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Deborah Meehan's blog

Reflections on Leadership and Love on the Occasion of My Marriage

In other posts on leadership where I mentioned love, I quickly offer the disclaimer that I am not talking about the ‘romantic kind of love.’ Well, today is different. On Sunday, July 24th, I married the love of my life after twenty-five years of being mostly single so I have had ample opportunity to think about love and this rather momentous occasion. And yes, not everything has to be about leadership but I couldn’t quite help myself.

A couple of weeks before the wedding a friend and former board member asked why we decided to get married instead of just continuing on as a solidly committed couple. I appreciated the opportunity for reflection, one that brought me back to a leadership value that is fundamental to the way I think about leadership and life, interdependence. We chose the ritual of marriage as a way to celebrate not only our union but the union of our communities as we brought people from all strands and times in our lives together as a full reflection and celebration of who we are as individuals, who we are together as a couple and who we are in community. I was so happy to be surrounded by people who brought us to this moment with their encouragement and support and who will carry us forward. We are capable of so much more together than alone. And it was a beautiful and sweet celebration of love. Love was in the air, in an infectious way that is kindled by weddings. One person hugged me and thanked me for the chance to step away for a moment from all that is hard in the world right now and to be lifted up by love. 

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Leadership, Time, and Mindfulness

Here is a sad confession. I meditate in fits and starts even though I know in my soul that it’s a good thing on so many levels, and for reasons that others writing for this column have articulated better than I can. To add to the irony, I think I can’t make time for meditation.  It reminds me of a story I heard relayed by Thich Nhat Hanh. He described arriving in Boston where he was picked up by a woman who had to stop on the way to get flyers and then on to a dry cleaning store to pick up something else and then a quick stop to pick up food for the event. Not an unfamiliar story for many of us.  He asked her about how she managed the pace of her activities. Her response was, “You don’t understand, if I did not run around like this I would never have any time for myself” and his response? “It’s all your time!”

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Leadership and Imagination: A cool story, resources, and tools

Really, the only way to start this blog is with a story I heard from Irvans Augustin of Urban Impact Labs, at a convening of the Climate Resilience and Urban Opportunities Initiative funded by the Kresge Foundation. A group of organizers in Miami wanted to do something about transit problems.They looked at the lack of transit access in high-density neighborhoods where the FEC railroad line passed and didn’t stop. They brought together community organizations and identified a perfect underpass parking space for a pop-up train station adjacent to the FEC line that would be an ideal transit stop. They came up with a brand for a transit system, the Purple Line, a transit line that would provide equitable service to neighborhoods throughout the city. They then began to plan a train station opening at this location and with the social media buzz in people’s minds it became a real grand opening for a train station. Within a couple of months’ people started coming up and saying how cool that there would be a station in this location. For the weekend-long grand opening, 25 collaborating businesses organized the event with container cars, artists who decorated the parking lot with transit maps, train noises, local restaurants serving food and a DIY crosswalk. Thousands of people attended the Purple Line opening, and many expected a grand opening for an actual train station. Even a public official who thought it was a real train station opening showed up.

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Recruitment Multipliers

I was invited to be part of a fishbowl conversation on leadership development at the Peace and Security Funder’ Group meeting in Portland by Dahnesh Medora, Building Community Portfolio Director at the Meyer Memorial Trust. I am a huge fan of Dahnesh and when I checked out the Meyer Memorial Trust website with its impressive, explicit commitment to equity, I was hooked. Fishbowls can be very cool and if you have not experienced one you may want to read Beth Kanter’s blog about how it works. It was a lively conversation that took my thinking in a new direction when we were talking about who leadership programs reach and the contradictions in recruiting one person who is often part of a group of people who are making things happen.

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Leadership and Trust

Trust comes up a lot these days in conversations about leadership, and especially in conversations about networks.  Recently I heard it mentioned numerous times in a recent SSIR webinar, The Network Leader Roadmap, definitely worth a listen. Webinar presenters David Sawyer and David Ehrlichman from Converge for Impact introduced the concept of ‘trust for impact.’  They explain the idea in an article they wrote called “The Tactics of Trust” and share tools for establishing trust in a time frame based on the premise that we don’t have the luxury of years to cultivate trust relationships.   Their article and other speakers on the webinar addressed the importance of having authentic conversations about difference as an important ingredient for building trust. 

