Leading from the Fringe: Part three

Timing is important, very important (Kellerman, 2010, 165).

Why now?  After resisting the desire to be a writer, why should I start writing this blog now?  The recognition that other women (and marginalized people) have found writing to be a tool for influencing people helped me to recognize the connection between my many attempts to exercise collaborative leadership and my nagging desire to write. 

Authentic leadership emerges from a leader’s lived experience, it is contextual.  For the past five years I have felt the impact of my choice to refuse to submit to an abusive religious authority.  I made a practical choice, to pursue a legitimate path into spiritual power (to be a professional Minister), a career with a salary and benefits, and that choice led to a dead end.

When the religious hierarchy pushed me out of my positional leadership role as a Pastor, I found myself under-employed and floundering in the depth of the economic crisis of 2009-2010. I had lost my spiritual path, and I had no idea what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.  I still felt called to be a spiritual leader, to be a source of hope for the hopeless and oppressed.  There was an abundance of need and I had accumulated experience, education, and the skills to help people who had been displaced by the economic crisis. 

The world was shifting — the power and wealth was getting more and more concentrated in the hands of a few.  Our elected leaders bailed out the big banks and financial institutions and left the unemployed struggling to pay their mortgages.  Nonprofits and religious organizations were reeling from the economic crisis.  Foundations cut back their giving.  Middle class donors (more generous than the wealthy) were unable to give. 

It was a humbling time for me.  I was in Oregon and at that time one of five Oregon workers was jobless or underemployed.  The religious hierarchy blocked my attempts to create a new ministry to serve those who were displaced by the economic crisis.  I had no salary, benefits, or career track.  For the first time in my life, I felt like a nobody, so I moved back home to nowhere Montana.

In Montana, I was able to connect with meaningful work as an Executive Director for a couple of nonprofit organizations.  However, I was not using my communication gifts.  I was not speaking in public or writing, I was mostly an administrator.  I was doing what I needed to do to survive, and my continuing commitment to developing egalitarian leaders caused me to search for a connection.  I found that connection through the California Institute of Integral Studies — Masters of Arts in Transformative Leadership program.

(Continued in part four).

Leading from the fringes: Part two

[They] tied the trials and tribulations of individuals to the trials and tribulations of the society within which they were embedded (Kellerman, 2010, 157).

My personal experiences – my trials and tribulations – speak to a larger collective experience of suffering and struggle. In December 2007, as part of a United Methodist women’s spiritual leadership exchange, I traveled to El Salvador and Honduras. Afterward, I wrote and published an essay about one day on that journey. 

The day began at our Five Star Princess Hotel.  As we gathered to load into the van, I watched mostly men (and very few women) in very expensive tailored dark suits, starched white shirts, and neckties as they gathered in the lobby of the hotel’s convention hall.  It was a meeting of the World Bank and IMF with El Salvadoran elected officials.  Within thirty minutes of leaving the convention center, our women’s leadership group was at the site where Arch Bishop Oscar Romero (the Pastor of the impoverished landless peasants) was murdered in 1980.  The murder of Romero created a huge uprising and a full scale civil war that lasted for twelve years. 

The experience of being confronted with the impact of colonization and globalization on the poor people of Latin America left an indelible mark on my soul.  I was able to identify the shared challenges of rural communities in Montana (negatively impacted by multi-national corporations) and Latin America. 

Then in January 2008, I participated in another faculty and student leadership exchange with religious leaders in Uganda and Rwanda.  Again, I saw first hand evidence that Christian missionaries were complicit in creating violence between African tribes.  The process of colonization included creating false racial hierarchies — as in the Hutus and Tutsis.  The Colonizers found it necessary to rank the indigenous people into hierarchies.  They used these imposed rankings or hierarchies so that an elite minority group of privileged Africans were oppressing other Africans.  In a sense, they replicated their European class system.

I also saw the effects of crop ‘mono-cultures’ designed to efficiently replace native subsistence crops with profitable crops like coffee and sugar.  Tribal people were forced off their land, and the land is now controlled by huge multi-national agricultural conglomerates.  Starving people were surrounded by abundant fertile land that produced sugar and coffee for wealthy foreigners.  Montana has also experienced a decline in the number of family owned and operated farms, with many of the Federal farm subsidies going to the multi-national agricultural corporations. 

