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  • 24 Jan 2012 8:55 PM | Kathleen Loehr

    Managing my mood is one leadership choice I always have, regardless of the situation. I can bring myself back into my center – my sanctuary – by noticing and shifting my mood, or I can keep myself off center by staying in a mood that does not serve.

    I learned this in a very real way a few years ago. I was heading up the fundraising for a large nonprofit which meant my days were filled with endless meetings with donors and board members and staff, as well as working on planning, strategy and budgeting. One Tuesday, I left the building almost in tears. It had been a hard day – almost every meeting had been fraught with issues, personalities and politics. Why, I wondered, am I still in this job?

    On a Tuesday four weeks later, I was packing up my briefcase at the end of an exhilarating day. I had laughed a lot with my team, enjoyed the strategy session with the board chair and felt energized by all we had accomplished. As I was filing away that day’s calendar, I noticed that it was an exact replica of the Tuesday calendar from the previous month – same meetings, same people, same agendas.

    I realized in that moment that the only difference had been me. I remembered that I had started the first Tuesday in a mood of resignation – “Nothing I am doing is making a difference”. The following month my mood was one of calm anticipation – I was looking forward to seeing what the team and the board chair had to offer. The starkly different results of each “twin” day had been due to entirely different moods.

    A mood is not simply our thoughts about a situation; it is a bodily phenomena. When I am anxious, I don’t just think I’m anxious, I am – with shallow breath, tight chest, and shoulders drawn in protectively. And a mood is not fleeting. A thought can come and go, but a mood will stay in our body for a period of time, especially if we remain unaware of it – I’ll keep taking shallow breaths and feeling tight as I go through a day. What we need to understand about a mood is that it determines what we are able to express. For example, it is hard for me to express a strategy calmly when I’m gripped with anxiety. So it would have been unlikely on the first Tuesday for me to lead generative, fun meetings when I was in a mood of resignation.

    Choice follows awareness. If I am aware of my mood, it does not have power over me. I can instead choose consciously to stay with a mood or alter it. And from that choice comes action – I sit up, breath deeply and relax my shoulders – moving myself consciously from a mood of stress to one of curiosity, or calm, or any number of alternative moods that will support my objective in the moment.

    Consider doing a self-inventory on your moods – get to know them really well!! How do you normally start the day, or a staff meeting, or a conversation in the hall? Name your moods, track the various ones that you observe. Do you have predominant moods? How do they impact you, and others? Add a post to our blog and share what you notice!

  • 23 Dec 2011 3:55 PM | Kathleen Loehr
    As each day becomes shorter and grayer, once again the energy of the season pulls us to reflect, find comfort, and express appreciation and gratitude. The cool night sky is clear enough, as a friend said last evening, “...that you can point to anywhere from earth and see the beginning of the universe.” The holiday season often seems like a mix of pleasure and panic, fun and frustration. Some call it stress! As a small gift, here are a few practices that may increase your enjoyment.

    Measure for Meaning. If you give yourself a way to measure the meaning of items on your to-do list, you might not get to it all, but you will focus on the people and the tasks that are most important to you. The measure may be a question...ask:  In what ways is what I am planning/doing important? What does going to this party mean to me? How important is it to me to say “yes?” Will this person/occasion bring me joy? Come up with your own questions. You may be surprised at some of your answers. They may free you to say no at times, and push some items to the top of your list and others off the list.

    Breathe. Make extra space for breathing breaks in your day. If you give yourself 2 minutes 4-6 times a day, you will be amazed. In those few minutes, sit comfortably and breathe deeply. You may want to close your eyes. You may want to imagine someone or something you love. Don’t have time for this? Try it: when you first get up, arrive at work, lunch time, when you go to the restroom, when you are leaving for work, get into your car a few minutes early and sit quietly before you start the motor, after dinner and/or before bed. You will enjoy each moment and be present in a more attentive way.

    Turn Tasks into Treasures. The holidays, all of your days, hold possibilities for rituals that symbolize your values and support your life. Hold each of the gifts you wrap and unwrap for an extra moment and give it a holiday wish. Write a short note to include in each child's/partner/spouse's bag, or place on her/his pillow. As you serve a bowl of soup or dessert offer a magic word. Offer a prayer when you are at a stop sign. All these beget richness.

