Spirit: the vital sign of your leadership

Look up the meaning of "spirit" in your thesaurus and you'll find synonyms like: immaterial, disembodied, and ethereal.

But you'll also find: lively, animated, vigorous, vivacious, spunky, and courageous. These are the words I like.

To me, spirit means spirited.

And I believe...

Your spirit is the vital sign of your leadership.

It's a quick diagnostic: Is your spirit sustaining you? Is it taking your soaring? Or is it being sacrificed?

If you're exhausted, if your stomach is in knots, if you're turning bitter, if you find it hard to care anymore, please remember...

Anytime your spirit is missing in action, you get to declare a state of emergency and go get it back—whatever that takes.

Spirit is a sign, but it's more than that. It's your vitality itself. It's what powers your leadership forward. And it's not just for special moments, it's for everyday use because...

Spirit is not spun sugar, it's a work horse.

All on its own it can solve problems for you, even tough ones...

Jackie called me in tears about Vera, her Board president. Vera was an intimidating personality, she was a VIP in the community, and this was the third time she had trashed Jackie in a public meeting.

Jackie told me, "It makes no sense. When I took over a year ago, we had a deficit of $30,000 and now we have a reserve of $20,000. Wouldn't you be thrilled with an ED who could do that?

"And our productivity is way up and still climbing. It seems like my staff are telling me every day how happy they are that I'm here.

"I've tried talking with Vera. I've used all the skills I've learned in every communication class I've ever taken, but none of it seems to make a dent in her attitude.

"I'm happy in this job, except every time the phone rings I brace myself wondering if it's Vera calling with another complaint. Sometimes I think she just likes to see me jump. And Board meetings are unbearable. Sitting in the same room with that woman, keeping a smile on my face.

"I'm crying this morning, but I really feel like screaming. I have absolutely no idea what to do about Vera.

I asked Jackie to keep talking about what it was like to have Vera in her life. She went deeper into it, shuttling back and forth between anger and tears. The more she looked at it, the more she could see just how badly this situation was hurting her.

Then her sense of fight started to come back. So I said, "I have a suggestion for you to consider. What if for the next two weeks you absolutely stop trying to figure out anything about Vera? That means that you focus entirely on yourself. Instead of trying to stop Vera, you focus only on how you need to take care of yourself given that you are under attack. What if you take a Vera vacation?"

She shouted, "Yes! I need a break!"

The Monday afternoon right before the next Board meeting, as part of this plan, Jackie went to a drop-in judo class instead of sitting at her desk in a state of dread. She rushed back to the office ten minutes before the meeting, having spent two hours throwing fellow students to the floor. Her cheeks were rosy and the judo mood was in her.

Vera arrived with her contribution to the Board potluck. She banged her Tupperware container on the table, yanked off the lid, slammed it on the counter, and barked at Jackie, "I need a serving fork. Now!"

Instead of jumping up to run and get one, which she would have done in the past to calm Vera down, Jackie replied, "They're in the orange cabinet next to the sink." And then she pointed.

Jackie told me later, "I was surprised by what I heard myself say and was so busy replaying it in my mind that I don't know exactly what Vera did, but I guess she went and got the fork, because it was there on the table when the meeting started.

"And during that meeting, I found myself focusing my attention on the other Board members who I like. I heard everything Vera said, I responded to all her questions, but I was so detached from her, it was like she wasn't there."

The next morning Vera e-mailed Jackie: "I'm resigning. I don't like the attitude over there anymore."

Jackie called me and said, "Who would have guessed that when the moment of truth came, it would be over a serving fork?! One sentence, that's all it took."

But of course, we knew it wasn't the sentence that made the difference, it was Jackie's spirit. Vera could feel the shift in Jackie, knew it was the real thing, and knew her bullying wouldn't work anymore.

Jackie told me, "The trick was that I wasn't trying any tricks. It wasn't a pose or a strategy that I was trying. I wasn't trying anything! Something in me just snapped, and suddenly I was totally calm inside. I wasn't even conscious of what I was doing. it just felt so right and so utterly simple."


Next is a story in which spirit turns a mess into a blessing.

Trudy had a staff person, Jessica, who gossiped behind her back. She sniped at Trudy's leadership style, how she wore her hair, and how she dressed. Trudy hated it but didn't want to take the time to deal with it.

Then one day Jessica made a cutting comment about Trudy's dog.