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Leadership and Systems: Identity, Purpose and Interconnectedness

This past week I found myself in one of those conversations that takes you somewhere you would not have anticipated. It started as a discussion about how the work of a professional development committee might be reframed with a network lens as an opportunity to activate peer driven learning.  The person I was speaking with was part of an emerging network of environmental centers and he wondered aloud whether this newly forming network could actually develop a shared identity that would bind them. Given the importance of diversity to networks, I asked if he might not instead mean a shared purpose.  He countered that environmental stewardship is a pretty big umbrella that does not necessarily help people working in different regions, with different populations, offering different kinds of programming to find the points of connection in their work.  I found myself thinking that this was not an issue of identity or purpose but a questions of systems and how people and organizations understand their interconnectedness within a larger system.

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Leadership and Equity


First, a huge shout out to Interaction Institute for Social Change and thank you for a great New Year gift, “As a gift to the world of equity practitioners, IISC engaged artist Angus Maguire to draw a new version of an old favorite (since we could only find pixelated versions of the original). Please feel free to download the high-resolution image and use in your presentations.”  I like this graphic a lot and I believe it raises interesting questions for leadership development programs.


Most leadership programs would likely say that they treat participants equally.  For example, cohort based programs generally provide the same leadership development modules/curriculum to all participants.  The components are also pretty standard when it comes to design elements like compensating travel, mentoring/coaching, action/learning projects, the size of award funds, etc. 

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A Leadership Tribute to Kindness, and my Dad


I have been thinking about kindness a lot this season, partly because it’s a season for thinking about such things and mostly because my dear dad who was 98 died peacefully in his sleep on December 18th.  My dad was the kindest man I know, unflinchingly so.  I described him to friends as a ‘salt of the earth’ kind of guy, and they all agreed.  I know my dad did not have an easy life.  At 98 he experienced the great depression, and great recession, and lost buddies in World War II as the commander of a ship (at the age of 24 which itself is shocking).  As a testament to his leadership he continued to get together annually with a group of guys from his ship for over 50 years while the group dwindled from 60 to two guys who were alive and could travel.  It would certainly have been the appropriate context for ‘command and control’ leadership and yet having been to more than a few of the tin can (the type of ship) reunions, I saw the deep affection among the men of all ranks and races and learned that my dad understood a lot about connected and adaptive leadership. I wish I had asked him more about that now and hope that I will continue to grow and be influenced by his leadership, and his kindness. 

As a tribute to my dad I would like to share one of my favorite poems about kindness by Naomi Shihab Nye:

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Looking Ahead: Results Based Planning and Experimenting with Form

Experimenting with Organizational Form

Last year, Miriam and I began a bold experiment.  At our 2015 April board meeting, as Natalia was preparing to move to Southern California, we asked if we could pause in hiring while we took some time to figure out what work was most important to us and what form would best support that work.  We wondered, as a learning network, what it would be like to be more network like.

We just completed a very fruitful board meeting and extracted some interesting lessons from our 7 months of experimenting with being more network like.  I would like to say that it was ingenuity but it was good part necessity as well.  Given that we had decided not to hire until we had finished this reflective process we were forced to work in new ways if we were to continue the same level of good work.  We are a dynamic duo and there is a limit to what two people can do.  We found ourselves doing more with partners, we were tapping our network to do the work.  In other words, we were staffing the work instead of staffing the organization

For example, Creating Space has always been a labor intensive venture for LLC staff.  This year we used the grant funds to support local partners who were hosting us.  A lot of our projects have been done with consultants from our network instead of staff.  This allows us to spread funds within the network while bringing people together on projects who don’t usually have opportunities to learn together.  A lot more of the content we share through webinars and our newsletter is being generated by you, the network, and less by us.  We have not quite found the sweet spot.  We are still working too hard, but we think we are on to something about tapping the network instead of building an organization with a lot of overhead. Our board is excited.

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Looking back: Growing Pains

Many of you followed with interest the joint series that Natalia and I published monthly about her promotion and our discussions about whether we should attempt a co-leadership model as part of our efforts to experiment with how to redistribute executive responsibility in ways that would be more personally sustainable for non-profit Executive Directors.  As the year closes, I have spent time looking back, and most important of all…learning! I thought I would share my reflections on our joint venture, and I hope that Natalia will add her thoughts now that she has had the time to settle into her new job in Los Angeles.

What Happened in 2014 and Lessons Learned


For those of you who may not have followed our earlier blogs, I thought it would be helpful to provide some context. In 2014, Natalia was promoted from her position as Communications Director to Managing Director in an attempt to create a new model that better distributes operations and program capacity that often both fall to the ED, creating a pretty unsustainable workload and expectations of an unusual combination of skill sets all wrapped up in one person. During the same period we decided to take advantage of the transitions of two of our long-term employees along with obtaining a number of big consulting opportunities to bring on 5 new, mostly junior staff, in a relatively short period of time. That is a lot of change to manage!

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