Stories: The power of knowing yourself and loving yourself

Maybe you're ready to pop....

When I began working with Zoe, she was struggling to get out of start-up mode with her nonprofit, which did policy work and lobbying on early childhood education. She was doing all the classic stuff, putting in the long hours, not getting enough help from her staff, and feeling resentment.

But all this was not sitting well with her. So we talked about what sustainability would look like, and once she got her own personal picture of it she was off and running.

Then one morning she called and said, "I'm an emerging leader."

"Are you?"

"That's what everybody tells me, meaning the other EDs in my field. And that's how I've been thinking about myself. But sometimes I feel like I'm the pet. Like I'm a junior version of a leader and they're the real leaders. It's like, she's so young and there she is running a nonprofit and isn't that cute?"

"So, then?"

"So I don't know. I don't like it."

"Let's see: You started this organization yourself. In three years you've taken it from start up to soaring. You've now got staff you love and active Board members who adore you. You're doing great work and you're in the national spotlight for your work. True?"

"Absolutely true."

"So are you done with being an emerging leader?"

"Wow. Yes, I am. I've accomplished way more than some of the people who talk down to me."

"What do you need to do to own that you're a full-fledged leader?"

"Hmmm, let me think...Okay, I know exactly what I need. I have three best friends and sometimes we go away for a long weekend to our favorite cabin in the Adirondacks. We're going up there this weekend.

"So I see us sitting together in this cozy spot we like by the lake, inside a circle of white pines and paper birches. You know how crazy I am about rituals, but this will be very simple.

"We'll each have a lighted candle and I'll ask them to help me tell the story of my coming of age as a leader. They've been on this journey with me so they'll have a lot to say.

 "I want them to take this step with me. To cross over with me. And when they do, that's what will make it real for me."


Maybe you need to break the spell that's ready to be broken...

Morgan told me, "I've been the ED here for two years now. When our last ED left, the Board talked me into taking the job. They gave me the full-court press. It was impossible to tell them no. And I thought I should do this for the good of the organization.

"But I have to tell you, I used to be a glass-half-full person and I'm not anymore. That's long gone. We're doing really well. The programs are stronger than ever. The funding is as good as anyone could expect. And yet I'm not happy. I feel like Eeyore. But how can I go around complaining when things are good?

"This morning I groaned as I picked up my briefcase to walk out the door. My husband looked at me with a big question mark on his face. A month ago he told me he misses me. He couldn't explain what he meant, but it was unsettling.

"So what should I do?"

I asked Morgan to tell me a dozen stories of her best work moments from throughout her career.

Every one of them was a story about doing clinical work, either directly with clients or mentoring interns.

When I mentioned that fact, her eyes filled with tears. "I miss the direct work. So very much. We're starting up two new programs. If I could have my choice, I'd be the one who runs them."

We talked about that for a few minutes. Then she said, "But I can't go back to clinical work. That's going backwards. And this place depends on me."

I looked at her with a big question mark on my face.

"Okay. Maybe I can. But what would people say?"

"What would you want them to say?"

She took a deep breath. "I'd want them to say, 'Be happy, Morgan. Do what you love doing.'"

"The people who love you, how would they respond if they knew why you want to make this change?"

"They would support me. And my husband would cheer. He'd buy me presents to celebrate."

"And what about the organization?"

"It will be a shock to them."

"The staff you've hired over the last two years, what are they like?"

"Wonderful. That's the thing I do best as ED. I've got a knack for recruiting the best people."

"What if you used that talent to hire a new ED, someone who would love being ED and someone you'd love working with?"

"But wouldn't she feel strange supervising the past ED? You're not supposed to do that are you?"

"How good are your communication skills?"

"I think they're really good. God knows I've spent years learning about good communication."

"So do you think you could find someone with the moxie to be okay with you as clinical director? And who would talk things through with you if any feelings came up. And then together you could make sure the staff really get the change, so they make the transition too, instead of running on old habits."

"I don't see why not."

"In my experience, the trouble comes when the past ED steps down but doesn't let go."

"That won't happen with me. I'd be glad to dump it all on the new person at 9 a.m. on day one."

"So would you say you've got what it takes to do this transition?"