Trudy heard about it, called me, and said, "This is the last straw. I'm not putting up with this anymore. Nobody messes with Trixie. "

For months Trudy had been pushing her anger aside. Suddenly here it all was. I started asking her questions. After a little while her anger shifted into sadness, and then she was speaking from her heart instead of her distress.

She said that Jessica did good work. It was only her attitude that sucked. And she actually liked Jessica, which is what made the snarky gossip especially hurtful.

I said, "How about a what-if? You told me that Jessica's half your age and this is her first job out of college. It's clear she's seriously screwing up her own future as well as your mood.

"What if you imagined yourself as her aunt? You love her and you can see exactly how she's making a mess of things at her job. What would you say to her? How would you reach through all the crap and get her to pay attention?

"Keep in mind that you can fire her tomorrow if you need to, but what kind of conversation do you want to have with her today?"

Trudy didn't exactly know, so she role played a series of forthright conversations, trying out different approaches until one landed.

Then she said, "Okay, I've got it. I know what I need to say to Jessica, not as her boss, but what I, Trudy, need to say to her."

The next morning she called me and told me, "It worked! Being so personal and direct with Jessica threw her for a loop. She blurted out two things that are going on in her life and they're both serious. She acts snippy and puffed up, but she's just a scared kid.

"She promised me that she would change her attitude and I believe she will because she was painfully honest about herself. She also knows that I won't accept anything less."

"I'm glad to get this settled. I don't have time to go through the whole hiring thing right now.

"But what gets to me most is the difference it will make in Jessica's life not to have been fired from her first job."


Sometimes spirit tosses you a surprise.

In her session, Evie told me: "I've got it! Finally, finally. This moxie thing I've been working on for the past three months, this morning I can feel it settling into my bones.

Three weeks later when she called she said: "You know those two bullies on my staff who have been so mean and impossible? They're gone!"

"Wow, what did you do?"

"Nothing. It's just that every day since my breakthrough, I've been walking around the office feeling like I could burst into song. Neither of the bullies said a word to me in all this time. They slipped off somewhere whenever they saw me coming. And yesterday I found their resignation letters sitting neatly side by side in the center of my desk when I came in."

"What do you make of that?"

"They got it just from looking at me that it's a new day around here. They could read the writing on the wall. Or the writing on the Evie. Too bad they didn't step up to the challenge and get on the team. But if they're not ready to do that, then I'm happy they're gone.

"And I'm especially happy they took care of it themselves. I didn't have to lift a finger, just my spirit."


And spirit can take you soaring:

As a child Linda did nonstop caretaking—mother, father, sisters, and brother. So when she became an executive director, she did the same thing with her staff, Board, and clients.

It was exhausting for her. In our coaching sessions, she'd tell me about coming home at night so tired and wired that she often couldn't eat and she was losing weight she couldn't afford to lose.

Her saving grace was that she hated living like this. Her spirit rebelled. She spent a rigorous year and a half putting together her sustainable operating system, piece by piece. She was so very serious about doing this, and the further she went with it, the more compelling it became.

Then one morning she called me and said, "Nadine, my new Board chair, is like my new best friend and she's got years of experience leading fundraising campaigns.

"I told my Board I needed her to be in charge. So in her first meeting, they elected her Chair and now she's got everyone fired up."

How hard was it for Linda to recruit Nadine? She didn't recruit her. One day Nadine said, "I love being around you. Put me to work!" So Linda did.

Lucy said, "I get charged up when I'm with you." So Linda snapped her right up.

Zack said, "I'm a better man when I'm around you," and suddenly he was on her team.

Katie said, "There's something about you..."

And then there was Norma and Nina and Alex.

Linda was in a state of shock. She was getting serious help without even asking. People she had long admired were coming to her.

She said, "This is so different from having to work so hard for every single scrap. I understand this is what you mean when you talk about soaring. But why? What's making this happen? What's the secret?

Then she started laughing, sweet, sweet laughter, and said with a touch of shyness, "Oh, I've fallen in love with myself. Is that okay to say out loud? It's true. It's true!"


Want more stories? Click here.


This page is the prequel to the three operating systems which you can check out here if you like:

Sacrificial Operating System
the killing of spirit

Sustainable Operating System
the development of spirit

Premier Operating System
the triumph of spirit


Complete confidentiality is part of coaching. Any client deserves it, but I think nonprofit leaders, being so much in the spotlight and under the microscope, have a special need for it.

So when I write up stories and scenarios, I change details, lots of them, sometimes every single detail. The fiction writer in me takes over. But I want you to know that the spirit and message of each story is absolutely true to life.


© 2008 Rich Snowdon