    Pause. Find time to be alone for a few hours or several days. Turn off your phones and electronic devices. Build a fire or not. Listen to quiet chants or not. Lie down on a cushy blanket on the floor with a small pillow under your neck, or on a couch you can sink into. Pay attention to the places where your body contacts the floor or couch, and find the most pleasurable position. Let yourself get heavy; feel your limbs and your back give in to gravity, and as you do so, sink deeper into pleasure and rest. If you fall asleep, it’s ok. Notice how tired you are, and rest. When you are able to stay in this position and stay awake, may you find the joy of pure being in this space of reflection.

    These practices help us sustain the balance we need to live and work generatively. They bring us into the present moment and help us let go of the past and the future....may they enrich you also.  When the stress of the past and future become too burdensome to carry, we lose the vitality of the present. We send you warm thoughts at this solstice, may the holidays find you celebrating your loved ones, filled with gratitude and generosity.

    May you live peacefully, juicily and joyfully throughout the coming year.
  • 21 Nov 2011 10:12 AM | Kathleen Loehr

    Thanksgiving is upon us, providing a pause to reflect, be grateful and connect with those we care about. Last week I challenged you to notice your own automatic responses when stressed at work. The holidays can add additional stress: travel, rushing, more To Do’s appearing as we ponder gifts and family expectations on top of year-end work challenges. As leaders, we can use this holiday week for additional self-awareness. How well do we connect deeply with and listen to others and ourselves?

    Being a committed listener is a powerful leadership move. A committed listener is one who is fully present, focused on what is occurring in the conversation immediately in front of him/her. In that moment s/he is attending to what is being said, what is underneath that is not being said, and what the potential choices are resulting from the conversation. When I’m listened to like that, I feel valued and heard, and I’m more likely to stay in collaboration with the listener. When I listen in this way as a leader, I feel connected and expanded. I’ve learned that I actually expand my reach and impact when I center and provide this level of listening to my internal and external partners.

    It wasn’t always this way for me. I grew up in a big family. I’m one of eight siblings. A gathering in our family is never small. We are 35 strong when the immediate family is gathered for weddings or graduations, and small gatherings with only two siblings and their families add up to at least nine! I learned early on to NOT listen to just one person at a time. It wasn’t easy with that many people, noise and level of activity. Since we know that we are what we practice, I was unconsciously practicing many times a day the ability to carry on more than one conversation at a time, while guarding my turf (be it my bedroom, dinner plate or toys), and thinking about my family and school chores. I learned to multi-task in my listening at a young age!

    That was the listening style I brought to my early leadership. My style worked for the many disasters we responded to at the American Red Cross when we sorting through multiple issues to make decisions quickly almost every 30-60 minutes. It did NOT serve me in building strong relationships with my team and donors. They could tell that I wasn’t fully present, that something else held my attention in addition to what they were saying. I talked fast, often interrupting as though I knew what they were going to say, and I’d move to solutions before they felt really heard.

    My leadership journey included changing my listening presence with others. However, as I said last week, the step before change is self-awareness. What exactly are our automatic responses under stress? What have we practiced unconsciously throughout our lives until now, and does it still serve us?

    Being with our families and loved ones during the busy holidays can reveal clearly our deep automatic tendencies when listening. Here is my challenge to further deepen your self-awareness under stress. Pay attention to HOW you listen when you are with family and friends this week. Where is your presence? Are you centered, leaning forward or pulling away? Are you half listening and also aware of what is happening in the kitchen or on TV? Do you fully sense the person in front of you and what they care about? Could you repeat what they said and their concerns after the conversation is over? Take mental notes and later write down what was revealed. Share with others on our blog–I’m sure you are not alone in how you listen under stress!

  • 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!!

  • 28 Oct 2011 3:00 PM | Kathleen Loehr
    That was the summary quote in a recent Chronicle of Philanthropy article discussing two recent surveys of nonprofit workers. Four out of ten workers in Washington DC and New York City said that the factors they ranked as most essential are not on display at their nonprofits: “respect, trust, and support by management” as well as a sense that their organization has “a compelling mission.” Seventy percent of workers in the two surveys said their jobs were either disappointing or only somewhat fulfilling.