"Yes I do. I'm ready to step down from leadership."

"What do you mean?"

"I'm stepping down. I'm not going to be a leader anymore."

"How about reversing that for a minute? Tell me the ways you're being a leader by making this transition."

"Oh, well, I'm going to work with the Board to hire a new ED. That's a big deal."


"I'm actually going to reshape this organization. It's going to be even stronger after this change. That's leadership."

"And in your new position?"

"Oh, yeh, I forgot about that. I'm going to start up our two new programs. I'm going to hire eight young clinicians. I'm going to train them and supervise them. There's going to be a whole lot of leading going on."

"So you're cool with all this?"

"Very cool. Perfectly cool. The minute we're done here, I'm calling my Board Chair. No, I'm not. I'm calling my husband first and then my Board Chair. I need to give my husband time to go start buying me presents."


Maybe there's a stand you're ready to take for yourself...

Genelle called me one morning for her session and said, "I must be doing something wrong. I'm getting home on time. Actually, two days a week I leave early for my African Dance class. I'm about to take a three-week vacation on an island in a lake in Canada where there's no phone and no e-mail. It's the first time I'll ever be out of touch with the office.

"I'm still working hard and this job still has plenty of challenges, but I'm not stressing anymore, not like other EDs I know. I'm actually having fun being the leader. I feel weird. I feel wrong."

This was after a year and a half of sustained work transforming her nonprofit, bringing it from deep dysfunction and deficit to sustainability and surplus. A foundation president told Genelle, "I've never seen anyone turn an organization around like you have."

So I asked her, "Do you feel wrong enough that you would give up this progress you've made and go back to how things were?"

"No way!"

"So what does that mean?"

"I guess it means I'm still feeling sector pressure, like I should be sacrificing, because if I don't I'm not the kind of noble leader we're supposed to be."

"And your answer to that?"

"Leading like I'm leading is good for me and good for my organization."

"And the sector?"

"I hadn't thought about that. Yes, I'm doing a favor for the sector, too. What I'm doing would be good for lots and lots of leaders if not all of them."

"So you're leading on two levels at the same time. You're a role model. You're a meta-leader. You're like a pioneer or something. There ought to be a name for this."

"There is."




Maybe instead of grinding through a problem, your spirit of play can bring you a happy solution...

Ginny was at her wits end with Brad, the first director of her agency's newest program. She called him a "puzzling pain in the butt."

She had hired him into a great job, so why was he giving her attitude instead of gratitude? She had tried different communication techniques with him to no avail. Argghhh!

In our coaching session, I said, "I'll be you and you be Brad and let's see what happens. Let's not solve anything, let's just play."

In a flash, she dropped her super-responsible leader persona. She got into the character of a puzzling pain in the butt. And she was good at it. She said whatever popped into her mind.

We got goofy and then goofier and in the middle of her laughter, Ginny suddenly stopped and said in a calm voice, "Oh, I get it. I bet Brad's in over his head with this program and he's scared and taking out on me. I bet he doesn't even know he's scared.

"It's suddenly so obvious. I can look back and see so many clues over the past few weeks. I've been too mad at him to empathize with him, so I couldn't really see him.

"Now I know what to do. Now I can be his ally instead of struggling with him. And I know I'll like myself a lot better this way."

It turned out she was right on all counts.


Maybe the pressures of leadership have made you forget who you are, and what you need to do is remember...

Gabriel was a program director who got into coaching to work on team building which I have to say it seemed to me he was already very good at. He jumped in with both feet and was making the kind of progress he wanted.

Then one morning he called and said, "Five minutes ago, I walked into Bob's office and quit my job. I know we had it on the agenda to talk about my future later on, but I couldn't take it anymore. I'll be gone in two weeks."

This was easy to understand. Gabriel had brought in the biggest grant the organization had ever gotten and the ED found fault with him. Gabriel doubled the productivity of his department and the ED found things to criticize. In two years of working there, he never got one thank you from Bob and it had worn him down.

Gabriel immediately started looking for a new job. But the wind had been knocked out of his sails, so he set his sights very low. He was willing to take just about anything.

I asked him if I could give him a "slide show" of himself...

