Founder- Personal Journey

Life as an Organizer (May 6th, 2001)

I stood at the center of the convention hall and watched as community leaders flooded through the entrances and found their seats. Twenty-four hundred gathered there: African American, Latino, White, Asian. Middle class, working class and poor. Faith leaders, public school leaders, neighborhood leaders. Forty were chosen to speak for the crowd and their communities; they told story after story of how their communities were struggling, and declared their vision for a city that invested in all its people. Heads nodded throughout the hall. Local, state and national political leaders sat anxiously and listened.

For everyone in the room, it was moving and powerful. Local TV channels and the following morning’s paper brought the event to those unable to attend. For me, it was a great personal satisfaction: My staff and I had spent three years working day-in and day-out to make this happen, and it was finally unfolding before our eyes.

Events like these were a paradox for me. They were exciting, exhilarating and full of the promise of authentic democracy. At the same time, they were demanding, stressful and exhausting, and had led me to the edge of burnout several times earlier in my career. But the May 6th event would be my last. Leading up to this event, I was caught in an unsustainable pattern of striving, struggling, and spending long hours working for change—a change that never seemed good enough to me. Despite my incredible passion for the work, I needed to pull away.


Shifting My Reality

After taking some time off, I began a new phase of my professional journey. I was guided by one question: Was it possible to do significant social change work from a grounded and peaceful inner place?

The question burned within me, and in between consulting work, I devoted most of my waking hours to exploring it. I read books, attended workshops and trainings, reflected on my decade of organizing experience, talked with colleagues, and, most of all, learned.

My exploration led me to three key personal insights:

  • I had inherited a belief pattern from my family, which dictated that personal sacrifice and working long hours were necessary to achieve professional success. And professional success was necessary to feel a sense of value.
  • This pattern, taken to an extreme, had become unsustainable and ultimately led to my burnout as an organizer. It blocked my ability both to lead from a calm, grounded place and to create balance between my work and personal life.
  • Though deeply ingrained in my personality, this pattern was not intrinsic to who I was—and it was possible to be free of it.

It used to make sense: the harder I worked, the better chance I had to overcome the odds and make change happen. But now I had a new perspective. I could see how the striving and struggle of my old self actually led to less creative, less powerful, less grounded change.

I spent hours observing my own tendency to revert back to the pattern of overwork, and became aware of what experiences triggered it. I also practiced cultivating the qualities of a calm, non-anxious presence, and watched how the more anchored these qualities became, the less power the old pattern had over me.


The Experiment
While I recognized that my personal experience had its own uniqueness, I discovered similar learned patterns blocking change leaders from doing effective justice work from a grounded and peaceful place. I could see this in current and former colleagues, as well as the leaders with whom I consulted.

Some of the most common patterns included:

  • Hiding boldness or assertiveness in order to be accepted by their organization
  • Lack of confidence in their ability or power due to fears of rejection or historical undervaluing of themselves or their skills
  • Inability to count on or trust anyone else
  • Harsh self-judgment, distorting their ability to objectively assess situations and accomplishments

As I saw more and more of these patterns of belief, I noticed similar attributes: These beliefs tended to be adopted through personal experience or received from family or culture; the particular beliefs, and their resulting behaviors, seemed to block their access to particular innate leadership qualities, and; being free from these beliefs provided access to a leadership quality critical to their work.

I noticed something else as well, particularly in the work I did for large-scale change efforts: Even when an organization had adopted a change, if the leaders within it weren’t changing their own behaviors, the effort frequently failed. In certain situations, I started offering ad hoc “coaching” to individual leaders. I began to see how even a small amount of self-awareness could help break up an old belief pattern that was preventing the whole organization from moving forward. It was similar to how opening a clogged artery allows the whole body to begin functioning again as blood flows where it’s needed.

My new intentions became clear: Offer leadership coaching to:

  • Help leaders break through limiting belief patterns and access essential leadership qualities
  • Help leaders build powerful constituencies, since this is often the differentiator between merely good ideas and ones that actually take hold and create change

This was the genesis of Immanent Leadership, which I founded with the mission to support the development of individual leaders and guide organizations and movements to build more powerful constituencies.