THE BLOG
10/25/2013 04:47 pm ET

You Want to Change the World? Start With You

I tweeted this not too long ago:

@traceydurning Sometimes I wish I'd gone into the private sector. I'm sure there's outta control ego, but at least it's not veiled in 'doing good' #therapy

I work in social change (not Hollywood, not Wall Street, social change) and effective collaboration is much too rare in social change because of ego. It rears its ugly head in all sorts of ways including anger, credit grabbing, fighting for control, ideological digging in and, without fail, a breakdown in communication. I guess I shouldn't be surprised though because, as the executive director of a well-known nonprofit organization once said, "Hey, we're a bunch of people who think we can fix the world. What do you expect?"

The answer is, I expect more. And I think we should all expect more from one another because we have an awful lot to get done. Now, I understand ego because I had to battle my own into submission for years. I'm no angel. But there finally came a point when I realized, "Okay, this control thing ain't workin'. I've got to take a good hard look at myself and break it down." So I got my ass onto a Vipassana mat, stared my fears and anxieties straight in the face and continue to work on it daily. Am I perfect? Hell no! But at least I have the tools now to recognize when my pulse is getting faster, my breathe is getting shorter and I'm fixated on a situation -- that my mind has inevitably spun out of reality -- causing me, and others, distress. I catch it, recognize the source (me; it's always me) and, more often than not, diffuse it. Hey, Rome wasn't built in a day.

The tweet stems from a project I've been hustling to develop, get funded and move forward for years. And the details don't matter so much as the 10,000-foot view: a partner with an overactive fear around losing control (getting more specific will unnecessarily ruffle feathers). Now, it's my job to keep the communication going, try to talk through some of the fears and help us problem-solve together. But it's equally as important that he do the necessary soul-searching to understand where the fear really comes from and how it's manifesting. As renowned writer, speaker and activist Parker J. Palmer writes in Let Your Life Speak, "If we do not understand that the enemy is within, we will find a thousand ways of making someone 'out there' into the enemy."

I see different versions of fear and ego surface in the social change space all the time. In fact, my first foray into the nonprofit world taught me very quickly about a thing I call hero worship: Do not question (certain) well-known thought leaders too deeply about their strategies toward goals because what could you possibly be qualified enough to ask anyway? I learned the hard way that asking such questions -- you know, the ones that don't actually have answers -- can result in a verbal lashing, or worse. The thing is, I don't need all the answers. Most of us don't. We just hope there's enough humility to admit when the answers aren't there and hey, let's work together to find them. As partners. I find it rare to identify leaders who are comfortable in the unknowing place, let alone admitting they're in the unknowing place.

This ego dynamic spans both the NGO and funding communities, by the way, despite many philanthropists seeing it as "their" issue (over there). I often hear funders complain that NGOs "just don't know how to collaborate" because of ego and being territorial. Um, does anyone have a mirror by chance? While my colleagues and I describe a very positive and beneficial experience from our "high stakes donor collaboration" in this Stanford Social Innovation Review article, we're clearly in the minority. Very few collaboratives exist and Paul Brest, the former president and CEO of the Hewlett Foundation, sums up why he thinks that's so: "The only thing that foundations compete on is ego, and there's a huge amount of that. If we need to do it my way, and I need the credit, then forget it." While I appreciate the honesty, I'm horrified by the sentiment.

So, the question is, how do we do better? How do we come together more effectively to get some really big and necessary stuff done? Of course there's amazing projects and organizations out there working well and accomplishing great things. I know. I'm blessed to work with some of them. But there's also an awful lot of dysfunction. And while there's steps we can all take to set up more collaborative structures, I'm more interested in the internal work that we, as individuals and leaders, can pursue and hold ourselves accountable to. To my mind, that's the real game-changer.

My great friend and accomplished coach to CEOs, entrepreneurs and executive directors, Jerry Colonna, has a website called Cojourneo, with a tagline that both fits my belief system and helped me title this blog: We believe the best way to change the world is to start with yourself. Palmer goes on to write in Let Your Life Speak,

"Our frequent failure as leaders to deal with our inner lives leaves too many individuals and institutions in the dark. If we are to cast less shadow and more light, we need to ride certain monsters all the way down, understand the shadows they create, and experience the transformation that can come as we "get into" our own spiritual lives."

He believes that process starts with lifting up the value of "inner work" across families, communities and workplaces, as well as each of us really taking the time to cultivate our own skill-sets and outlets including meditation, spiritual friendships and reflective reading. A philanthropist and friend of mine recently emailed me, "I'm not nearly as reflective as you are about spirituality and relationship. That's a luxury for people who are not swamped with work." I actually think he's completely missing the mark. I'm a far more effective, productive and compassionate partner and catalyst for social change when I allow myself some time from the rat wheel on occasion to go deeper with myself and others.

A big takeaway for me from Vipassana is that our reactions are all about us. This is a totally transformative thing to "own," both personally and professionally, and if I learn nothing else in my time on this planet, I'll be endlessly grateful for that one lesson. So, I'm thinkin' that maybe a frustrated, knee-jerk tweet wasn't only a bad idea, it was more about me than my situation. Hm. Interesting. Okay, back to the mat I go. And will go again, and again, and again.

What will you do?

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