    Ouch – it is hard to hear this. We are running, running, running as leaders, trying to meet the needs of our many internal and external constituents as we drive toward our mission objectives. And our staff is complaining?? What is wrong with them?

    Let’s take a step back – literally. A step back to fully plant our feet on the ground. Why? I know that when I’m running fast, I’m in my head thinking ahead and extending forward, and I literally hold my entire body in a forward position – on the balls of my feet, upper body leaning ahead of my core. My attention is extended and I’m not listening to those around me. While it feels like forward motion, I’m not giving myself much stability – I can easily be knocked over. It is a difficult position from which to feel my own back and personal support, let alone support others.

    If I’m not taking care of my own needs, it is hard to be present to and support the needs of those closest to me. When I constantly lean “forward” as a leader, I feel alone and isolated, and those around me can feel unconnected and not heard – which can translate to not feeling respected.

    Many leaders will respond to this survey by talking to their staff, doing their own survey, creating task forces. While that will gather useful information and help design action steps, I suggest you also practice the simple move of sitting down and relaxing or taking a few deep breaths several times a day. Just doing this will bring you more present to your self and your staff, and you’ll have more space to listen to what they have to share.

    For this week, pay attention to being on your heels and being aligned over your feet and core. When sitting, fully sit on your tailbone, rather than leaning forward. You will feel more grounded by simply touching the floor and the earth below. Then breathe fully into that strong column of leadership that is you, feet on the floor or solid seat on the chair. You’ll be surprised by how much more present and supported you feel. And you’ll notice you’ll start hearing more – from your instincts and from your staff – about the right next moves to support each other. Try it and please let us know what you are learning!

  • 20 Oct 2011 2:32 PM | Kathleen Loehr

    The Nike ad of “Just Do It” is relevant as we take on intentional practices. Or, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, practice.”

    When we began this series on The Power of Practice, I noted that we are what we practice. So practice is how we transform ourselves. We make a commitment to BE an athlete (Nike), or a musician (Carnegie Hall), or a powerful leader (TLS readers). We don’t make a commitment to DO, but to BE. And we can’t expect to BE our commitment in the heat of the moment in an athletic competition, or on stage, or inspiring our organization – it won’t show up if we’ve not practiced, regularly, through all the hard moments, the “I can’t do this” doubts.

    We step into our leadership with the commitment and expectation that we can transform our organization to achieve even greater results for our mission. Yet transformation starts with us. What transformation inside yourself are you longing for, willing to go full out for? That is your commitment. And what is happening inside you that stops your from reaching for that vision or going full out? That is your gap. And then, what new practices are you willing to take on, do regularly, despite doubt and resistance yet always come back to? That is your path to personal transformation. And whom can you share this with? That is your support along this new path.

    Your transformation is indeed possible if you practice with full presence. Pay attention to what is showing up in your emotions, the stories in your head, your physical sensations and breath. All that noticing is giving you feedback in real time to make adjustments. It was in the not noticing that we were doing our default practices. With our full presence, we are consciously committing to show up in the world differently, and making that happen minute by minute through repetition and intentional new choices. And it is in sharing with vulnerability our path that we gain a second pair of eyes to see what we cannot see about ourselves, to gain even more input on how we can more powerfully align our behaviors with our vision.

    Your action?  “Just Do It.” Begin today, with wherever you are, to BE in the commitment you've chosen, to start your practices, and to seek a colleague or friend to support you on your path with honest feedback and peer support. And please share - let us know through your comments how you are doing. Your sharing helps build our community of powerful leaders as we learn from one another.

  • 17 Oct 2011 2:14 PM | Kathleen Loehr

    You’ve reflected on what you care about, what commitment you are stretching towards. This week let’s talk about the nitty gritty of taking on intentional practices to actually help you achieve your commitment.

    I’ll use my own example to reveal the pitfalls and power of intentional practices. Three years ago I made a commitment to be bolder in my leadership. I was told that I often showed up as a #2, making sure that THE leader was well supported and follow-up actions occurred toward goals. I knew I was capable of leading big organizations and complicated projects. However, what I had practiced over and over, from childhood through my career, was being #2. I was the 2nd child in my family and that shaped my actions up to that point. I knew really well how to manage up. I was rewarded early on for making life easy for those in positions of authority.

