Hats off to Jason for putting Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead at the end of another semester of study, smack dab in the middle of when most of us are feeling exhausted, dry, and depleted. I know I am! It’s a great reminder of the qualities that I need to nurture in my own leadership, and of how far I have yet to travel.
At the beginning of this semester, I took on a new challenge in my consultancy work and agreed to assist our local university in its development efforts following the departure of the former president. I stepped outside my comfort zone and agreed to assisting in a bit of a crisis moment for the school. I saw it as a matter of being a good neighbour and raise money for the institution or sit back and watch the university die before your eyes. Our management team had to raise donation revenue and increase fall enrollment. Time was short, and yes, it really was that serious. Board meetings this weekend will determine how successful we have been.
I’m glad I dared to lead, and things seem to be turning around (God willing), but the demands of this semester have messed up my own balance, rhythms, and stability. Sometimes life’s like that. We know what we should do for emotional and spiritual health, but we get off track when surprising demands crop up and life gets way too intense. I say all this to preface this week’s post with the admission that I am depleted. I dropped the self-protective barriers and dared to became vulnerable.
This contrast between armored leadership and daring leadership is one which Brown highlights in her research. Consider the self-protection mechanisms Brown names: perfectionism, numbing, hustling, weaponizing fear, and avoiding. In contrast, she enthuses about the vulnerability of empathy, gratitude, learning, embracing diversity, and leading from the heart. As I read through this section, I was reminded of Richard Rohr and his description of the difference between a false self and the true self. The false self attends to the ego’s needs, and is a voracious consumer, while the true self is learning to let go. Rohr’s true/false selves is another lens to use when considering Brown’s vulnerability approach.
Rohr states, “Meister Eckhart, the German Dominican mystic (c.1260-c.1328), said that spirituality has much more to do with subtraction than it does with addition. Yet our culture, both secular and Christian, seems obsessed with addition: getting rich, becoming famous, earning more brownie points with God or our boss, attaining enlightenment, achieving moral behavior. Jesus and the mystics of other traditions tell us that the spiritual path is not about getting more or getting ahead, which only panders to the ego. Authentic spirituality is much more about letting go—letting go of what we don’t need, although we don’t know that at first…. Once we’re connected to our Source, we know that our isolated, seemingly inferior or superior individual self is not that big a deal. The more we cling to self-importance and ego, the more we are undoubtedly living outside of union.”
I see yet another correlation to Brown’s leadership model in the work of Ronald Heifitz from Harvard Business School. His adaptive leadership approach, like Brown’s, is one that does not seek position nor authority with a command-and-control approach, but rather leads from the side. One of the books I’m reading for my research is Do More Than Give: The Six Practices of Donors Who Change the World. This work encourages the use of Heifitz’ approach as applied to philanthropy. I see this approach as especially well-suited to next generation givers who are the focus of my research.
Adaptive leadership will go against the grain of how philanthropy is normally conducted. The authors state, “Many donors have long tended to adopt a low profile and shy away from controversy. But when they are leading adaptively, they must learn to influence those beyond their control… [T]his work requires a time commitment that is much longer than the typical grant cycle – often requiring years of sustained effort before any conclusive results are known.” Moving into adaptive leadership as a funder requires abandoning one’s reserve and comfortable place of privilege, learning to open up to conversations and opportunities, and becoming part of the solution rather than resting on the sidelines of society writing cheques with lots of zeroes.
“Catalytic donors are inordinately influential – not because they hold the formal authority afforded to leaders who hold a C-suite title at a corporation or a high military rank but because they are adaptive leaders. They see social and environmental problems for what they are – emergent, complex phenomena that require adaptive responses, rather than issues that can be resolves simply by making a grant to a nonprofit.” Philanthropists can be catalytic, but they must dare to lead and not just assume that sending money is enough.
 Brené Brown, Dare to Lead (London: Vermillion 2018), 76-77.
 Leslie Crutchfield, John Kania, and Mark Kramer, Do More Than Give: The Six Practices of Donors Who Change the World (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2011), 160.
 Ibid., 220.