Find Your Tribe: The “Who” of Leading Change

CJ Callen

Recently I found myself chatting with someone with roots in philanthropy about my current effort to lead my organization in a process of re-imagining our future to increase our social impact. That person provided her insights and support; she recognized that my “big idea” for my organization sounded like it built on our organization’s history and strengths. She also understood that I was doing this as a process of co-creation involving all our stakeholders.

Time flew by because I did not need to explain all my terms and she had no defenses up or agendas hidden. She told me to “Find your tribe!” so that I can be surrounded by positive supporters who can help me maintain the momentum as I shepherd my organization into a new era – a transformation that won’t happen overnight. “Will you be a member of my secret brain trust?” I asked. “Yes,” she responded. And with that, I have my second member of the trust. (The first member is a wonderful funder who is a thought partner but not a financial supporter.)

What a refreshing connection! The day before, I suffered through a meeting with a person in the world of philanthropy who (1) condescendingly asked me if I had involved anyone else in this process (huh?!) and (2) employed the arrogant royal “WE” when I used a term that they assured me only they really understood from where they sat. I sent the person a thank you note, but no response – and no surprise. Grace rarely follows arrogance. Looking back, I can now say “definitely not my tribe,” move on, and not let that weigh me down.

But it gets better: After my meeting in which my friend and colleague told me to find my tribe, I found another person who understood instantly what I was trying to do, and who encouraged me and started to connect me to others who might help me figure out how best to do it. (Yeah, another new member of my tribe!) In addition to providing me with instant inspiration, she gave me a great reading list for nonprofit leaders willing to engage in playful inquiry and to take on risks – and sometimes fail – all in service to greater impact:

Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Action by Scott Sinek – This book got me with the title alone. For years, when working in the philanthropic sector, I noticed that funders often discussed the “what” and sometimes the “how” of what they do but rarely the “why.” This book captures what I tried to do: to help funders connect deeply to the “why” of their work.

Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error by Kathryn Schulz – This book reminds me of the old song lyrics, “If loving you is wrong, I don’t want to be right.” Now the trick is to go from celebrating failure in all its glory in theory to placing it squarely in the reality of the nonprofit and foundation boardroom.

The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg – The bad news is that we all have some bad habits and sometimes are blind to them, but the good news is that we can be intentional about changing them.

My addition to the above list: The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life by Twyla Tharp. Any nonprofit leader embarking on a major change to their organization is going to have to call mightily on their often underutilized right brain. This book provides some good guidance on how to do that.

So here I am: building a tribe as I launch into an exploration designed to transform my nonprofit enterprise. My hope is to have the opportunity to share my story over the next two years, invite others to share theirs, and thereby break the isolation. As nonprofit leaders charged with the improbable and sometimes the impossible, we need to be proactive about creating the community or finding the tribe that will make or break our ability to advance change (from the inside and outside) that matters.

What will happen next? I don’t know but I promise to stay honest and share the true unfolding of the story. I stand before you vulnerable, excited, anxious but not alone!

Speaking of “tribes” and “community,” here’s an update: In my last blog post I asked for new executive directors (one year tenure or less) to join me in a supportive community for periodic discussions about our leadership experiences and I got it! Several new nonprofit executives jumped at the offer to start a conversation group.  The five of us (with aspirations to be seven) now meet every six weeks for just an hour and a half to connect, share, and explore issues in a safe space. Will you join us in this tribe?

In community,

P.S. In the “so good I just had to share with you” category, there was a billboard with this slogan that resonated with me: “Humankind. Be Both.”

C.J. Callen is the CEO of the Youth Leadership Institute and a board member of Bay Area Blacks in Philanthropy and The Whitman Institute. She has worked in nonprofits and philanthropy for over 20 years, including positions at Changemakers, Northern California Grantmakers, the Tides Foundation, and Coleman Advocates for Children & Youth.


Trapeze image: Mark Setchell

Tulip top image: Pink Sherbet Photography

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