Last updated June 17, 2015
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Sustaining Our Spirits

Women Leaders Thriving for Today and Tomorrow

Don’t worry, Darlyne. A leader does not have to have all of the answers. Rather, a good leader has to make sure that all the right questions are on the table.

—Paulo Freire, personal communication, 1994

Do women absorb the toxicity of an organization to help sustain it? If so, how do they thrive and even survive as individuals and as leaders? What rituals, practices, knowledge, and strategies have they found to manage the paradoxes inherent in leading fully while living fully?

Women’s leadership has been an area of popular interest and academic study for the past several decades. Publications have focused on the responsibilities and roles of women in leadership, the ways in which they work and lead, and their similarities and differences in comparison to their male counterparts. Despite this public attention and the corresponding rise in the number of women in formal leadership positions, women leaders can be likened to an endangered species. Women who lead are not unlike the many animals and plants around the world that face real peril when they lack a consistent, nurturing habitat to ensure their sustainability. The Sustaining Our Spirits project was conceived as an opportunity to discover and disseminate strategies for securing the viability of our women leaders now and into the future.

Recognition of the need for this work came from experiences within my career journey—more than 20 years as an administrator, initially in nonprofit organizations and then in academia—and in manifold conversations with colleagues. It was through these encounters that two truths became apparent. First, despite the increasing number of resources available, strong, compassionate, and effective leadership was hard, not only for women, but for everyone. And second, the paths of women, regardless of whether they worked in corporate, government, faith-based, or other social sector settings, seemed to contain many more bumps, potholes, and even land mines than those of their male counterparts. The growing successes of women as organizational, community, and political leaders had not diminished this reality. As women and as leaders, we seemed to search for safe places in which to connect with each other, give voice to our stories, and re-energize our souls for our benefit and the benefit of those who shared our journeys.

For me, becoming a newly minted Group XIII member of the W.K. Kellogg National Fellowship Program served as the catalyst for an unanticipated sojourn to São Paulo, Brazil, to meet and learn from the educator-activist, Paulo Freire. Emboldened by my acceptance into this incredible leadership program, I telephoned Dr. Freire one afternoon, and he invited me to his home for a visit. This 10-day exchange of honest questions, concerns, and ideas in community with Dr. Freire, some of my Fellows, and one of our advisors resulted in a deepened conviction about the power of relationship through dialogue to produce individual- and group-level change and growth. The core of my leadership style and work in building and discovering organizational and boundary-spanning communities will forever carry the imprint of this experience—this treasured time with a man with whom I was honored thereafter to spend more time and, ultimately, call my friend.

From Freire, I learned that time and space are essential to fostering authentic relationships and facilitating the work of any collective. Over the years, I thought about and then one day deliberately sought to co-create a project where women leaders would learn from and with one another how to sustain our life energies and commitment and, in turn, be able to share those lessons with others. Thus was born the Sustaining Our Spirits project.

Through Sustaining Our Spirits, we used the attribute of relationship building to design a process for a group of nine women leaders from across the United States. The intention was to provide the necessary space and time to individually share our leadership stories and collectively identify, develop, and document strategies that actually worked to sustain us, professionally and personally.

We began by meeting together in a series of four-day retreats over the course of a year. For a number of us, this work then evolved into much more over the following three years. One of the coauthors of this book describes her desire to participate this way:

As a CEO of an international organization, I try to set the example that taking time to go to that deep place to stay centered is an important ingredient for success. With such a busy schedule, it is the hardest thing for me to do. I have been serving in this position for a little over two years. While I have strong allies on the board and within the staff, I often find myself wishing for deeper connections with other women leaders from outside the organization who would understand and empathize with some of my challenges. Our retreats provide that and so much more for me. They are a well I can dip into . . . without them are many more dry times.

Very soon, we began to see that stories like these were shared and were more common than we realized. For that reason, Sustaining Our Spirits became our approach to developing the capacity of women leaders to thrive. The process sought to respond to the fundamental needs of women in leadership through ongoing dialogue; bringing together women who were actively living leadership, as one of our heroes, Frances Hesselbein (2002), depicts it, as a matter of “how to be, not how to do it” (p. 3). Sustaining Our Spirits reached out to women who were making significant contributions to their institutions, organizations, and communities. In providing them space for deep personal reflection and discovery, peer mentorship, and mutual support, we created lasting friendships and networks.

After each retreat concluded and we left our physical circle, we carried our individual and collective strengths with us into the broader world. As we talked about the project with others, it became clear that many more wanted to join us. Our journeys mirrored their journeys. Excited by the prospect of engaging other women in this transformative work, we began enlisting their participation through conversations and focused interviews. The results were affirming, exhilarating, and humbling.

We have been fortunate. We have had the chance to tell our stories and listen to the stories of others. We have all been positively impacted by this work and the wisdom generated by our ever-growing circle of women. We paid close attention and documented all that we heard—the joys, struggles, strategies, and dreams for the future that emerged through our retreats and our conversations with others. This book is an attempt to share these interactions. We do so not simply because we believe that what we learned is important but because, over and over, the women we met and spoke with about this work told us that sharing our lessons is essential. So now it is our honor and responsibility to broaden the circle, connecting with women and men like you who are committed to discovering how women can sustain themselves and begin to thrive as leaders.

My coauthors and I join in believing that Sustaining Our Spirits can make a difference for many over the years to come. If, today, women leaders are an endangered species, by collectively exploring those elements of our world that most challenge us and nurturing those that most enable us to flourish, we can learn how to manage what threatens us and strengthen the healthy sustainability of ourselves and our organizations. We believe that there are few better ways to serve the world.

Thank you for expanding our circle by joining us on this journey.

With best regards,