Reflections of a Reflective Leader: Authenticity as Authority


[by Guest Blogger: CJ Callen] 

After over a decade in the world of philanthropy, I jumped back into the nonprofit world to reconnect to the issue that was the impetus for my career in the sector: youth leadership. As the CEO following a founding director, I realized there were two main roads I could take: one of hunkering down (isolation) or one of reaching out (community). I chose community and, in embracing my choice, I have decided to share my trials and tribulations as a “rad/mad” new leader following a charismatic Baby Boomer founder.

In my new role, I was fortunate to have been given the opportunity to join with other leaders who are also seeking the support and space needed to bring the best of who they are to what they do. Last month I found myself on Bainbridge Island for the inaugural retreat of the Academy of Leaders hosted by the Center on Courage and Renewal. My cohort consisted of leaders from a variety of sectors including nonprofit, philanthropy, education, and health. Learning across disciplines sounded like the perfect opportunity to spark innovation in my thinking. I was game. Among the many “a-ha” moments I experienced was how frequently my statement that I was following a founding executive director elicited a certain look from other participants that translated to "Oh my, that’s a hard one – you're in my thoughts!" Done in all due sincerity, I appreciated the recognition of the challenge.

After this weekend, during which I explored with my cohort the inherent tensions of leadership, I found my thoughts returning to this one: I need to embrace the organizational culture while working to change the very thing. I am both inside and outside of that culture simultaneously. I hold that tension every day, recognizing that I need to connect at the deepest level with the organization I inherited in order to understand exactly what is needed to propel it into the next stage of development.

The retreat honed my reflective practices and reminded me that to thrive in my new role I must above all remain true to my authentic self – who I am at my core – and if I stray from that my leadership is compromised. Another powerful a-ha came during the retreat when I read a poem that describes the roles of the leader as that of “captain, pirate, and parent” at different turns. My fear is that my staff and board want the captain all the time while in my heart I know there are times when I need to be the parent—or even the pirate!

On that note, I realized that an upcoming all-staff meeting would be a great opportunity to be transparent about my struggle. Sharing information like that is something the real me, the authentic me, would do. And so I read the poem and shared my fears with my staff. The all-staff meeting went swimmingly well. Was that due in part because of my openness? Who knows, but it does not really matter because I remained true to who I am. That is the person they will (or will not) follow. That was my lesson in authenticity. It was also a lesson in how to be a captain in a way that challenges people’s perceptions of leadership in a positive way.

At the staff retreat, we explored the role of reflection and reflective practice in our work. I agreed to model this practice, which I hold as a core value. Taking the time to attend the retreat was certainly one way to honor that value. We also changed the “update” portion of our leadership team meeting to “reflective updates” that shifted the focus of our conversations from reporting on activities to reflecting on meaning and learning. I then encouraged us all to make the time to step back, reflect, and remain still in order to move forward with integrity and purpose intact.

Here is the poem that challenged me to be myself with those who look to me for leadership:

                “The Contract: A Word from the Led”

                And in the end we follow them—

                not because we are paid,      

                not because we might see some advantage,

                not because of the things they have accomplished,

                not even because of the dreams they dream

                but simply because of who they are:

                standing up here when the waves hit the rock,

                passing out faith and confidence like life jackets

                knowing the currents, holding the doubts,

                imagining the delights and terrors of every landfall:

                captain, pirate and parent by turns,

                the bearer of our countless hopes and expectations.

                We give them our trust. We give them our effort.

                What we ask in return is that they stay true.

                                --William Ayot

As you travel your own journey, I offer a few books as resources that have been helpful in my own:

In closing, are you a chief executive of a nonprofit who followed a strong charismatic founder? If so, I invite you to share your experiences by commenting on my post. Do you want to go further by taking me up on another opportunity? Here it is: I am putting together a conversation group of new (less than one year on the job) chief executives of nonprofits. We will gather as we please in a safe space to explore common issues in a supportive community. If you would like to find out more, please email me at

By C.J. Callen

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.

“Minty Ahoy” image courtesy of Neal. via Flickr Creative Commons

“Tiny Dancers” image courtesy of Neal. Via Flickr Creative Commons


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