John F. Kennedy once said, "Leadership and learning are indispensable to each other."
We’ve learned that it’s important that we don’t come across like we’re the “experts” who have it all figured out, as we may end up perpetuating the problem of nonprofit leader burnout by further alienating the people we’re trying to help.
If we can share what we’re learning along the way, in a public way, we can support growth and learning amongst leaders we serve.
In today’s newest episode of THRIVERS: Nonprofit Leadership for the Next Normal, Tucker and Sarah open up to discuss their recent learnings about everything from books to recent moments of interpersonal conflict and how they managed through them.
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Tucker: Hey, there. Welcome to THRIVERS: Nonprofit Leadership for the Next Normal. I am your host, Tucker Wannamaker, the CEO of THRIVE IMPACT. Our mission: solve nonprofit leader burnout. Burnout is the enemy of creating positive change, and we want to connect you with impactful mission-driven leaders and impactful ideas so that you can learn to thrive in today's nonprofit landscape.
I am joined here as usual, and delightfully, with my co-host, Sarah Fanslau, Chief of Impact at THRIVE IMPACT. Sarah, it's nice to be here with you today.
Sarah: Oh hey, Tucker. It's nice to be here.
Tucker: Well, you know what, we've been learning a lot, haven't we? Well, I have. Have you been learning a lot?
Sarah: I think it's safe to say we've all been learning a lot, yeah.
Tucker: And we've been learning a lot about leadership, about our own interpersonal dynamics, we've been learning a lot about—or I'll speak for myself—this is what I've been learning about. You can speak for your lived experience. Those are two things so far for me anyway. I've been learning much about what's really going on inside of myself.
I've been noticing a lot more of when I get into reactivity, we talked about that in terms of conscious leadership and going into spaces of creativity. And I've been noticing a lot more clearly when I'm in cycles of reactivity and what do I need to do about that.
Been noticing the power of reflection, trying to learn a little bit more about how to lean into that. Sarah, what have you been learning?
Sarah: Well wait, before I share, I almost wanna go deeper into what you're learning. How have these learnings manifested themselves? What have you done with them?
How has it changed your daily life, if at all?
Tucker: You would make me go first. Fine. Fine. No, I'm just kidding, it's fine! Well you and I had an experience this last week—or a couple experiences probably—where we basically were not happy with each other.
Sarah: Haha! It’s true.
Tucker: I definitely know I was not happy with you and I could tell that you were not happy with me too.
And my statement to you in Slack was, “It seems like we're not in a good space of co-creation right now.” And I think one of the things, particularly around reflection, is one of the things I notice and I'm trying to work on currently and actively is not jump to solution, but jump to reflection first.
Meaning, do I need to jump to apology even though I don't even know what's really going on? Do I need to jump to solution even though I don't really know where we're at? Or can I just jump to reflection of just noticing… I mean it's funny, this journey of pause, notice, choose while we teach on it.
I know that I'm—you are as well—a lifelong learner around this. But I was noticing the other day when we were not in a great co-creation oriented space, that I needed to pause and see what was going on inside of me. Like, why was I triggered? Because I was triggered. Straight up. I was feeling triggered. Which means to me, as we talk about with conscious leadership, that's starting a spiral of reactivity of trigger react, trigger react, trigger react.
And so knowing that… I know that your intentions are great because they are, I believe mine are, too. Yet at the same time, I also just wanted to share as best as I could in a non-judgmental way—and you can tell me how I did, I have no idea—but in a way that just was able to share my lived experience, but also hopefully invited your lived experience. And I know that we're still gonna be talking about that here over the next week or so.
But what I was particularly noticing was something that an incredible mentor of mine, John Bergoff, shares which is, “We don't learn from our experiences. We learn by reflecting on our experiences.”
And that pause, notice, and choose… That pausing and noticing piece is a space of reflection before I respond. Or before I apologize. Or before I come up with a solution or just jump into it. And so I've been thinking through that, and trying to live into that, too. Which is creating intentional spaces of pause and reflection, particularly asking what might be going on inside of me and also what might be going on inside of you.
Sarah: Yeah, definitely.
Tucker: I'd say that's a big one for me, actively, right now, in real time.
Sarah: Going, hitting reflection first.
Tucker: And not solution first, or apology first. But just noticing first. Reflection first.
Sarah: Yeah I love that. It definitely resonates a lot with me.
