginning. I've worked with some premier leaders for years, because they're always finding more that's possible.

And it seems to me if you're going to do all the work that it takes to become a premier leader, then...

Why not have the fun of it? All of the fun you can have.


Next you might want to check out:

The peak moments of premier leadership

And here are the other pages on leadership operating systems:

Spirit: the vital sign of your leadership

SACRIFICIAL OS: good intentions gone wrong

SUSTAINABLE OS: mastery through mission discipline


© 2012  Rich Snowdon