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    National Leader of the Month for February 2008

Deborah Frieze

Deborah Frieze

LeaderNetwork.org has provided two mediums for you to experience the leadership insights of National Leader of the Month Deborah Frieze: read them below and listen to excerpts from a conversation on leadership between Brian McCormick and Deborah Frieze. To listen to the podcast, copy and paste the following RSS link into your preferred podcast software: http://www.leadernetwork.org/leadership_podcast.rss. In order to begin playing the audio in a separate window, click here Deborah Frieze audio.

Honoring Deborah Frieze

Deborah Frieze's body of knowledge represents the best the West has to offer (including an MBA from the Harvard Business School and a stint working at a technology startup). That Western perspective on life and leadership, though, has been greatly enhanced by her leadership and experiences with the Berkana Institute. In witnessing and interacting with a great diversity of people, cultures, and perspectives, Deborah has found that there is not just one way to view challenges. It only takes a few minutes speaking with Deborah for the breadth of her perspective to become readily apparent. For her unique perspective, and the insights that she has been able to glean from both Western and non-Western methods of leadership, Deborah Frieze is a remarkable representative as the National Leader of the Month for February 2008.

About Deborah Frieze

Co-president of the Berkana Institute

Bio: co-founder of the Berkana Exchange; founding member of ZEFER, an internet-services firm; working board member of The Mastery Foundation; bachelor's degree from Amherst College; MBA from the Harvard Business School

Favorite quote: This one has guided me in almost all of my works since I joined Berkana. It is as follows, “start anywhere, follow it everywhere.” It was something that came from Margaret Wheatley and Myron Kellner-Rogers, and I think it was Myron who said it. It’s the idea of really working actively with emergence. You don’t have to have the answers now; you have to start with what’s in front of you, and then you have to actively notice where it is leading you and follow it. That has been a huge guide to me in making choices about where to put our energy and our efforts.

Favorite book: If it is any book in any context, my absolute, all-time favorite book is East of Eden by John Steinbeck, which I read as a teenager. It formed a philosophy of life for me at the time, and it’s a book that I recommend to all who ask me.

Deborah Frieze and Leadership

Books recommended for aspiring leaders: …Margaret Wheatley’s Leadership and the New Science, especially the revised edition which takes a look at understanding natural disasters (as well as terrorism). I think that’s one that has been very, very influential for me.

There is another one that is not about leadership, but I think it’s really about the call for action in the world; it is a book called The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler. It lays out some of the systemic level crises that are present in our world, starting with peak oil but also impacting food, environment, etc. It’s really increasing our awareness about where we might need to take action.

Personal passion and dream: There is a theme that we’ve been working on actively in the Berkana Exchange, and we say it’s about “creating the worlds we want today.” That may be a bit more abstract than you had in mind, but that is the theme of my passion right now: How do we just go out there and create the worlds that we want, create the food systems that we want, create the quality of relationships that we want in our homes and in our neighborhoods, create a better way of disposing or not even creating waste in the first place? [It is important that we] recognize that there are a whole lot of systems out there that are not creating the worlds that we want. We sometimes blame political systems, economic systems, materialism, or multi-national system--or whatever it may be--but instead of looking at what is not working, it’s this passion around the creative act. How do I just simply start doing? It’s a lot like the “start anywhere, follow it everywhere” quote. How do I just simply--where I am, in the environment that I have some influence over--create the world the way I wish it to be?

What experiences have been vital to your development? On a macro level, I used to be a dot-com entrepreneur from 1998 to 2001 and had a really formative experience being inside what was essentially a successful business and looking at what “winning the game” really looks like, feels like and what results it has. [I became] very, very disillusioned with that. [Consequently, I developed a clear opinion] that the way our “business game” is designed fundamentally rewards short-term behavior and short-term gains. [Our system] doesn’t have as much concern as it needs to for the long-term impact. That was a very impactful experience for me that opened my eyes to how the systems that we’re in are designed to create good (or not-so-good) impacts on each other. That would be one experience that awakened and disillusioned me, causing me to “walk out of that system.” That system is not designed to produce the results that make our communities healthy and resilient. In encounters with some of the leaders I work with around the globe “walking on” to create the new, [we work] to create a different experiment that engages the world in a way that does produce the results that we wish for (such as creating healthy and resilient communities: the major theme of our work). Some of that was very personal. [It was meaningful] going and being at the Kufunda Learning Village [in Zimbabwe] with Marianne Knuth and meeting a woman named Anna Marunda, who is a very poor woman from a village. It was a very intense encounter for me when she and I were sitting down and having a conversation, and she said to me, “Until I came to Kufunda I thought I was very poor, and I had nothing to offer, and you have so much education and so many material goods but…” She slowed down and looked me in the eye and she said, “You have so much that you desperately need to learn from me.” There is so much wisdom that she holds about relationship to family, to community, to land and to a sense of the whole that a lot of us in [the United States] have lost. Those back-to-back experiences [in my life] would be two very intense formative experiences: being in this fast-paced business environment and the experience of being in this moment with Anna Marunda…