I mean, I think clearly THRIVE IMPACT is in the messy middle as an organization, which means we're going through a steep climb right now, and it's a little bit of constant whiplash between, “There's way too much going on and how are we gonna do it all?” and, “Is there gonna be enough going on and can we pay the bills?”
So I think organizationally we're in a really interesting time where it feels like we're on this fulcrum between those two possibilities and they both require decisions on either side and it's being prepared for what might come either way. Which I think is just a tough spot to be in, in some ways, as an organization. That's probably why they call it the messy middle.
And I think for me, coming from… One of the things I've been reflecting on is just the difference that context makes. I have come from not huge organizations, but certainly much larger organizations, that had processes, that had HR departments, that had technology departments, that had this department and that department, and this department and that department.
And we don't have that here right now at THRIVE IMPACT. Which means we're all kind of doing all of the things, and I think that that by its nature causes more creative conflict than it would otherwise. And so I think one of the things that I've been reflecting on and just noticing is that context matters.
And sometimes I think zooming out to reflect on the meta experience sometimes helps give perspective to the micro experience. Which is simply that we are living through an organizational time that is, by definition, challenging, and by nature of our small size, the room for creative conflict due to not… We've spent a lot of time clarifying roles, but because we all have to do them so much, there's a natural crossing which happens in the day-to-day. Which doesn't happen as much in places where roles are more divided, because there's more people to do the roles.
And so I think that is the first reflection I have. Just this piece around keeping in mind where we are right now as an organization frame, and what that means for how things are gonna collide more regularly.
I think the second thing for me is allowing and almost expecting a degree of conflict and being okay with that. And almost putting in the reps until you get past the feeling of whatever you're feeling. Anger or frustration.
And sometimes you certainly need to talk it out. Sometimes I think again there's situations that are creating things to collide in a way that creates conflict. That, in some ways, can you learn from the experience and move on and apply that learning? Or do you need to stop and say, “Here's the time to stop and let's focus on if there's something deeper going on here.”
But I think that's one of the things I've been reflecting on. In some ways, we have to pick the times or the places or the spaces we wanna say, “You know what, we need to stop and dive deeper into what's happening here,” versus, “I wanna pause for a second and think about what I can learn here and then apply it as we go.”
But it may not be a time where I need to work through something from a relationship perspective. And it may be, but I think there's a question for me there of what that looks like and how frequently you do it and what it means to say, “You know what, we just have a shitty day y'all, and we've gotten into some arguments. And that's okay.”
That's a little bit okay. Because we're in the messy middle and a lot's going on and we're all human. Do you know what I mean?
Tucker: And we have personal lives that are… but we're really whole humans. You know, last week I was going through a lot with my daughter who needs heart surgery by the end of this year. And I had a therapy session, which I've started going back to therapy for the first time in probably 20 years. And I'm so grateful for it. There was a lot stirring in me last week personally that, because I'm a human, I'm not like… I don't have my personal life and my professional life.
I don't typically think about work-life balance, although I probably need to a little more. I tend to think about work-life integration. So many things—I'm just a whole human basically is what I'm saying—and those play factors into what we're dealing with.
There's this coffee shop I go to right down the street from our house that has the statement of, “Be kind to everyone because you never know what fight they're fighting today.” And just this benefit of the doubt, you know, kindness to one another and recognizing there's a lot going on.
Sometimes it is the conflict, whether relational conflict or task conflict within an organization. And then sometimes we're just having a shitty day or a shitty week and we're not sure what to do about that. It's just like, “I think I need a pause, and then I'm good.”
Sarah: Yeah. I think that's part of it. Playful is one of our values, and it's not quite playful—it's not quite what I'm suggesting—but taking things lightly sometimes. And being able to be like, “You know what, that was shitty.” And you and I have regular check-ins—I was gonna say checkups, like the doctor—check-ins that…
Tucker: Maybe we need to have a checkup!
Sarah: We measure our blood pressure together on Zoom. No, we don't do that. But regularly in the sessions we talk through what's going on. And so for me—and this has always been important—feedback moves at the speed of relationships.
You cannot give more feedback than the relationship can hold. And that's a delicate balance sometimes. But it's something that I just know because I've learned it. And having regular times on the books like we do to connect and work through things, I think is really important. Which means that any week, whatever's gone on, we already have a spot on the books to talk about it. We don't have to create a new thing or have a special ceremony.
