Maintaining Equanimity in Non-Profit Leadership
Denese Shervington, MD, MPH | Founder/CEO
As the leader of the Institute of Women & Ethnic Studies (IWES), ultimately I am responsible for its wins and its losses, and there are two important qualities that I think are necessary for me to succeed. The first is to turn up each day, present and aware of my full self, filled with strength, weakness and contradiction. The other is to nurture my capacity to respond, and hence be responsible.
How do I do that?
First, by being open to uncertainty, question and doubt. This allows me to be open, curious and in a constant state of inquiry - which in turn widens the lens through which I address issues - rather than being rigid and closed with one set belief system. To others, this might seem indecisive. To me, it builds strength and opens my ears to the wisdom of the other leaders with whom I share the responsibility of stewarding the organization into a sustainable future. I don't think a lot of people in the field associate leadership with flexibility, but they should! Population level work requires a lot of strategic thinking and flexibility. You have to shift to what community needs are and not hold a rigid conceptual frame about how you’re going to do things. Conceptualizing and conceiving population-level strategies and initiatives is like giving birth – it includes both labor pain and delivery joy.
The second way I do it is by maintaining equanimity, which I see as being of sound mind and balancing my ego between poles of inflated narcissism when things are going well and that of deflated ego when things fall apart. And believe me, things do fall apart. Hence self-care: daily walks/jogs in the park; yoga; healthy, vegan-preferred nutrition to keep my body the best-oiled machine as it works its way through time; a contemplative practice of mindfulness and meditation to witness and observe the fluctuations of my essence and its relationship to the world at large; and self-awareness to give my mind time between its perception of stressors and my responsiveness. All in all these practices help me to better accept and manage the challenges that are a natural part of the journey through life, from birth to death.
And finally, the third way I do it is by creating an environment in which others can do their best work, where they can grow and thrive. That means striking a balance between harmony and the stress of productivity. That means that each morning when I arrive at work I do an assessment of how healthy the organization feels - what’s working well on any given day and what needs attention. Within this is the challenge of creating a work environment in which people feel safe and respected and as a result of that are inspired to do their best work. I try to inspire others by recognizing our common humanity and respecting that each person who comes into the workplace has something to offer. So I try to discern how, based on their passion for the work and their preparation, they can feel excited about bringing those skills to that which we are trying to accomplish – our shared goal of being servant leaders in the community so that women and their families can optimize their health and well-being.
Perhaps every organization should be led by a psychiatrist or a Buddhist. Why? Being a psychiatrist has helped me better understand the inner workings of the mind and how it can manifest in the varying degrees of personality types that turn up in the work-place. At times that helps me to better assess how someone is turning up professionally, and how work challenges might best be handled. It also helps me assess how each individual affects the group dynamics and ultimately the shared organizational culture. All the while, however, I have to draw the boundary between expectations in the workplace versus that of the psychiatric couch.
And why a Buddhist? Let me conclude with some of the teachings of the Buddha about how to create social and community harmony.
1. Have a giving spirit – be generous, share power, build confidence, give each other the opportunity to lead, grow, and thrive.
2. Use endearing speech – speak truth so that all can fall in love with the common and shared vision, and help people come to love one another and see and respect each other’s humanity.
3. Engage in beneficent conduct - lead with integrity and trustworthiness.
4. Be impartial – enhance the skills that others have and recognize that each person is necessary to the whole. Everyone has value, has a place and has something to offer.