How did you learn leadership skills – Within the Quaker world? Outside of it?

Barry Crossno, Friends General Conference

One of the best things my mother ever taught me was: surround yourself with people who are better and smarter than you. That’s really been my mantra since I came to FGC, to try and find people who were smarter and better than me. One of the pieces I learned outside of the Quaker world is public speaking. At about fifteen, I recognized that having the ability to speak effectively in front of a group of people was going to be crucial in whatever I choose to do in the future. I joined the Future Business Leaders of America. I was competing in impromptu speaking, which was really terrifying. I was very shy. Something that has been important for me is that at various junctures, I’ve tried to steer into fear.

For someone who wants to develop leadership skills, involving yourself on different boards is tremendously important, especially in your twenties and thirties. There are so few people who serve in their twenties and thirties, and you end up knowing phenomenal people and picking up a ton along the way. I served on four non-Quaker boards in my thirties, and it was really pivotal for me to be surrounded by a lot of people in their fifties and sixties who had been there, done that, were really good at it—just soaking all of that up from them.

In terms of Quaker places, Quaker business meetings taught me a lot in terms of coming to an understanding of what happens in a meeting with a group of people. It taught me about the preparation that is necessary, both spiritually and also just logistically, before a group of people come and sit down together and try and talk through something. What I’ve learned over time is that the intellectual, especially if you’re Quaker, is really necessary, but it’s the emotional and spiritual where people actually engage. It’s where I think people ultimately make a determination of what truth is.

For more of Barry’s story, click here

Diane Randall, Friends Committee on National Legislation:

Well, definitely within the Quaker world. People whose way of being and speaking and leading I’ve watched have influenced me. My mother’s been a big influence on me, as someone who could stand before people and speak engagingly. I am an observer of how other leaders interact and react. I’ve read some books on leadership. I have had friends with whom I talk a lot about leadership, the strengths, and the different styles of leadership. I’ve thought about it a lot. I’ve worked with people, consultants and others who have done leadership skills training. I think naming leadership and having ownership of that within the Religious Society of Friends is important. I’m really grateful to Jay Marshall’s work at Earlham School of Religion about lifting that up as a conversation at a conference that they do. It has sometimes been something that Friends don’t want to name, and yet, we cultivate leaders. Clerking is cultivation of leadership, from my point of view: if you know how to clerk, you know how to lead. I’ve also talked a lot to people about how to you translate those clerking skills or other things that we learn as Friends into the wider world, the non-Quaker world. Sometimes you can, and you can see how they have an impact on people.

For more of Diane’s story, click here

Jen Karsten, Pendle Hill:

No one source. Lots of life and job experience.  And with dedication, pursuing my own growth over life. I think that’s a characteristic that I bring to this. I think that every outcome of that is due to the good graces of other people sharing their stories and cautionary tales, and making their witness known so that I could be inspired and have a template for myself in human others, not just fiction. Repeat exposure to amazing people. And keeping eyes open to that which is broken all around, so that I felt compelled to apply myself, and whatever skills I didn’t have to bring to it, going and finding them.

For more of Jen’s story, click here

Gretchen Castle, Friends World Committee for Consultation:

Certainly life experience is a great teacher. I’d say one of my most challenging leadership experiences was being clerk of a yearly meeting. It’s not a paid position and I was very committed while I was working. It’s an important message for me just to not be fearful, don’t be afraid, God will hold us. I think of the Buddhist bowl and there’s all the space in the center that held by the bowl or held by God and then we have lots of choice within those workings. We have to be very fearless and just come out of love, but say what needs to be said and not be overly worried. It’s always that person’s choice how they hear it-it’s an interaction, its relational. If you’re being faithful to our relationship with each other then God gives us the words for that. We can be held to speak truth to power and it’s important to do that as a leader.