I discovered the need for more effective leadership was global, not just a personal experience.

Leading from the fringe: Part one

Then she began, nearly out of nowhere, to write (Barbara Kellerman, 2010, 122).

Is it possible to change the world from the margins, from nowhere, when one is lacking in positional or legitimate power?

For the next several blog posts, I will be sharing personal essays about my experience as a collaborative non-hierarchical leader. Approximately a year ago, it dawned on me that one of the more effective strategies for being a non-hierarchical person of influence (co-leader) is to position myself as a writer and thought leader. I discovered a number of historical role models in Barbara Kellerman’s book Leadership: Essential Selections on Power, Authority, and Influence. (Kellerman, 2010).

The idea of influencing the world through writing is not new for me. In high school and college I had dreams of someday being a writer — a poet, playwright, or writer of nonfiction. It was not a practical pursuit; it was the stuff of childish dreams. A voice in my head told me, I was not really a writer.

There was some minor evidence to the contrary. In high school, I won a scholarship for writing a Voice of Democracy speech. Later, my college professors complimented me on my writing, and on my speeches. These accolades bounced off, unable to penetrate a negative self-image. I was just a small town girl, a nobody from nowhere.

In my last year of undergraduate studies I changed my major from Interpersonal Communications to Business Administration/Accounting, and I passed the rigorous exam to be a Certified Public Accountant. I was not a writer, but I was smart enough to be an accountant and that was a more practical choice.

Although I was not a writer, I did enjoy amazing opportunities for a variety of fascinating leadership roles. In my late twenties I was CFO of a $3.5 million multi-specialty medical practice, supervising over 30 employees and managing a multi-million dollar construction project. Then I became the first woman and one of the first dozen Certified Financial Planners in Montana. That led to an appointed position as Deputy Commissioner of Securities for Montana. I served on two national committees to develop the early consumer protection regulations for the Financial Planning industry.

After a few years, I moved on to a role as CEO of a nonprofit economic development finance organization and a Montana based social venture capital company. I received national and state recognition for my role as a leader in promoting financial alternatives for small businesses. A large part of my work was public presentations before small and very large groups. During the years I worked with rural entrepreneurs, I was considered a national leader in empowering rural entrepreneurs to overcome obstacles to their success.

As I traveled throughout the nation, I loved shattering the prejudices I faced from urban elites. Often their first thoughts were that powerful ideas could not originate from rural outposts like Montana. I discovered I could be a leader from the fringes — from a remote rural place like Montana.

Its a remarkable conceit: the idea of changing the world simply by sitting and writing (Kellerman, 2010, 118).

Is there any real power in communicating through the written and spoken word?

The sense that I was called to be a writer was nagging at me. In my late thirties I began a daily practice of writing in my private journal.

I went through a phase of intense and deepening spiritual growth. My leadership roles were increasingly in formal religious communities. I gradually came to believe my long-standing call to write and speak was a call to be a Christian Minister. Seeking ordination was a path to being a “legitimate” leader within the Church. My three years in seminary was a time of rediscovering my love for reading and writing. I started to dream again, this time of being a writer and a preacher.

Though he himself was without power, authority, or influence, he had the temerity to stand up to, and inveigh against, those more richly endowed (Kellerman, 2010, 131).

My first job as a Pastor (clergy) was with a small church in a conservative rural community. Every week I would put many hours into planning worship and writing my sermons. I discovered that communication is a very powerful form of leadership — both written and oral. There was an amazing amount of individual and communal transformation that occurred during my one year. And then it was over.

The higher “legitimate” authority, The Bishop, made a decision to end my career as a Pastor, and he had all the power and authority to do that. It made no difference that my ministry was producing fruits, it all came down to submitting to his absolute authority.

I discovered that real leadership is realizing when you have the power to choose your own path, regardless of legitimacy or positional authority. Followers can become leaders, and when they do, leaders loose some of their power.

(Six part essay to be continued).