Impermanent Leadership

I recently spent several days at the beach. As I watched the waves come in and go out, I was reminded of the impermanence of all things. Mighty waves crash against the shore and immediately lose their form and power. Sand castles, carefully constructed, disappear in one crash of a wave.

At the same time as I watched the waves, I read Tilden Edwards’ new memoir, Life Woven in Sacred Time. As the founder of the Shalem Institute and its first executive director (for 27 years!), Tilden reflects, among other things, on what it was like to lead a contemplative organization. As Shalem’s current executive director, I reflect on what resonates with my experience. The impermanence of leadership stands out and shimmers for me.

When I construct a sand castle, I do so knowing full well that it will disappear in the blink of an eye. Yet as I build an organization, I am tempted again and again to regard my work as permanent.

Tilden reminds me that contemplative leadership is full of surprise, humility, humor, awe, and surrender. These things serve to remind us that our best human plans can be upended in a moment. He tells stories of establishing programs, not knowing which would continue to thrive and which would fade away. He recounts fundraising experiences: 1) Certain that the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation would not fund Shalem’s two grant proposals after the impassive visitor from the Fund departed, he was amazed to learn that they decided to fund both proposals fully; 2) Another year, they had to reduce staff and expenses when they fell significantly short in raising the money they thought they needed.

The uncertainty of programs and funding kept him humble. He would put his best ideas forward and at the same time, watch and wait to see what God would do. Leadership was full of both wonderful surprises and devastating disappointments.

My own experience mirrors Tilden’s. For example, when the pandemic hit and we had to cancel programs, all my careful planning became irrelevant. I had to come to a point of acknowledging “if we perish, we perish,” at the same time doing my best to discern what steps to take to meet the challenges at hand. When it became clear that some programs could thrive and even grow on Zoom, we knew that God still had work for Shalem to do.

When staff changes due to retirements, graduate programs, and other opportunities occurred, I had to trust that the way would open for the right staff to come along to do the work that Shalem was called to do. When doors closed that I thought would open, I had to reassess what I thought Shalem was called to, listening for God’s voice in the midst of the many voices (including my own) clamoring for my attention.

Contemplative leadership, then, allows for the impermanence of all things. Contemplative leaders trust that the organization will survive and thrive as long as it can be of service in the world, in the ways that it can be of service. They are willing to let go when the work of the organization is finished. They are willing to surrender their own agendas when doors close. They listen for the new when their plans fizzle. They receive what is given in humility and gratitude.

My hope and prayer is that I can serve day by day, week by week, year by year, with an awareness of the impermanence of leadership. It is a spiritual practice that keeps me humble.

(This is a further development of an article that appeared in the September 2022 Executive Soul blog.)

January 01, 2024 by Margaret Benefiel 6 Comments
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Jane Kniffin
Jane Kniffin
2 months ago

Lovely. Just what I needed to hear this morning.

Tom Adams
Tom Adams
2 months ago

Thanks Margaret for the gentle reminder of our permanent state of not knowing, both in our organizational and personal lives. More is always revealed and we are not in charge. Thanks to reminder to surrender to listening for Gods Will moment by moment and laughing and forgiving ourselves and others when we don’t. Glad to know about Tilden’s book. Peace

Ann Folwell Stanford
Ann Folwell Stanford
2 months ago

Such a wonderful perspective on impermanence and leadership. Change is the reality. Our openness to it makes change a gift, not a horror. Thank you for reminding me so vividly of this.


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