Place in the world you most like to visit: Right now it’s definitely still Zimbabwe. It’s Kufunda Learning Village and the family relationships that I felt I built there. People are like, “Wait a minute: you want to go to Zimbabwe in these times?” A lot of people in [the United States] talk about an impending systems collapse: whether it’s the collapse of the dollar, the collapse of our oil economy or the already-ongoing collapse in our education system. One of the things that’s very powerful about being in Zimbabwe is this: you essentially have a place where nearly all of the systems have already collapsed. Currencies have collapsed, the food system has collapsed, and health systems are not working; in the midst of all of that chaos, people are stepping forward and creating unbelievably creative solutions to being in relationship and being healthy with each other. I think about all the things we look at in [the United States], and we say we don’t have the right resources, and then I look at a place like Zimbabwe where so much really has fallen apart. Yet they’re creating so much more with so much less. It keeps you real, and it creates ways of seeing possibility at home that I can’t otherwise see.

Most admired leaders: There are a lot of them. [One is] Manish Jain, who is the co-founder of an organization called Shikshantar in India. It’s a learning center that’s really engaging in some profound experiments with how to “create our own path.” “Creating our own path” is this notion that the world is what he calls, “the ready-made world”: everything, like education and food, is already prepackaged. How do we create our own path? There is a level of integrity that [the people of Shikshantar] are all in. I think there are about 30 of them who are at Shikshantar in this experiment of really creating their own path by “walking it” (as they call it). Manish’s level of commitment to that vision--and how he inspires so many people to be in that with him--is something I really admire.

Advice to aspiring leaders: I have a definition of leader that is rather simple. [The definition is this]: "a leader is anyone who chooses to step forward and take action." I think that there is no such thing as an aspiring leader to me. Either you’re stepping forward and taking action--and that is leadership--or you’re holding back and you’re not engaging. I suppose to somebody who is holding back and not engaging but yearns to, I would say “start anywhere and follow it everywhere.” In terms of improving one’s leadership, I think there’s a lot of internal work to be done around finding your own center: being able to listen to your own intuition and to hear the call that has you see what to do next. So there is some work to be done in getting quiet and being able to really observe what’s going on outside in the world and what’s going on inside. [One has to pay attention to where] does the call resonate? Where is something calling you to action? How do you pay attention to that? The work of leadership really begins with that capacity internally to pay attention and to listen to the world and to notice when you’re being called forth. For the average American who [possibly] has the desire to [listen and notice], but wouldn’t necessarily know how to step back and listen, are there any strategies that you can offer to help do that soul searching or finding out what the path is? Are there any strategies you could talk about? There are so many and diverse ways for people to engage in their own internal growth. Some of those ways can be meditation and other kinds of practices like yoga practice. I am not religious, but for some people it may be a religion. It could be anything that is about a daily practice: a commitment to oneself to let go of all that noise out there (even if it’s some rhythm of taking five minutes every morning to just be quiet). I would not be a person who would recommend this path versus that path [because] it’s such a personal decision. I think it’s not by coincidence that so many more people are now engaging in various forms of reflection and meditation and silence at this time as the world gets louder and louder. I think that people need to find their own journey and just experiment. [People should] ask friends, ask colleagues, and experiment to see what feels right.

Traits important when leading: [It is important to demonstrate] the capacity to really listen to the other people around you (and to yourself) and to see the larger picture: whether that’s nature or just the larger system that you’re looking at. [It is important to] really pay attention to the full complexity of the picture or the situation that you’re in. One [component] is the capacity to observe, to listen, and to absorb. The second [part] is the capacity to notice and name the patterns that you’re seeing. You’re taking in all of this information, and when you can name a pattern, [that is really important]. Even that act of noticing and naming a pattern that’s present creates a new possibility for action. I would say it’s the listening, the reflecting, and the naming [that is really important]...We do a lot of work around “systems change,” and we think that it’s a very, very complex process to act on, but [it is a] simple [process] to describe. [The process goes like this:] you name the pattern; you connect people around the pattern; you nourish each other with the wisdom, resources and relationships we all need; and you illuminate that story to others, so that they can be invited in to join. “Name, connect, nourish, illuminate” is the root process that we work with at Berkana. It doesn’t happen without the naming.

