A few years ago, I had the honor and privilege of spending four days at the Whidbey Institute with Sharon Daloz Parks. Sharon is an associate director and member of the faculty. She taught at various Harvard graduate schools, including its Divinity School, the Business School, and the School of Government for 18 years before moving to Whidbey Island and becoming a leadership consultant, speaker and facilitator at Whidbey Institute.
I noticed that once I entered the forested grounds of the Whidbey Institute I knew I was in sacred space. It is breathtakingly beautiful and so peaceful. I stayed in a very small hermitage and had a lot of time to ponder life anew.
Sharon believes that leaders are formed gradually over time and through deliberate effort. Her gift of facilitation is to ask provocative questions that one can ponder for hours or days, deepening one’s understanding of oneself in relationship to others and the environment, and how this relates to answering one’s call to lead. Do we have the courage to step up to lead in these times?
Some of her questions have stuck with me, even months later calling me to go deeper. These, in particular, keep bouncing around in my head:
1. What does it mean for our society that so many people are living unaligned with their soul?
2. Leadership holds a lot of hungers. What may they be?
In considering these questions, it helps to know what Sharon believes is called for in successful leaders of today. Her description resonated with my experiences in my own life and in the lives of the individuals and organizations I have coached. What she says is called for and needed is adaptive leadership.
Adaptive leaders need to understand that leadership is spiritual in nature. It is about helping people move from the familiar and adequate to a more alive, life-giving way of being. As one leads, one needs to possess the gift of connectedness – there is no room for ego or visionaries, as we are all “in this together.”
Additionally, adaptive leaders have the courage to deal with and witness loss and grief. They must be willing to get involved with the difficult issues – and stay involved – yet at the same time not become a lightening rod for the issue, but to be able to take the heat when they speak courageously.
Sharon closed her discussion of adaptive leadership by asking us if we have the courage to lead a spiritual change. I felt the metaphorical gulp in the room when she posed that question. I ask this of myself every day, and work on having the courage to lead a spiritual change with the work I offer to the world.
Sharon also left us with a statement that I felt was a strong calling forth for myself and I share it as a calling forth that you might embrace: “There is a possibility created in all of us that can only come through you ~ it is lost if you do not answer the call.” What are you being called to do? Have you looked the other way when called to action? What gets in your way of being a courageous leader? Do you have absolute principles which guide you? How real are you?
Sharon draws some of these ideas from Leadership On the Line: Staying Alive through Dangers of Leading, by Ronald Heifetz, a former colleague. I invite you to join me in exploring the questions and thoughts raised by Sharon Parks, as you continue to think about and refine a relevant leadership style.
I leave you with the poem we read after walking through the wooded island, as a place to begin your own contemplation.
By David Wagoner
From Collected Poems 1956-1976
Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.