You First

My mother always said that I came out of the womb contrary.

With so much ire and fear in the air here in Washington, D.C. over the last few months and years, I know that being contrary is no longer what is required of me. Yes, we can argue and debate all day in this town, but it has not been my argumentative skills that needed strengthening in the midst of COVID-19 or a contested U.S. presidential election, or with white supremacists marching down the street.

In this time, I’m understanding so clearly that it’s leaders who are willing, ready, and able to meet the moment that will lead us through dark times. As my friend Silvia Austerlic writes,

When I listen to this moment as an act of care, I hear the call to be both with what is dying and what is emerging as part of the inner work we all need to engage with in these critical times. We are to heal and liberate ourselves from past conditionings that no longer serve us, so we can grow into a more wholesome powerful authentic version of our truest self.

In our do-gooder sector, we are sooooo all about the plan. We make them all day. We discuss them all day. We report on them all day. We measure them all day.

But in this moment, the plan may also not be what’s most important.

I’m finding that the spaces to honor our whole selves, our fears, and the breadth of our collective grief and trauma right now is what feels most important. What’s imperative for me is making room for what’s not expedient, or objective, or comfortable, i.e. sharing feelings, listening to our intuition, cultivating collective wisdom. This all takes longer than we think it should. And…it is how we have any chance of shifting power.

As we rush around with our determinate, linear plans and highly-visible results being more important than people, there’s very little room or time for being inclusive, or encouraging democratic and/or thoughtful decision-making or collaboration, let alone longer-term thinking or paying attention to subtleties and nuance.

When we rush around, this also means trauma isn’t metastasized in our lives or among our teams. Meanwhile, racialized societies are traumatized and traumatizing societies. Trauma gets stored in our bodies when something is happening that is out of our control, when there is no place for feelings to be expressed and mirrored, when there is no collective sense or meaning-making.

We have been conditioned to believe information can eliminate uncertainty and fear. Information is also commoditized within hierarchical systems mapped to capitalism. Therefore those at “the top” of power structures are deemed worthy of having more information. So we seek information out and want it for ourselves, to have a sense of “control” too.

Privilege is the power to act in ways that free you from conscious fear. Projectization in our sector is unconscious fear plus over-empowerment that has been pathologized.

Many of us have been brought up to believe that we can control the outcomes of our efforts. Can we embrace our own powerlessness right now, to cultivate the patience and flexibility to meet this moment, and shift our ways of working and our organizations in the process?

Principled leadership rooted in a responsiveness to a political analysis of external conditions requires us to trust what we cannot see or understand and to release what we cannot control. When you’re super rooted in your values and the “why,” doing this becomes even more important than your fears.

Exploring our relationship to uncertainty, and how that converges (or not) with how power is distributed within our institutions is what we must slow down to do. The key to enacting change is empathizing with people’s desire to “know” or predict or control what often is unknowable. Understanding where/how that shows up for yourself — as impatience, as planfulness, as adherence to rules — is a tool for understanding better how to ensure your ideas/perspectives are heard. We have to be willing to put our intellectual reasoning or perfect planning aside to build collective power.

And then we recommit, over and over and over again to the STEADFASTNESS, TRUST, FLEXIBILITY, AND PATIENCE needed to enact change…together.

Here’s the real secret: Any change you want to see in your organization…has to go through you first.


Related Posts

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Rigorous humility: Seeking a healthier relationship with results

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Solve, Fix, Save…Conquer

Ways to be in action against anti-Black racism

Saying the hard thing



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Jennifer Lentfer

Jennifer Lentfer


(Re)sister of ahistorical or apolitical social change efforts. Creator of Poet, writer, nonprofit leadership coach. #globaldev #philanthropy