Things that organizations do to stifle leaders: The [thing] that keeps [leadership] from happening is the myth of the heroic leader: the leader who comes in to save the day. It’s not that it’s not useful in some context. There are plenty of contexts--particularly in crises--where the heroic leader who comes in and commands is necessary. So I wouldn’t say that [the notion of the heroic leader is] unhelpful in all situations. But when you’re talking about organizational or community change, the heroic leader can disempower people who have far more to contribute. You’re going to get your best ideas when you have a diversity of perspectives coming in, so the heroic leader--when he or she steps in and takes over--can wipe out that diversity and therefore wipe out that creativity that otherwise would be present...The opposite of the heroic leader is the servant leader: the one whose role is to serve all those who are around him.

Advice for others: I’m not sure if this is about leadership or not, but I do know in our work where we are very, very spread out in many, many different places, a lot of people have given me feedback like, “You need to focus, and you need to stick with it. Stay the course. Fulfill your commitment over five years, or make your five-year plan.” That’s really counter to the notion of working with emergence…The two scenarios are quite different, and the underlying assumption that good leaders have a vision for their five-or-ten-year plan works with an assumption that the world is stable and predictable. The notion of working with emergence is this: “I declare my intention, and I act on that intention, but the world is not stable and predictable. The world is very chaotic: It’s very unknown, and so my skills as a leader have to be agility and adaptability—not ‘sticking with the plan.’ That’s going to allow me to keep receiving new data from the world as it shifts and changes. [I need to] be able to adapt and redirect and change course [as the need arises].” Sometimes I think the feedback (or advice) you get to avoid changing course [is flawed]. The reality is that the world is constantly in motion. If we’re not changing course, we are going to get thrown off balance.

Can you draw any experience from when your leadership was tested? I think it’s been most recently [tested] in our work internationally in Berkana Exchange. I have a background in business and entrepreneurship that has a lot of very creative, visionary, and high-speed leadership in it. I tend, myself, to work at a very fast pace: it gets us back to the heroic-leader stuff. When you are very entrepreneurial, and you’re very creative, you might be running at a pace that others aren’t traveling at. Certainly in the work of building community, it’s not about the speed at which you get it done. That’s a very, very hard lesson for me as an American from a business context to learn: that going slow is sometimes the best way to create success. I get that lesson in my face over and over again, and I still haven’t quite absorbed it. Getting it done quickly can be very damaging to relationships. It can also exclude many voices and many perspectives that need to be part of creating the solution. As the [United States] engages internationally,…whether it’s [with] Zimbabwe or Brazil or Mexico or India, we have different natural paces and rhythms in our different cultures. If we keep driving at the pace of the North (or the pace of the United States), we are not going to create a healthy relationship.

You’ve talked about adaptability and the importance of responding to the changing circumstances that the world offers us. Can you talk a little bit about what is up next for you? Where are you going from here with your life and your leadership? I think it becomes very personal. I’ve been running the Berkana Exchange for [four or five] years now, and [I have] been out working in the world. Some of the questions that keep coming back to me from the community have been these: “What are you doing at home? What is your local work?” I’m mostly away from home in this work, so I think what’s next is this: What do I believe about what the world needs now? How do I want to create the world that I wish for? What am I doing at home? What am I doing about sustainable food? What am I doing about my own waste? What am I doing about the fact that I live in an apartment building, and I don’t know my neighbors? I feel that what’s next for me is really looking into my own patterns and practices right at home.

Deborah Frieze's Story

Can you share a story that you think has a great meaning or a great lesson for people? This takes me back to East of Eden: the book by John Steinbeck. The piece that captured me then was that there is this dialogue in the book around this Hebrew word: timshel. There is this dialogue between this protagonist Adam and his Chinese cook, Lee, who goes off to study with other Chinese servants in California (back around the gold rush)...They decide to study Hebrew because they want to understand the word in the Bible that’s translated as “Thou shalt” (the command). [The phrase is] “Thou shalt,” or “Thou must,” and the Hebrew word is timshel. They learn after twenty years of studying Hebrew that there are some interpretations that are “Thou shalt,” and there are other interpretations that are “Thou must.” There are other interpretations that are “Thou dost” (doest). They [ultimately] learn that the real interpretation of that word is “Thou mayest.” God never created an order: it was always a choice. There is no particular truth. This is the story in East of Eden, and that’s what I would put down for me as the essence of who I am: It is this discovery that “Thou mayest.” There is no right answer: There’s no right way. It’s always an interpretation, and it’s always a choice. What’s been guiding me in my life has been this notion of this: you can’t get it wrong. You just try, you just play, you just do it, and you keep looking at that, and that choice is always available.

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