What a Tree Taught Me: Tributaries August 2021

The tree in my front yard has started to lose its leaves. I learned recently that trees do that to survive drought conditions. A tree drops its leaves to conserve the water it has in its trunk. Its roots reach out as far as possible to take in what little moisture is in the soil. The tree has only enough energy to keep its trunk and branches alive. Soon it will be fall and then winter, giving the tree a chance to rest and hope for enough moisture to thrive next spring.

Like my tree, I have been paying close attention to the health of the team at Headwaters. The past two years have been a time of considerable success and significant challenges. We raised and granted more money than any other time in our nearly 37-year history. We have adjusted to the changing conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic. We welcomed new team members and created opportunities for connection and learning. We supported each other during times of incredible violence—the murder of George Floyd, the January 6 insurrection, and more.

As for me, I have struggled with my mental health. My depression and anxiety sometimes get the best of me. I suffer from bouts of incredible loneliness. At times my brain feels foggy, and I forget things that are typically easy for me to remember. My body feels tight and out of sorts. Up until this moment, I shared my reality with a tight inner circle of people. Like so many, I hold a lot of shame around my mental health challenges.

Headwaters’ staff have been working with somatic coach Marie Michael, since summer 2020.  She supports us, both as individuals and as a collective, to listen to our bodies’ wisdom. Marie helps us build a set of resources and practices for resilience, capacity, and healing. I have felt the impact of this work—both as an individual and as a leader—and I see Marie’s impact on our team. Here are some of the lessons we’ve learned so far.

Notice your body. I am the type of person who likes to be in total control and to have all the answers. For me, this is not about arrogance; it is about safety and security. I learned early on in my life not to trust people or situations. With Marie’s guidance, I started to notice the way my body felt when I desperately grasped on to control, versus when I let myself be open to new experiences. My need for safety resulted in a very sore body—tense shoulders, clenched jaw, and tight chest. I learned to notice those sensations without judgment and to release the parts of my body where I held the most tension. What I found is that I could listen better to my team members, and I could hear what they need and what they have to offer.

Understand your patterns. One session we discussed our team’s patterns in moments of crisis or tension. I remember reading the list and thinking, “Yes! This is how we get our work done. Great job team.” But then I looked closer at what people had shared. I noticed that in times of tension or crisis, our team is hyper productive. We respond out of fear. We prioritize others’ needs above our own. We put a lot of pressure on ourselves. These patterns are both individual and organizational, and they were taking a toll.

Build a vision for new, healthy patterns. We named what patterns weren’t working, so that we could co-create new ways of being and working together. The team came up with a list of new commitments that we wanted to embody in the Foundation. We committed to centering collective liberation and dismantling white supremacy culture. We committed to slowing down and letting good enough be good enough. We committed to celebrating, grieving, and acknowledging change and loss. These commitments acknowledge both people’s individual roles as well as the culture that we want as a collective.

Commit to doing better. Marie posed this question: what should Headwaters practice to embody its commitments? Words without action are meaningless. Together, we created a list of tangible things we could do to integrate our learnings and follow through on our commitments. Give each other grace. Conduct an organizational body scan. Reward letting go. Ask for what you need. Visualize and visibilize our commitments and principles. Practice saying an embodied yes and an embodied no.

Be vulnerable. There is no denying that I play a big role in creating culture at Headwaters. I am the longest tenured staff and the President of the Foundation. I saw myself in the unhealthy patterns we discussed. I am a perfectionist. I have incredibly (impossibly) high standards for myself. I will put in long hours and work to the point of exhaustion. Even though I don’t expect any of this of others, I started to realize that I set the tone and the pace of the organization. People felt the pressure to keep up with me. To help my team change, I needed to get vulnerable with them about my own challenges. They needed to see me as a real, complex, and dynamic person. For me, being vulnerable meant admitting my role in the problem and acknowledging the impact it was having on my own physical and mental health.

Take action. No amount of my self-reflection or coaching will matter if I don’t follow it up with action. In the past year (and as we move forward), Headwaters has taken several steps to making change. First, we extended the timeline of our strategic plan from three years to five years. This was a critical step in signaling that the team could slow down and reprioritize their work. Second, I considered our staffing needs, and we are in the process of growing our team. Now each team member has a more clearly defined job description and can focus on work that is more suited to their talents and the needs of the Foundation. Third, I decided to embark upon an organizational development project and created a staff and board committee to lead this work. Through this project we will not only focus on the culture and relationships within the Foundation today, but we will also think about what it needs from all of us for the future. Finally, we are integrating many of the practices that Marie taught us in meetings and as individuals: body scans, grounding and centering, deep cleansing breaths, and listening with our whole hearts.

I often hear from leaders at other foundations and grantee organizations who worry about their team members’ mental health as well as their own. We share our stories with each other, but still walk away afraid that people in our communities will find us out. That all our worst fears about our leadership will be realized. Society has taught us to stay silent about the challenges we face. That silence only exacerbates the loneliness, anxiety, depression, and other struggles people face.

Our work with Marie has transformed our team. I see people caring for themselves and their colleagues in new and inspiring ways. People check in with each other and create space for authenticity. Team members take time away from work to rest and restore themselves.

A peer once asked me how we get work done if we are so focused on health and healing. The truth is that we are having an even deeper impact because we are focused on caring for our individual and collective bodies. We now understand what it means to work in service to, rather than in sacrifice to, Headwaters’ mission. We see the faults in what one of my previous supervisors called “work life integration,” which promotes the unhealthy practice of trying to fit friends, family, and self-care into one’s work. Work life integration requires ignoring one’s need for rest, nutrition, or fun, and being tethered to one’s phone or laptop to demonstrate commitment to the work.

If we as leaders truly want to get the best out of our employees, then we need to demonstrate our commitment to our people. It starts with us. My team members are watching me, and they should! I am open about going to therapy, and I use my vacation. When I don’t feel well, I call into work rather than trying to slog through my day. I ask for help when I am struggling, and I share my joy.

There is still more work to do on culture and healing at Headwaters. I’ll be sharing what I learn along the way. I also want to hear from you. What does self-care look like in your life or at your workplace? What challenges do you face in trying to create a healthier and more sustainable personal and professional life? Who are the people who inspire you to find joy, rest, or creativity in your life?