    I designed specific practices to be bolder. For example, I practiced speaking first in meetings rather than waiting for others to speak and then fitting my opinions into what had already been said. I also began making clear and specific requests of my peers, rather than just responding. Outside of work, I took courses from the Strozzi Leadership Institute and learned many key practices to show up more fully in my leadership. One was a simple martial arts practice with a “jo”, a long wooden stick, to reveal to myself, immediately, when my body was holding back, or when I was leaning too far forward, eager to please. Practicing 31 moves with the jo over and over helped me solidify the behavior of standing tall in my own center as a leader in meetings and in making requests. I also started a sitting practice. Sitting 10-15 minutes at least four times a week built up my capacity to listen INTO myself, rather than what was swirling around me and in my constant stream of thoughts.

    Sounds easy? Well, it wasn’t. It was HARD to be a beginner again. I knew my old way of being so well that it was easy to slip back into managing up. And others knew me in that old way too so they turned to me as a #2. I learned the hard way that taking on intentional practices revealed vividly all my resistance to change. I absolutely wanted to become a bolder leader, but I had to go through the overt and covert frustrations, denial, numbness, and daydreaming without action that continually showed up.

    For instance, working with my jo was exciting at first. I liked the powerful moves and the power I felt stirred in me.  But then it waned – I began finding excuses for not practicing. I got impatient – I wanted new results NOW – so didn’t recognize the small shifts of increased strength and focus. I also liked getting kudos for managing up well and didn’t yet see similar internal or external recognition for taking on bolder, but possibly more vulnerable and lonely, leadership. Bottom line? I didn’t feel like “me” anymore. I knew I no longer wanted to do what I had done in the past, but I wasn’t yet the new me I was striving for.

    What kept me going was my commitment. It was a siren call forward, despite the resistance, discomfort and ease of stepping back into what I knew. Reflect on your commitment this week. Is it compelling enough to carry you forward through the inevitable breakdowns that will occur as you practice new actions? Is it intellectually, emotionally and spiritually engaging enough to organize your choices over and over towards it, despite discomfort? Take time to feel into your chosen commitment towards YOUR leadership and sense if it has the power to mobilize you, even when the going gets tough, towards that future that you’ve boldly declared. Speak your commitment to others and ask for honest feedback to learn if the power of your commitment is palpable!

  • 07 Oct 2011 4:35 PM | Kathleen Loehr

    Last week I talked about default practices – those behaviors we practiced over and over that are now rooted in us unconsciously. The behaviors can happen without us even noticing, or it feels like we had no choice – “that is just who I am” or “I always do that.”

    To grow and change, we need to undertake intentional practices. We can intentionally choose behaviors that are aligned with our values and practice them over and over such that they are imbedded in us whenever we have a moment of choice. Practicing “on purpose” is transformative – we build up our behavioral “muscles” so as to consistently act from our principles and take effective action each day to fulfill on what we care deeply about.

    The first step in practicing “on purpose” is to ask yourself what you care about. What matters to you? What are you committed to? We don’t practice for the sake of practice. That is like exercising because we are “supposed” to – and we know that does not last. We practice because we are committed to a vision. First gain clarity on your commitments, or what future you want to step into. Then you have a guide to develop the practices that will help you get to that future state.

    You may already know this process. Perhaps you exercise regularly due to a vision of health, or longevity to be with your grandchildren. That vision keeps you going when it is cold out, or your meetings all run long. In the moment of choice, you more often choose to exercise because of that larger commitment.

    Once you choose what you care about, and design a practice to help you attain it, then the work is IN the practice – the doing it. Ahh, there is the rub! We are what we practice – there is no short cut. Part III will discuss both the difficulty and the transformative power of doing our intentional practices.

    For this week, stay focused on clarifying your commitments as a leader and the intentional practices you might develop. What is your vision for your organization? How do you want to transform how you show up? If you have a vision of becoming a bolder leader, you might practice leading difficult conversations or meetings. If you are committed to building stronger alliances in the community, you might design a practice of calling two different community leaders a day to simply connect and build a relationship. Spend some time reflecting, then share with a peer or leave a comment. We can break our own and others’ isolation if we share what we care deeply about and our commitment to practice new behaviors to achieve our goals. What have you tried? What suggestions can you offer?

