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Becoming Leaderly

This post also appears in a slightly abbreviated form in the May 1 edition of  YNPN Twin Cities’ online newsletter: The Bridge. 

On night one of the inaugural EPIP-YNPN Leadership Institute, we experienced a World Café discussion for which I offered to play table host (mostly so that I wouldn’t have to switch tables, but anyway). After hearing the amazing thoughts of my fellow cohort members I was so humbled and weighed-down with the immense responsibility of capturing, and then harvesting their oh, so insightful nuggets. When it came time to share, I turned to my tablemates, silently asking their permission to share.

I was met with nods back:

“Go ahead.”

Even now I feel this immense responsibility to “say it right” and fully capture the gratifying two-day experience. And, as I’ve learned through my work at the Minnesota Humanities Center: words matter (and doesn’t that suck). However, I’m going to imagine all of my new friends nodding at me and try to do justice to all of our experiences.

Also, for the record, I know leaderly isn’t a word. Sue me.

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I’ll admit, on my way from work to the first evening of the EPIP-YNPN Leadership Institute Retreat, I was nervous. I’ve never been one for traditional networking events. Smiling at each other in stuffy suits, handing out business cards, regurgitating your perfectly-crafted (yet somehow never professional sounding enough) elevator speech over and over has never really fit my more introverted style. And, while in my experience nonprofit-y, philanthropy-y, civic-minded, socially responsible folks really do tend to have their passions for what they do shine through any situation, I still feel myself often falling into the trap of the smile-shake-hands-nod-a-lot-and-move-on waltz.

Instead of this typical dog and pony show, we were asked to bring in something that represented our leadership journey. We circled up and shared our stories. Desralynn shared her red lipstick—a reminder to herself to always be bold. Andy shared a socket wrench, through which he shared the metaphor that for him, leadership means always having the “right tool” the job.  In an unforgettable moment, Eleonore “bared it all” and shared her tattoo of a bicycle, commemorating the first day she learned to ride a bike (just 3 years ago!), and her subsequent drive to keep pushing forward.

When it came my turn to share my item, I shared about my green, blue, and purple hair—a symbol to my desire to bring my authentic self to my leadership journey. Hearing people’s diverse stories was inspiring, humbling, and eye-opening; truly a testament to the fact that there is no one way of approaching leadership.

The second day was spent with higher level visioning both of the program itself and, in my view, some great forward thinking about the future of the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors. We started out with some practice with listening and active storytelling. Believe it or not, Rapunzel took courses on Coursera prior to becoming a beautician! We then spent some time in small groups, first visioning the future of our sectors (but backwards!) and then with our mentoring circles who will be our go-to groups for more intimate connections and support. Shout out to Lauren, Kyle, Joni, and Nick aka TeamCrest.

… we’re still working on the name.

After a hilarious free-time lunch discussing what could only be euphemistically referred to as “pet accidents,” the afternoon was then spent in open space style discussions tackling some of our big questions and concepts including: Power Dynamics, Who Am I as a Leader?, Bringing your Self to Work, Building Culturally-Competent Teams, and How to Turn Ideas Into Action. The thought that these big ideas were the things we’d be wrestling with during our 10 months together was both daunting and exhilarating.

As we wrapped up the day, I was spent. As I mentioned before, I’m an introvert and a day long (and change) of deep thinking, broad visioning and relationship had me feeling like I needed some kitty snuggles and a long nap. We ended the experience as we began it: in a circle.

I think that working in the sector that I work in, with competing priorities and aims and goals coupled with an innate drive to do good in my little corner of the universe, it’s easy to get caught up in the impossibility of it all. There are always emails to be answered. There is always one more meeting to plan. There are people out there whose voices aren’t heard. There are systems in place that seem impossible to repair or rebuild.

Sometimes even walking to heat up my questionable Lean Cuisine seems like too much.

Looking around the circle I became overcome with this sense of pride an excitement. More than that though, in that moment, it felt accomplishable. Like, you know what, this group of young, motivated, smart, savvy, and impassioned individuals can actually do this. We are leaders that will repair those entrenched systems and amplify the good work in communities. And, maybe that email inbox will get below 1000.

“Go ahead.”

Alright guys, I will.