Tucker: Let us talk about all the things today.
Sarah: Like put it on the agenda. So, I don't know. That's one of the things I've been thinking about. How can we move through things quicker and give both of ourselves some more grace to be like, “Yeah, I might have been a little bit a jerk today. Maybe you were, too. That's probably okay.” You know what I mean?
Tucker: Yeah. And to the rhythm point, I'm really excited about our quarterly—we do a quarterly strategic planning process, which is a quarterly pause and reflect on, “How did the quarter go?”—those rhythms to me… I think, “What a great time for our quarterly planning to happen next week.” It's like right into the last quarter here. But still just what a great time for us to just intentionally pause, get into the right space, and ask ourselves, “What are we learning?” Which is why we're doing this podcast. What are we learning right now?
Sarah: Yeah. Okay, so you're learning to reflect, I'm learning to move through things and look at the meta context a little bit. What are the other things you would say you're learning?
Tucker: I mean this one goes a little deeper. I have two thoughts. One's a little more tactical and one's a little more deeper.
But the deeper one is as we've gone so deep in this conscious leadership work with Dr. Daniel Friedland's work and Leading Well from Within, I was going back into some old videos of Dr. Danny—and for those of you who don't know, he was a dear mentor of mine. He was a neuroscientist who wrote an incredible book called Leading Well from Within, and I got to meet him in this community I'm in called Exchange.
His whole work was around awakening conscious leadership, and he passed away back in October. And so I do like to regularly go back and look at videos. The beauty of Zoom and all these incredible workshops that I've been a part of and have helped to facilitate with Danny is we have so many videos of him teaching. And I went back to an old video of him when he was talking about cycles of reactivity and cycles of creativity. We got that from him.
And he was using this story. He said there's both data and we all have lived experience around cycles of reactivity. Trigger react, trigger, react—kind of what we talked about earlier. If you have kids, you definitely have had this experience.
If you have partners or spouses or people who—like you and I are at THRIVE IMPACT—around like partners in this organization and what we're doing. You know, there's those cycles of reactivity. But he said he was looking into the data before and he couldn't find the data of what's the spiral up of creativity.
And that's when he started to look into his own lived experience—and his own mother in particular was the story he brought in—and he was sharing the story about his mother who was a woman who was very insecure. And he even had a picture that he would show of her.
You could just kind of see this angst behind her smile and this kind of protection and insecurity. And then he showed a picture after she had found out that she had got diagnosed with cancer. It was a cancer—I can't remember what it was—but it was one that you typically have six months to live.
She ended up living 13 months, I believe is what it was. And he said that it was one of the most incredible years of her entire life because she let go of some of that. And what he said was, “She was able to receive love.” Like she realized that those things that she was insecure about just didn't matter.
She was able to receive love, and also give it. And as I was really going through that, I was reflecting—going back to your question, “What am I learning about myself?”—I've been noticing that I've struggled for a long time to receive love, frankly. Like receive help, receive support. Like I feel like it's awkward for me to ask for help.
It's still some of those old beliefs that I've held onto. If you wanna do something right, gotta do it yourself. If you just hunker down—it’s the old startup mentality—hunker down, get her done. And, going through this situation with my daughter last week, and therapy actually too, I've been realizing how much I am stealing from other people's cycles of creativity and my own. Because if I don't have a healthy balance of giving and receiving love—and connection and belonging based on the neuroscience—I'm actually stealing from that cycle. And so it's just a thing I'm learning of how do I effectively and appropriately give people the space to support me? And how do I support others better too, to where it's a healthy balance?
I'm not overgiving. I'm not over receiving. And so anyway, that's been a really interesting reflection for me of, “What's going on there. Why is that there?”
And I was grateful and I was overwhelmed by the care that people reached out to about Ella—which is my daughter—and her surgery that she needs to have, and that's breaking some of that… some of that's just a trust issue. So that's a deeper one that I'm learning right now.
Sarah: I can share something I feel like I've seen you learn. You can tell me whether it's right or not. I think I've seen you learn that there's not always one right outcome. And that it's about the destination, not the goal. And we talked about that a little bit last week, but I think I've seen you especially—and we all do this in areas where we have expertise—we're like, “Oh, it's this.” But then when we invite other people to do it with us, it's never just this. Because other people have different “thises”, right? And opening up the possibility for it to be different than you imagined, and that being okay, is something that I've seen you really work on, and struggle with a little bit recently, but work on and live into.
