Adventures in Leadership: from Sarge to Servant

Born on September 1, the second child but first of four girls, a Virgo, an ENFJ on the Myers-Briggs and, by adolescence, 5’ 10” tall, I found that leading was in my nature! From an early age, my siblings dubbed me “Sarge.” I ran for Student Council president in high school and was first chair of the flute section in the orchestra. Later, after marriage and children, I was elected President of the PTA. More recently I spent over 10 years leading our congregation through the sale and redevelopment of the church property for affordable housing. Leadership has been one of my gifts and I embraced it.

At 65 years old, though, I thought I might be done with taking on new leadership roles. Wasn’t it time to step back and rest? Why was I being called to enroll in the Soul of Leadership? Was there really anything new for me to learn? Still, the idea of the course intrigued me, and I signed up two days before the program began.

In the last months of leading the church redevelopment project, I was being invited to shift from a long-term, primary leadership role to make space for the leadership of our new pastor. That transition was a major challenge for me. What I knew intellectually was very different from how I felt, and I felt yanked from the “center of things.” My wounded pride was always ready to surface. In addition, while I knew that the pandemic was no individual’s fault, I felt abruptly pushed into the narrowness of virtual communication, a change that felt like personal diminishment.

The first residency of the Soul of Leadership, with break-out sessions, dyads, triads, and practice exercises, offered a safe place to explore my experience of this changing leadership role. I also began to see how being a contemplative leader supported that shift. I was able to unpack and reflect on what was happening within me, and I welcomed the insights from classmates.

After the first residency, we were assigned to monthly Clearness Committees to continue to explore the leadership challenges we each were experiencing. We honored one another with deep listening and the wisdom that came forth from it. We experienced the “healing of wholesome words” as receivers and as givers. We found the synchronicity in our trials. We became good friends and relied on the love and care of each other to shed light on and mirror our blind spots. The Clearness Committee became one of the seminal features of the Soul of Leadership program.

From Leading from the Emerging Future (Scharmer and Kaufer) through Immunity to Change (Lahey and Kegan), I was introduced to readings that expanded my understanding of leadership. I could imagine being a “servant of the frontier,” drawing enrichment from the old to shape the new. I was challenged to continue to be transformed as a person and a leader, not to assume that I was “done.” And perhaps most significantly, I came to understand that leadership is best actualized through communal discernment. “Leadership,” Scharmer and Kaufer observe, “is a distributed or collective capacity in a system, not just something that individuals do. Leadership is about the capacity of the whole system to sense and actualize the future that wants to emerge.”

Nine months into the Soul of Leadership program, I was elected President of the Board of Directors for Shalem. John O’Donohue’s blessing, “For a Leader,” was a part of my opening and I had no idea how prophetic this invitation would be, as the role of President was not what I had imagined for myself but a role for which God was preparing me. The Soul of Leadership program grounded and equipped me to lead the board of this beloved organization from a newly discovered place and newfound perspective – as a servant.

For a Leader

May you have the grace and wisdom
To act kindly, learning
To distinguish between what is
Personal and what is not.

May you be hospitable to criticism.

May you never put yourself at the center of things.

May you act not from arrogance but out of service.

May you work on yourself,
Building up and refining the ways of your mind.

May those who work for you know
You see and respect them.

May you learn to cultivate the art of presence
In order to engage with those who meet you.

When someone fails or disappoints you,
May the graciousness with which you engage
Be their stairway to renewal and refinement.

May you treasure the gifts of the mind
Through reading and creative thinking
So that you continue as a servant of the frontier

Where the new will draw its enrichment from the old,
And may you never become a functionary.

May you know the wisdom of deep listening,
The healing of wholesome words,
The encouragement of the appreciative gaze,
The decorum of held dignity,
The springtime edge of the bleak question.

May you have a mind that loves frontiers
So that you can evoke the bright fields
That lie beyond the view of the regular eye.

May you have good friends
To mirror your blind spots.

May leadership be for you
A true adventure of growth.

John O’Donohue, from his book, To Bless the Space Between Us, Penguin Random House, 2008. Used with permission.

September 09, 2022 by Susan Etherton 4 Comments
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Anita Davidson
1 year ago

Beautiful reflection, dear Susan! You are a wonderful example of servant leadership for sure and I’m proud to call you friend.

AY Bryant
AY Bryant
1 year ago

Beautiful reflection Susan. It has been such a joy to travel our SOL journey together.

Scott Landis
Scott Landis
1 year ago

Mahlalo, Susan, for this beautiful, insightful, and vulnerable reflection. It is clear you embody the lessons learned through the SoL program and life itself. I have fallen away from all things Shalem – easy to do when you live so far from the mother ship, so I was unaware you are Board Prez. You are perfect for that position and I am grateful for your leadership there. And that reflection by O’Donahue – wow! May God’s grace and guidance be with you as you “serve” in your many leadership roles.

Scott Rohr
Scott Rohr
1 year ago

Beautiful Susan – thank you for your leadership, guidance and love. May you receive the outpouring of love that so many receive from you. Blessings


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