For more of Gretchen’s story, click here

Drew Smith, Friends Council on Education:

Sister Mildred was very much in charge at the Shaker community where I used to work during the summers. It was a small little community, about 13 people, and then about ten every summer who came and worked at the museum, of various ages. She was gentle with us, but she didn’t hesitate to be firm when she needed to be. She was a teeny-tiny person, but she carried her authority with humility, and that’s been a big important lesson for me.

There are many elders in my meeting, who are all very different characters, but were all very influential in different ways. I can trace my “be straightforward” thing that I always try to impose on myself, all the way back to Walter Darnell at Haddonfield Meeting. He was the person at business meeting who was often the one who would just cut right through the bullshit. Not in a mean, negative way, but he had a way of putting things succinctly that caused anything extraneous to fall away, and he never hesitated to do it. His wife Mona is another one of those four people who, like Sister Mildred, carried herself with sort of a gentleness, but also, like Sister Mildred, and her husband, wasn’t afraid to speak the truth or say things plainly and look you in the eye while she did so.

For more of Drew’s story, click here

Doug Bennett, Earlham College (Emeritus):

I learned a lot in the year I spent at Swarthmore College from David Frazier and Jim England who was the Provost. Jim would say with the exception of this one, you’re welcome to any of these meetings I’m going to be in. If you want we’ll talk about what I think is going to happen in this meeting, some of which are called, and some of which someone has asked to have with me. I’ll tell you what I think is going to happen for the meeting and then you can watch the meeting and then we’ll talk about what happened afterwards.

I realized that every morning he would walk from his office to a little coffee shop at Swarthmore and get a cup of coffee and stroll back. One day I was going by his office, I was on my way to the coffee shop and I stuck my head in his office and asked him if I could bring him a cup of coffee. He said nope but I’ll go with you. As we walked across campus, he said “I do this everyday because every member of the faculty knows I do this every day. So if you want to have a “by the way” conversation with me, everybody knows where and when to do it. Sometimes people just need to say something to you, or ask you things, and want to look like it was just off the top of their heads and I need to give him that opportunity.”

For more of Doug’s story, click here

Colin Saxton, Friends United Meeting:

Quakers have a funny relationship with leadership. We often ridicule ourselves for being as easy to lead as herding cats. We laugh about that, but it’s really not funny, it’s actually an issue that we have to address. Part of it’s built into our theology. There’s a healthy side to that, but sometimes it gets out of whack, and it gets unhealthy. I had a sense of being called into leadership, and I see that as a role and a gift. It’s not a better-than sort of thing. It’s just a part of how every group functions. There are some people — and it’s often people at different times, and in different ways — who provide leadership. We should be grateful for whoever that is, and support them to the fullest. We don’t always do that as Quakers.

I think I got sort of sucked into that unhealthiness for a while, and had a sense for a while That, “Well, nobody should be a leader,” or, “We’re all always equally leaders at any particular time.” Then I was serving at a church, and part of my philosophy about leadership is, you need to do your best thinking, your most careful discernment. You bring that to the group and offer it as a gift, and then you trust that they’ll actually engage with it, and they may modify it, they may change it, and hopefully we come to a better place afterward. Well, I kept bringing all these ideas to the church, to the elders at this particular church, and I kept asking them for their input. Finally one of the wise women of the group said, “Colin, you have all these really great ideas. We’re not a group of leaders here. We really trust you. So do them! You don’t need to bring everything to our attention all the time.” That was really freeing for me. It made me think, “What is leadership? How do you be a leader, and be accountable to a group of people, but not be stymied by it, or put so many restrictions that you don’t move forward?” Which I see us doing sometimes. That kindled an interest in me to do some further study, and that’s one of the reasons why I went back to school and did this doctorate program that focused on leadership. I knew I had these notions in my head about what leadership was and what leadership wasn’t. It was good for me to have to read a bunch of books that I may not have read otherwise, and to do some more thoughtful self-analysis about the kind of leader I am and what it means to lead an organization. So, it was both within the context of a Quaker community, but also stepping outside of it and looking at what business people had written, what nonprofit organization people had written, what I saw as healthy leadership models in other denominations and institutions.

For more of Colin’s story, click here


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