Especially when it comes to putting together workshops and facilitations. I know that's a real area of expertise for you and giving some of that away I think is hard. Or it looks hard sometimes.
Tucker: It's so hard. It's so hard. Well, you know what was interesting, going back to you were talking about roles.
We're really doing a good job, I think, and continuing to move forward around clarity of roles of different…
Some people are decision makers, some people are some of the implementers or the doers. Some people help establish the “what”. Like, “Here's the outcome of what we're looking for,” but don't necessarily have to do the how. And I think what you're getting at, to me, is that I've kind of blended all that together: the what and the how. Like, “What are we trying to accomplish and then how are we going about doing it?” And it's that “how” component that I've noticed I get a struggle in, to your point, there are multiple “hows”, if you will, to get to a destination.
And I have my way and my language and my style, and there are other styles that can help support and do that, too. And how do I let people run with a “how” and be really clear about the “what”? Like, “We need to have a workshop that has this specific objective and we need to come out of this workshop with this. How would you like to go about figuring that out?”
And giving people the space to do that without me holding onto it. And I think that's where I've noticed the clarity of the how versus the what.
It's kind of like a board. Remember when we were talking about this with strategic planning. We created a clear delineation between the “what”—AKA the impact pillars, the objectives—and the “how”—which is how we go about doing that. Usually when a board starts to get into that “how” category, it starts to get dysfunctional, frankly. And they're now micromanaging. They're in that space of “how”, versus trusting the organization to lean into, “What is your how?” and letting them create that.
And then creating spaces of reflection of even debriefing afterwards, like, “Do you feel like this was able to make it? What are your pluses? What are your deltas?” Things like that. Anything else you're learning, Sarah? To close this out.
Sarah: I think the other thing—and this is more like a re-learning and we talked about this in the staff meeting the other day—is we have a set of organizational values. Easy enough. I mean, not easy, but you know. And I think the hard part is about how you prioritize them in a given situation.
What is our primary value? What's our secondary value? What's our tertiary value. Because what happens is… So I think my learning is that I have a very strong kind of justice and integrity orientation as a human, as a person. And so that means that I also have very strong feelings about when I feel like things are not honest or they are not an integrity to a value. That is something that just personally really hits me the wrong way.
And so I think that constant reflection that we all have to do—and we talked a little about this a little bit last week. One of the fundamental issues of burnout is when there's a value disconnect between the organization and the people working there. That is one of the biggest causes of burnout. And so I think one of my reflections as a person here at THRIVE is just one, how can we collectively prioritize our values so that we're on the same page about what's first, second, and third? So that as we're making decisions, we're not personally pulling forward our own prioritization set, but rather that we've done that as a group and can lean on the group to do that.
And so that's one of the things I've been continuing to reflect on lately, “What are the values of THRIVE? How or whether do they align with my personal values?” And then what does it look like to prioritize our values as a group and as an organization in order for us to make co-created and aligned choices about the day to day of the work? How we handle contracts, how we think about pay, how we look at budgets, all of it up and down.
Tucker: And do you think, Sarah, is prioritizing a one time thing or is it contextually based upon the specific situation? You just talked about “playful” as an example. That's one of our core values, is playful, which I love. And that was a co-created value. Co-create is also one of our values. But reflecting back on what you just shared a minute ago, about you are needing to prioritize or wanting to prioritize “playful” in a particular scenario of holding it lightly.
Let me prioritize this for a little bit. So that way then we get into the next iteration. Then we wanna prioritize sustainability.
Sarah: I think it definitely shifts as we grow and learn. One thing I saw recently—it was on LinkedIn—a friend of mine or somebody I worked with in London. She's in the sports space and does awesome stuff in girls soccer. She went to a conference in Canada and it was about that a lot of the organizations in the sports world are moving from a focus on values to a focus on ethics. Because values are a lighter expression that people can put up on a wall and not live into, but ethics are a code of how we live. And I was… That really resonated with me because I think my struggle with organizational values is so often they are just on the wall.
They're not all lived commitments. And the thing about ethics, “ethic” is at the base of it. It's the concern for the greater good that's at the base of that set of principles. And so I think I'm answering that question by saying, for me, the prioritized value is always the one that has the care for the common good at the front.
