Courage and Renewal for Leaders

Thanks to the Rev. Devon Anderson for sharing her experience in The Center for Courage and Renewal’s Academy for Leaders. Here you’ll find her review of that experience!

“Consciousness, yours and mine, can form, deform, and reform our world.  Our complicity in world-making is a source of awesome and sometimes painful responsibility, and a source of profound hope for change.  It is the ground of our common call to leadership, the truth that makes leaders of us all.”

Parker Palmer

The Academy for Leaders springs forth from Parker J. Palmer’s Center for Courage and Renewal and is a nine-month intensive learning and growing into leadership practices.  Structurally the program meets in-person for two three-day retreats that serve as bookends to the seven months in between, during which cohorts of 5 participants each meet monthly for 2-hour conference calls with a Courage & Renewal facilitator.  

True, inspired, healthy, effective, successful leadership requires a tremendous amount of inner work on the part of the leader.

At the heart of the Academy is this: true, inspired, healthy, effective, successful leadership requires a tremendous amount of inner work on the part of the leader.  The Academy is about the challenge of living the interior mysteries of leadership, and learning and engaging practices that help the successful leader be in consistent relationship with their inner selves.  When leaders operate without awareness or consciousness of their inner life, they can project onto the external world around them fears, insecurities, and self-delusions which they have lacked the courage or the skill to confront internally.  The Academy is about learning how to “lead from within” ourselves.  

The essential teaching components and principles of the program come from the work of Parker Palmer, particularly from his seminal essay, “Leading From Within,” which he published initially for the higher education community.  In it, Palmer draws from a 1990 speech given by Vaclav Havel to the United States Congress and pivots off two of Havel’s key points: that “consciousness precedes being,” and that “the salvation of the world lies in the human heart.”  From these two points Palmer infers that we all share responsibility “for creating the external world by projecting either a spirit of light or a spirit of shadow on that which is ‘other’ than us.”

In the Academy we experience, learn, and practice Parker’s six foundations of trustworthy leadership:
1) Clarifying purpose and integrity through an ongoing inner journey.  Effective leadership hinges on a leader’s ability to know their own values, to remain present to their colleagues, and to resist the impulse to retreat, react or disconnect.  Much time is spent in disciplined reflection around core values.  
2) Applying deep listening and honest, open questions. Leaders and organizations benefit from practicing a disciplined approach to listening.  Open and honest questions help surface human resourcefulness and foster a sense of community in service of worthy goals, 
3) Holding paradox and tensions in the face of complexity and uncertainty.  The daily life of any leader is accelerated, fragmented and filled with unsettling tensions.  Leading with integrity requires learning to manage these tensions by working creatively with paradox – the both/and nature of most profound challenges.  
4) Building trustworthy relationships in communities/organizations.  When work gets heated and people feel vulnerable, leaders must read the emotional currents and help others contribute constructively.  Good leaders create cultures in which conflict and anxiety are honestly acknowledged on the path toward meaningful change.  
5) Appreciating the value of ‘otherness.’ Understanding diversity as that which is a source of strength, richness and wisdom within organizations and communities, embodied in the practice of welcome and making space for different voices and perspectives as integral to organizational trust building and learning. 
6) Growth through seasons/cycles of personal, professional, organizational change. Stress, pressure and uncertainty grind leaders down over time.  Leaders must develop intentional processes to discover opportunities for change and renewal that lie hidden within the inevitable challenges that fill the arc of a career.  

The crown jewel of the Academy for Leaders is the “Clearness Committee” – one participant presents an inner struggle or challenge.  The other members of the “committee” ask honest, open questions.  The “Clearness Committee” follows some simple, but critical rules and a template for how the time is spent.  Several days of the retreat are dedicated to learning the skills needed for a successful experience, drawing heavily on deploying Palmer’s “Five Habits of the Heart,” the Six Foundations of Trustworthy Leadership, and “Circle of Trust Touchstones.”  

Academy participants come from every walk of life, from across the country, and from every conceivable profession and vocation.  The lack of “church speak” is refreshing, though for the church professional, all material needs to be translated back into a theological perspective.  Also, the Academy is unclear itself as to the role that religious practice, spiritual language and experience, and theology plays in its material and teaching – the facilitators select bits and pieces from religious traditions to make their points or quote, using this material out of context and, in some cases, in an exploitative way.  It’s unclear whether it’s okay or not to talk about Jesus or Allah or any other deity or spiritual practice as part of one’s inner work.  It’s one downside of this program, but it by no means casts too long of a shadow on the exceptional and extremely utilitarian nature of the material.  One can participate in the retreat or phone calls and put the learning directly and immediately to work in leading faith communities.  

The Rev. Devon Anderson serves as the rector at Trinity Church, Excelsior.