  • 30 Sep 2011 11:19 AM | Kathleen Loehr
    As my karate teacher used to say, practice does not make perfect, it makes permanent. What we've done before, we tend to do again. (Martha Beck)

    There is so much to say about the power of practice that it will span a series of blogs. For today, let’s start at the very beginning. What is Practice?

    Practice is a repeated behavior we do over and over, often unconsciously. It can be as simple as typing an email or as complicated as producing the monthly financial reports. Many minute data points, actions, processes were learned in sequence over time to produce a result consistently.

    I remember learning how to drive a car. I was scared when I was behind the wheel trying to figure out the pedals, shift, turn signals, and mirrors—and still keep my eye on the road. I was incredibly awkward on my first drives—cutting corners too close, bumping the car behind me when parking, driving off from the gas station with the hose still in my car! But with practice I learned to drive evenly, confidently, and soon could get to my friend’s house without even thinking about it. With this new skill, I was a different person. I was now a driver. A whole new world opened up for me.

    That is the result we are looking for as leaders to reach our “whole new world,” also known as our vision. We need to consistently act from our values and principles and take effective action each day to fulfill on that vision.

    Yet how many of us are that focused, that consistent? I certainly got pulled off center very easily by demands, disruptions, and my own internal dissonance when I felt overwhelmed. My old practice of overextending myself kept me racing and responding to others’ urgency. Immediate problems got solved, yet we did not move the needle on achieving our vision.

    What are the unconscious practices that keep you from moving toward your vision? These are default practices—the ones done consistently, automatically and unconsciously in response to any situation. We learned these default practices through our life experience. They helped us survive, belong, feel in control. But that does not mean they serve us today in our leadership.

    Ponder your default practices this week. What shows up automatically under stress? That is a great time to witness what you do without thinking. Do you move away or toward conflict? Can you feel or tolerate emotional chaos or do you go numb, or try to have someone else deal with it? When you feel at a loss, do you cover it up, blame someone else, or take on more to compensate?

    By becoming aware of what you do automatically, you begin to loosen the hold of default practices that others see but you may not be aware of. “We are what we practice.”

  • 23 Sep 2011 12:28 PM | Kathleen Loehr
    As we mentioned last week (see previous blog), The Leadership Sanctuary is about creating breakthroughs in a leader’s resilience and creating the space to tap into your core leadership skills.

    The biggest leadership breakthroughs start with a commitment to change within yourself. How often do we make commitments to ourselves, big and small?  Often! How often do we keep them? Far too rarely.  

    It takes rigor and focus to deliver on any commitment, and the greatest rigor is needed for personal commitments. Somehow it is easier to deliver on a commitment to others—our Board chair, our staff, our funder, than ourselves.  

    Successfully keeping our commitments does not come through our heads. A leader who is committed to empowering her team can read books on the subject, intellectually understand the material, and speak convincingly to others about empowered teams. Yet if her actions do not change, her team is still disempowered.  

    To fulfill on a commitment we must intentionally set in motion new behaviors and organize ourselves to practice those new behaviors regularly until they become embodied – part of who we are even without thinking. That is why The Leadership Sanctuary starts you out immediately with a commitment when you sign up – you commit to the full year, showing up on time each month, not being allowed more than one absence in the year. Anything more and you are asked to leave the group.

    To fulfill on this commitment, you organize your calendar to make the meetings.  You organize your day to leave on time. You consciously say NO to that one more phone call, or grant, or meeting, to spend this time with your group of peers. This is not easy – we know that. We hold you to it, however, because it is a practice to commit to yourself. To put yourself first for three hours every month, practice your leadership skills and build a peer community. To model to yourself, your peers, the volunteers and staff back at your organization the benefits of pausing to reflect, gain insights and clarity for the work ahead.

    “You must become the change you seek” - M. K. Gandhi

    Take a moment to consider the commitments you have made in your work. Have you articulated the new behaviors and practices you need that will allow you to achieve these commitments? Next week we’ll focus more on the importance of practice.
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