But that's my value orientation, right? So that's why it for me is prioritized. But I think it's just an interesting piece for us to reflect on. Because especially as organizations are in the messy middle, I think values can start to feel old quick. And so it's like continuing to process what it means to have them and then what it means to live them. I think is something that I've been reflecting on a lot lately.
Tucker: You know, to what you're saying, the other thing I've been noticing is: how do we have the space to learn into the values? Because you know a little bit what we were just talking about a minute ago around the “what” and the “how”. There's the “what” of a value, but then there's the “how” of the value. That's usually where the tension arises.
Like how do we have excellence and sustainability? How do we co-create and be playful? How do we do these? And sometimes they're at tension with each other. But not treating them in a black and white fashion. You're either living into them or you're not living into them. But in a, “Are we learning into them?” More specifically like that.
Because that's what I've been noticing for myself. I love co-creation and I am learning a lot about what that still even means. And so how do we create that learning organization space? That is that we have this ideal and we have this real. That holding of that tension of a thing we want to live into, and how do we learn into and reflect back on in a way that creates that psychological safety that we're wanting, so that I feel like I can learn into it.
I can learn into, “What does co-creation even mean to me?” Which I've been reflecting on a lot. That was part of our tension in that story I shared at the very beginning. The space of, “How does co-creation even happen? And what are the things that I feel like I need? What are the things that you feel like you need for us to co-create and feel like we're able to co-create?” That's what I was thinking about too is this. It's not so black and white.
Sarah: It's never black and white is the challenge. But I think what we've done a good job of in this past week here at THRIVE is bringing… One thing I think we've learned is conversations can't start and end on Slack. They have to move at the speed of relationships, and that is like in conversation.
And so in this past week we've had a few group conversations about areas where either we needed to make a decision or there was a lack of alignment. And I think those… It was the conversation of a group that helped move the conversation out of a, “I'm gonna do this. I don't want you to do that.” conversation and into something more productive, honestly.
And so I think for me, that's one of the things, again, what are the practices that when we're getting stuck in a difference about a value or whatever it is? What are the practices that help us get out of the stuckness? What does that look like? And I think some of what we learned this week, or at least what I feel like I've learned this week, is it's a group of multiple voices having a conversation about something that together we can move forward in a different way.
Tucker: Yeah. And then along with those, that role clarity as well. Making sure the voices are included and somebody needs to make a call. Otherwise you can't make it like there's… you have to make it. You have to decide. Which is to kill choice. “Decide” means to “kill choice”. And we have to kill choices and move. And those are coming. Co-creation with role clarity, I'm finding, are a really helpful combo around that.
Well, Sarah. I'm grateful for this podcast, and I appreciate you. I appreciate your thoughtfulness as a nonprofit leader. I appreciate your thoughtfulness on our values. I appreciate that you are a justice-oriented person. That is something that is so dear and important to who you are because a lot of our work is that there are injustices with nonprofit leaders. And we were realizing that we're a social justice mission in many ways. And we need that energy that you have. It’s so important. So I'm grateful for those values that you hold and it's good to work with you.
Sarah: Well, I feel the same way. In many ways we’re a Yin and a Yang, as y'all have probably heard, and Tucker does an amazing job—you do an amazing job—of pushing at the boundaries and pressing ahead. And that's a really important skill set.
Tucker: Well everyone, thanks for listening in to our learnings. Maybe this is gonna turn into a once a month or once a quarter learning podcast.
Like what are we learning right now? Which I think makes sense since we just talked about learning organizations and guess what, let's share with you what we're learning and document our own process a little bit here.
But thank you for listening in. If you have any questions for us by the way, or anything, feel free to shoot us an email at [email protected]
You can check out our website at thriveimpact.org and see our posts or connect with us on LinkedIn. Sarah and I are up there as well as the rest of our team. And also too, if this has been helpful for you, pop a review in whatever your favorite podcast channel is. If that's Apple or Spotify or wherever it is that you listen to podcasts, pop a review in there and let us know.
It's always helpful to know what impact it’s having as we share. What makes you a great nonprofit is not your program. It's your impact. And so it's helpful for us to know, if this is helping you in any way. With that, have a wonderful day everybody. We'll see you next week!
Sarah: Thanks y'all.
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