"In the two months we've been coaching, you put together professional development plans with each of your staff and they've loved it.

"They've each told you how much it means to them to work for you.

"Three of them were in tears when you told them you were leaving.

"People tell you that when you run meetings, they not only get a lot done, they have fun doing it.

"You've been elected chair of the Board of Trustees at your church six years in a row. You've brought the church out of debt and it's thriving.

"A foundation officer told you that you were the most enjoyable person she's worked with from any nonprofit ever.

Gabriel told me, "I don't know what to say."

"Take a minute and get cozy with this picture of yourself. Don't try to figure anything out yet, just be with this picture."

He was quiet for a bit, then said, "The truth is that I would like to be in charge of my work. I'd like to be the top leader. It really is true that people like it when I lead. Maybe I should look for an ED job. Or find an ED to work for who respects people as much as I do.

"In this past job, I was like an artist making a beautiful painting and then someone has the right to come in and trash it.

"You called me a people artist once, and maybe that's true, because I like it when people enjoy each other instead of struggling against each other. I like bringing people together in service of something bigger. I like creating that kind of beauty in the world. And now I want to be able to protect it once I've created it."


Maybe you just need to stop and tell yourself the truth...

I asked Jordan, a very successful ED, what he wanted next in his life.

"What I want is impossible so I try not to think about it."

"I'd really like to hear it if you're willing to tell me."

"If you're willing to listen to mere fantasies, okay."

I suggested that he close his eyes as he talked so he could forget about the real world for a bit. I said, "Put your hand over your heart, take an easy breath, and listen. When you can hear your heart talking to you, just simply tell me the truth about what you want."

He said, "I get rave reviews for the policy work I do. And that's the part of the job I like best. That and my staff. I'm deeply bored with the administrative work.

"I have daydreams about being in DC right in the middle of the policy work. Being there in person. I want to have a personal connection with the big-time policy mavens in my field.

"When I fly back there for a day or two, I go with them to their late-night dinners where they have these rock-and-roll conversations. I never feel so alive as I do then. I want to be part of that circle. I want to have influence there.

"But I don't want to leave my place here. And I really don't want to leave my staff. We've been through so much together. I can't just walk out of here and start a new life."

I said, "I'm hearing two different needs, stay and go, both very strong. Imagine they've been strangers, but now you introduce them to each other and ask them to talk over their differences.

Jordan's enough of a ham that he did two different voices back and forth and in three minutes he had his conclusion.

"Here's the deal. I'm going to rent a tiny studio apartment in DC so I can live there for a couple months a couple times a year at the key times. I'll keep my place here. We have one position vacant. I'll shut it down and hire an operations director. Or maybe I'll hire an ED and promote myself to president. It would be great to have that on my business card in DC.

"Now that I'm allowing myself to want what I want, the details seem easy. Well, not easy, but doable. They're not a problem."

Within six months, Jordan made a place for himself in that circle of colleagues. Within a year his increased presence in DC brought in a modest chunk of new funding to his organization, so the change was a financial gain instead of a loss.

And even though his staff get to see less of him, everyone gets to see more of him, meaning more of who he is and what he can do in the world.


Maybe you'll decide to give yourself permission to take as much time as you need to go as deep as you need to go so you can be who you want to be...

Paula said, "I've got it all figured out. I let my staff perform at a much lower level than they could. That's because I want them all to depend on me. I don't prevent crises because when I step in and save the day, I feel like I am somebody. I'm an approval junkie. I want all the big praise for myself.

"I know this is wrong. In fact, I think it's disgusting. But it's how I've been since I was a kid. I have it all figured out but I still haven't been able to stop it. Is there any hope for me?"

"Tell me about the part of you that wants things to be different."

"Last week I woke up in the middle of the night from a dream where I was in a paper sack like a giant garment bag zipped closed. It was only paper, but I couldn't get out. It was suffocating me. When I woke I started sobbing."

"So thinking about that, is there hope for you?"

"I really hate the way I'm living. I'm all thin and stretched from trying to do too much. I'm exhausted from chasing crises. And making people depend on me hurts my relationships. Not just with my staff, but in my personal life, too."

"And what about hope?"

"I guess hating this is hopeful. Is that what you're seeing?"


