Leadership “Sanctuary”

14 Nov 2011 12:54 PM | Kathleen Loehr

We are out front all the time as leaders, needing to make fast decisions often with few facts, responding to the fire hose of challenges, holding the emotional needs of our constituents, donors, board and staff. When do WE get renewed and re-centered?

I remember leading the fundraising at the American Red Cross national headquarters when Hurricane Katrina hit. From that moment through the next nine months, we worked non-stop. There was no choice. Millions of lives were depending on the dollars we were raising to be sheltered, fed, provided with early financial assistance. It was a never-ending blur of go-go-go, eating whenever we could, getting little sleep because that took away from the time of helping others. Many of us left the Red Cross after that experience, even though we didn’t want to. We just couldn’t stay any longer. We were burned out.

A friend of mine came to DC three years ago to run a national nonprofit. He found he needed to do a turn-around, and proceeded to work 70+ hour weeks with only 12 days off across the three years. He’s been incredibly successful. The organization is now steady with increased credibility and compelling strategic influence. However, he too speaks of burn-out, of losing his core self, of always extending to others first and not taking care of his own needs.

This is the situation across nonprofits–leaders who give their all, and then leave because they can’t do it any longer. And the next generation of potential nonprofit leaders behind us has watched and is voting with their feet. “Nope”, they are saying – that life balance is not for me. This is an unsustainable formula in our nonprofit sector. We can no longer model the “all on-all off” model of leadership. We must learn for ourselves, and teach others, to find the moments of sanctuary throughout the days and weeks to renew, rather than working full out and lurching exhausted towards a day off here and there, or leaving our positions altogether.

What is “sanctuary in the moment” for a leader? It is engaging in small generative practices that give us greater access to our full selves so we act with greater calm, resilience and wisdom with any choice that arises. Generative practices are ones we do over and over so they become engrained and part of our very essence. They support us in any endeavor we take on by helping us over-ride our unconscious, conditioned response to stress and replace that with conscious action that keeps us connected to what we most care about. We can’t stop the pace, but we can change how we choose to be with all that comes at us.

There are many generative practices to support our inner sanctuary; how we breathe, find center in chaos, manage our moods, lead difficult conversations and situations with greater awareness. We have been and will continue discussing practices to find one’s own sanctuary through these blogs.

However, before we choose a new path, we must be conscious about “what is” right now in our leadership lives. I challenge you to watch yourself across this week. In moments of stress, where is your breath? Is it high and shallow? Are you holding it? What is your mood in the face of stress? Do you feel open (hopeful, positive, energetic) or closed (frustrated, angry, hopeless)? How does your mood affect the action you choose to take? How does it affect your conversations and ability to connect to others who might help? Feel into your presence. Are you feeling centered, or are you leaning forward talking fast, or leaning back not engaging? Do you constantly speak of overwhelm and burnout?

There is no judgment here. Just notice and consider what the influence your automatic reaction to stress has on you, your leadership actions and your presence with others. It is from that awareness that we can then generate a supportive leadership path away from stress towards resilience, calm and choice. Post a comment on what you normally do unconsciously when stressed–I’m sure there will be many other leaders who share your reactions!!


  • 15 Dec 2011 6:45 AM | Grace Lee
    Thanks for this message Kathleen! I need to print it out and hang it over my desk as a constant reminder to stay centered and balanced.....and breathe!
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