Leadership as Practice
I just celebrated my first year on the job at Buddhist Peace Fellowship.
The distance traveled these past twelve months has not only been one of time. I started as Operations Manager, providing a “backbone” to Buddhist Peace Fellowship’s finances, membership, and communications. Today, I am Co-Director of BPF, focused on training and development. The transition between Operations Manager and Co-Director has been a long and winding journey.
Photo credit: Photofreak!
The last twelve months, I have been asked to take on many different leadership roles as we responded to changing conditions in the organization. Soon after I started, Sarah Weintraub (our Executive Director at the time) left for a month long visit to Colombia, where she had done peacekeeping work for many years. We knew this trip was coming, and our initial training had focused on helping me keep things running smoothly while she was gone.
While this was planned, much of my conscription into leadership over the past year was unplanned. Sarah returned from Colombia with a giardia-like illness and worked reduced hours during the fall. As 2012 approached, Sarah’s health was fair at best, and her doctor encouraged more bed rest. I stepped in as Acting Director in January, my sixth month working at BPF.
We thought this was a temporary solution to support Sarah’s healing, but illness rarely cooperates with our own timelines. In April, we moved to a shared leadership model where our staff officially makes decisions collectively, rather than having a single executive director who sits atop a hierarchy and directs staff members below. This had been a vision of Sarah’s, and it was exciting to see it become a reality. Sarah stepped away to continue healing, and I’m happy to report she’s doing much better! I moved officially into my role as Co-Director of BPF, and we hired the amazing Katie Loncke to join me.
Full Body Leadership
There was a period in February where I was the only paid staff person working day to day on BPF. I stepped in as the “full body” of BPF – if it came through BPF during this time, I was involved with it. While the day to day work itself was challenging, I struggled most with the sheer immensity of an organization like BPF which has a wide and vast network, people around the world who looked to BPF as an inspiration, a lifeline, a home. During this period, I sat a lot with the feeling of being immersed deep in a fast-moving ocean current. No land in sight. No air to breathe. Just letting the flow wash over me.
Photo credit: Temari 09
As a leader, there’s a need to both “go with the flow” but also to shape where the flow is going. Had I just went with the current, there were hundreds of different directions the flow was going in. It’s impossible as one person to follow them all. Yet it’s important to see and feel all the directions people are taking socially engaged Buddhism, and feel into the truth of what direction an organization needs to go. Sometimes that’s following the deeply grooved path of the current. Sometimes that’s swimming upstream. Sometimes that’s losing all sense of direction and getting confused about what is inside vs outside the current.
Leadership in Sangha
Leadership, like practice, only works in sangha. As I found myself sometimes drowning, I began reaching out to some of BPF’s elders – folks who had been engaged in this work for many years – for advice and support. People like Donald Rothberg, Mushim Ikeda, Diana Winston, David Loy, and Alan Senauke offered ideas and perspective that helped keep my spirits up during this difficult time. BPF’s dedicated board of directors also stepped up to make sure BPF was well cared for during this time – Chris Wilson, Anchalee Kurutach, Belinda Griswold, and Kathleen Rose. I also was graced with the support of Jacks McNamara and Everett Wilson, who cared for Turning Wheel Media during this time, and often stepped up to support the larger work of BPF. Even on bed rest, Sarah was present for questions, brainstorming, and gentle reminders to ask for help.
While it was sometimes lonely being pressed into leadership unexpectedly, I found again and again that when I remembered to ask for help, people were ready and willing to offer it. And in the asking, I invited people to feel closer and more connected to this network of socially engaged Buddhists called Buddhist Peace Fellowship. I remembered again and again, that at our heart, Buddhist Peace Fellowship is a network of people who feel incredibly lonely in Buddhist sanghas and in activist circles. We come to BPF seeking a sense of connection and community, hoping we can practice simple presence but also hoping we can be pressed into action for the greater good.
Leadership as Practice
As I reflect back on this year, what I note most is how much leadership is a practice. In my experience as a leader in other organizations, I’ve found that what we learn to practice in our organizations is often the perfect microcosm for what we are trying to practice in the world. Just as we sit on a cushion to simply observe what it is happening in our experience and gain insights about reality, we can also simply observe what is happening organizationally and find out much about impermanence, suffering, and egolessness. As so much of our work as activists happens within organizations, committees, and collectives, here at BPF we hope to share the successes and the hard lessons we are leaning about activist practice in community.
So this blog “Leadership as Practice” is born as a place to explore leadership and organizational work as a collective practice. It will be a place both to share what is happening internally within the organization of Buddhist Peace Fellowship as well as a place to study other examples and theory about leadership and organizations. The problems our world faces are so big, we need everyone’s leadership if we’re going to survive war, unchecked development, and climate change.
Are you a leadership or organizational development geek? What would you hope to see discussed here as we learn together about leadership as a practice?
Hope you’ll join me in this conversation!
Co-Director, Buddhist Peace Fellowship