"Then what do I do to break free?"

"What's your happiest vision of leadership?"

"'s actually what we do with the kids. That's weird. I don't rescue our teens. When I was program director I insisted on them finding their strengths and learning how to do as much as possible for themselves. I believed in them.

"But I treat my staff as if they're babies. Wow. It's like there are two completely different sides to me."

"What does that say about hope?"

"It really gives me something to work with."

The first thing Paula did was assess her staff. At the end of the first month, she said, "I've now had forthright conversations with each of them about the changes I'm making here. Four of them are eager to step up. Susie actually told me if I'd just get out of her way she could do a whole lot more.

"The other six staff want nothing to do with change. There's serious resistance there. It's kind of overwhelming."

"What matters most?"

"I know you're going to say I'm what matters most."

"That's what I'd say. What would you say?"

"Oh, if you really press me I'd say the same thing. I'm starting to get that."

"What if you focused all your change energy on the four willing staff and let the others cruise along as they are for now? What would that give you?"

"That definitely works for me. I see the advantage. The first thing I need to do is get this change locked in for myself, before I take on all that resistance."

"That's what I'm thinking. Treat yourself with kindness. This is a very big change. It's okay to take your time with it."

So that's what she did for the next three months: "I really love working with my change team. It's making me stronger in my resolve."

"What's that say about hope?"

"Very good things indeed."

In month four, her program director, who was the most resistant, resigned to take another job across town.

Paula said, "Now I have a big chance for a big change. You don't even have to say anything because I know what question you're going to ask."


"And the answer is that I need a partner in this position. I need someone like my four top staff only even more so. The person in line for this job internally is out of the question. He's not getting with the changes.

"I want someone who can't even imagine letting the staff be babies. I want someone with boundaries in her bones and expectations in her soul."

"What would be the very best scenario?"

"It would be someone I could learn from, someone who could inspire me. And bingo!"


"I know who that is. Miriama is part of our coalition. I've seen her with teens. I've seen her at our meetings. She's very young, younger than anyone here. But she's super responsible and she's got the perfect attitude. She's so supportive, but you wouldn't dream of messing with her. I don't know about the experience thing though."

"What do you think it would take for her to succeed?"

"Lots of mentoring. Lots. Is that different than rescuing?"

"What would make it different?"

"If I don't do even one little bit of her job for her. If I challenge her as well as support her. If I'm her ally instead of trying to take her journey for her."

Paula had three long conversations with Miriama and liked everything she heard. They made a detailed working agreement. And then when Paula told Miriama about the changes she was making personally, Miriama lit up. They sealed the deal.

Paula told me, "Hold me accountable to being a mentor. I'm going to need to watch this closely so I don't backslide."

Over the next six months she and Miriama called the question with the six resistant staff. Four of them got on board, one of them left on his own, and the last one they fired.

Paula said, "Doing that firing, taking that kind of stand for our new standards, would have been unimaginable nine months ago. After that firing was over, when I stopped by the women's room, I saw myself in the mirror, and thought, 'How far you've come, girl.'"

One year after she had first phoned me, Paula called and said, "Last night we got an award from the mayor. But I didn't go up on stage to receive it. I asked Miriama go up by herself and get it."

"What was that like for you?"

"I had a pang, just one, just for a moment. Wanting to be in the spotlight. Wanting that moment of big approval.

"But then I had this rush. Miriama was beaming. She couldn't stop smiling. Me either. She's done so well. I've mentored her like crazy. But she's inspired me like crazy. It's a lovely partnership.

"And her parents and grandparents were there. So very proud. No one in their family had ever been honored like this.

"Her mom hugged me and there were tears in her eyes and she whispered, 'Thank you.'"

"In that moment I got it. What was left of that big garment bag turned to paper dust and blew away. Praise and approval are nothing. Not compared to love. And now I know I'm going to be okay. It's not just a hope. Now I know it."


Want more stories? Here are four favorites.


Complete confidentiality is part of the coaching I do. 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, and I have a lot of them on this site, I change details, sometimes every single detail. The fiction writer in me takes over. But I want you to know that the spirit and message of every story is absolutely true to life.


© 2009  Rich Snowdon