December can be a mad dash – a frenzy to the finish line of the year. The intensity of holiday pressures to buy, consume, and engage are often compounded by the daily routines and year-end work pressures that for many already feel overwhelming. So rather than reminding you of your to-do list and encouraging the rush to the end of the year, I thought we could all use a reminder of what the quieter side of leadership looks like. Because sometimes the most powerful thing you can do is to stop – slow down – and reflect.
I am also inspired by this idea because we are nearing the eve of 2020 – the year of hindsight and insight. Seriously, how many times have you said, “hindsight is 2020?” The promises of this impending year of understanding seem only possible with conscious reflection.
So what does it look like to get to the quieter side of leadership? Let’s try it in three categories: stop – slow down – and reflect.
Oh, I know, this sounds like the hardest task. And it is. Stop. Do nothing. Don’t react or act. Don’t do. I know my own tendency to loving the journey and achieving a goal can put me in constant motion. But I also know that as a leader my team is always watching. So it’s my challenge and my practice to consciously stop. Maybe it is ten minutes or just a single minute, but the point is to do it on purpose. I believe that the key to this is knowing your own signals of when it is time to take a moment. We all have these signals, but we just might need to practice recognizing them. Maybe it is an elevated heart rate, or a sudden moment of anxiousness, or the running list in our heads gets more pronounced or louder in its intensity. For me, it is the very moment I want to do more – the moment I feel driven to do just one more thing. This is my moment to stop – literally to press pause on my urge to act – and to very consciously take a breath. Maybe you sit, or not. Maybe you walk away from the task, or not. Maybe you go outside, or not. Maybe you just stare at the winter scene that has finally arrived, or just close your eyes. The point is more about being on purpose – to remove the impulse to act, if even for a moment. We are driven to this work and by this work. Our hearts and our heads remind us of the intensity of our missions. It isn’t and likely will never be just a job. And it is this very reason that knowing when to do nothing is the most powerful action of all.
The end of the year can also be thought of as the season of giving. In our nonprofit context, that often translates into thinking about philanthropy. But somehow, so often, this moment loses its focus. Philanthropy means a love of humankind. It is transformational, not transactional. It is not about selling, it is about giving and receiving from the heart. This “heart work” is wrapped in two essential components. We must have the pieces in place to focus this work both on the donor and potential donor, which means acting strategically on the front and back end of any request. We still have a long way to go in most organizations to get these pieces in place. It doesn’t mean we are stuck, but it does mean we must acknowledge with our team (board, staff, volunteers) that this is “go slow to go fast” work.
Slowing down is part of the process. For those of you who got caught up in the frenzy of Giving Tuesday, or even for those of you who did not but are feeling the pressure to make year-end requests, I get it. However, the key here is always to remember and, better yet, to have a plan for how the rest of your donor relationships are going to play out. The ask is only one small piece of the process. Donor recognition that is timely, sincere, and consistent is not an optional step. Rushing to the impulse or emotional ask might get you the gift once, but it won’t get you a long-term donor. We call this work development for a reason – it takes time. Relationships that lead to donor retention are the clearest signal that your priorities are in the right spot. The financial or non-financial gift is truly lovely, but it is the next steps of recognition and inspiration that matter the most. As the year draws to a close, let’s all slow down to ensure that we are saying thank you – that we are listening – and that we are remembering we have two ears and one mouth and that is the ratio of how we need to approach successful philanthropy.
The end of the year is a time of planning for the year ahead. Regardless if your organization runs its fiscal year on the calendar year or not, the end of the year is a typical time to reflect on where you are with your goals (programmatic, organizational, financial) while reflecting on what is coming next. Reflection isn’t about feeling guilty for where you are (contrary to the whole way we are encouraged to think about New Year’s resolutions), but rather and purely a time with yourself or your team to ask some good questions. A colleague once said to me that upon reflection he had “better problems” than he used to. I loved this idea because it came from a place of both reflection and growth. It suggested that he understood and had learned, and lucky for me he was willing to share this way of seeing the world.
I love the idea of having better problems next year than I had this year. It’s a true indicator of growth. It also reminds me of a term coined more than 25 years ago by Peter Senge who talked about the ability of organizations to be “learning organizations.” This notion has many components, but my favorite is that in a learning organization mistakes are information. I revel in the conversation that focuses on “what did we learn,” because it provides a safe space to improve rather than wallow. Sure, some group rules or even personal guidelines might be helpful so that safe space is honored and learning can flow without judgment, but this is a moment or two to savor. Often when we gather our team of board and/or staff, the inclination is “to do something” to make it “worth it.” The haste we place on results takes a back seat to the opportunity to feel grounded and connected – to just be, listen, and learn. Every team goes through the forming, storming, norming, performing stages of development. Those stages are predictable in their order, but not in the amount of time each stage takes. Creating space for reflection is certainly a key ingredient for each phase because it builds the bridge to the next stage of growth. As the year ends and hectic seems like the holiday tune playing on an endless loop – step out, lean in, and reflect.
What a year it has been. We have been challenged as a sector to come together and stick together. We have been pulled into scarcity thinking, and we have worried ourselves into endless sleepless nights. We have focused and strategized. We have done more with less and more still as the needs in our communities only increased and the challenges got more complex. We have figured out that we are stronger together. We have found our voice. We have raised the bar on quality and results. And we have felt honored and maybe even a little proud to do the work. And now, as this year comes to an end and we gear up for what lays ahead, my gift to you (and to myself) is a reminder that our best path forward is to stop – slow down – and reflect. It is in the quiet spaces of leadership that the real work begins and ends.