Leading Differently: Kindness, not Niceness

February 25th, 2008

Earlier this week, I facilitated a community meeting organized to address a spate of violence that recently occurred in a neighborhood here in Oakland, CA. Roughly 200 people showed up -- young people from the streets, grandmothers, school teachers, community activists, neighbors and politicians. The gathering crossed lines of class, ethnicity, religion, gender and race. It was one of the most "Oakland " gatherings I've ever attended. As you might imagine, there were many emotions in the room - grief, fear, hope, hopelessness, skepticism, sadness, and even some optimism.

As we began the meeting, as part of the communication agreements, I asked people to be kind and not nice. Truthfully, I was a bit hesitant to ask for this agreement, thinking that people would interpret it to mean that they couldn't say what they needed to say or acknowledge how they were feeling. I took the risk of asking for the agreement anyway, and was met with a big "yes" from the group. Everyone was tired of the old pattern of blaming and shaming, of finding fault with one another. Yes, we need to hold ourselves and each other accountable, but we can do this with hearts of kindness. And that often takes a lot of courage.

Kindness allows us to say the hardest of things while preserving the dignity of those around us. It allows us to take the big risk of letting people know what is on our minds in a way that is unclouded and respectful. It is an action of the heart. Niceness, on the other hand, is often filled with falseness - it is a way to not tell the truth, or to obscure it. "Be nice!" is something many of us heard as children as a way of avoiding upsetting someone. While niceness might be a strategy that gets us through an immediate situation, it is not effective in the long run, if we are to be strong and reliable leaders.

The folks at the meeting were engaged, vibrant, upset and had a lot to say, but kindness ran through it all, like a small river of balm and steadiness. I was particularly touched by the father who, having recently lost a son to police violence, spoke of the need to come together as one community, to acknowledge each other, remembering our commonness, our collective humanity. He was angry and so very kind, even as he held each of us accountable for the overt and subtle ways in which we all participate in violence.

Grandmothers spoke of feeling afraid in their homes, and of needing to reach out to the young folks. Young people spoke about being afraid to walk the streets, even those stereotypically considered "dangerous". This was a kind meeting, but it was not nice.

At the end of the evening, a woman drummed and sang as we walked out to the park where a young man had been shot the week before. We carried candles, and most folks swayed and hummed along. I was very proud of the way everyone cared for the whole - a crucial aspect of leadership.

I return to my work here at Rockwood with an even deeper commitment to kindness. It is one of our strongest tools as we collectively lead ourselves, our families and communities through a time of great violence, both here at home and across the seas. In the spirit of that gathering, I ask each of you to work toward deeper kindness in your leadership. Please take that risk. And don't be nice.


February 2008

PURPOSE: Reconnecting with your purpose

Rockwood's leadership programs are organized around a fundamental set of leadership practices that can serve as the basis for a lifetime of leadership growth.

This insight focuses on purpose -- the ability to live and lead from that which gives our life meaning.

There is a reason why purpose is the fundamental building block to our core leadership practices, and why its presence strengthens the foundation for the other practices. Vision, partnership, resourcefulness, and performance all follow: Your purpose is what gives your life, and your leadership, meaning.

It's as simple as that. But as simple as the concept, purpose can be elusive or overshadowed by the seemingly more pressing daily task list.

Today's leadership insight is to help you reconnect with your inner purpose, now.

1. Begin by asking yourself this question:

When was the last time you truly felt on purpose with that which gives your life and work meaning?

Take a moment and sink into that time. Notice how it felt to be on purpose. What was the quality of your energy, your focus? Really sit with that memory.

2. With that in mind, ask:

How much of your ordinary day is spent aligned with your inner sense of purpose? How much is not?

3. Now it's time to reinspire your purpose with creative solutions.

What would it take for you to be firmly aligned with your purpose? What support would you need?

As leaders, our ability to partner, inspire and align with others is crucial to our work, and the question of support is a meaningful one.

Imagine the impact on coworkers, your community, and your relationships if you were fully aligned with your purpose.

4. As in the beginning, you are your own guide in defining how best to bring your life closer to your purpose.

What is your next step?

The answer to this will be different for everyone. It may be taking a moment to go for a walk, to meditate, or to identify people who can partner with you.

What is missing that is needed to bring your leadership fully in line with your purpose?

What might you need to give up (from perspectives to old ways of working) in order to clear the way for living -- and leading -- from that which gives your life the most meaning?


  • The Purpose Prize provides five awards of $100,000 and ten awards of $10,000 to people over 60 who are taking on society's biggest challenges. It's for those with the passion and creativity to discover new opportunities, the experience to come up with practical solutions, and the determination to make lasting change.

Rockwood Community Profile: Christina Desser on The Power of Connection

Philosopher and scientist Jacob Brownowski described the process of science--the process by which we gain empirical knowledge-- as that of decoding a "completely connected world." This decoding requires dividing that completely connected world into what is relevant and what is not relevant to the matter at hand in order to create a meaningful context for study. But this division, Bronowski says, does violence to the connections in the world.

We must always bear in mind that we are "certainly not going to get the world right, because the basic assumption that [we] have made about dividing the world into the relevant and irrelevant is in fact a lie." Thus, we must be careful of the actions we take as a result of our often necessary world-dividing activities.

The creative personality, according to Bronowski--whether an artist or a scientist or an activist--is "one that looks on the world as fit for change and on himself as an instrument for change." She understands that the world she paints or studies or acts on is but a fragment of a connected whole, and the integrity and truth of her creative act--her survival in fact, depends upon operating and acting within the truth of that connection. To the extent possible, then, our actions must arise out of an integral structure of consciousness, one that makes the connections we see, and bears in mind that there are certainly connections we are not yet aware of. If we return to a linear way of thinking, one ignores the completely connected world, as Brownowski warns, we will get it wrong. Alas, we frequently do.

I, and I think I can safely say, all of you, do look at the world as fit for change and ourselves as instruments of change. We seek an ever more just and sustainable society [and a more] fundamentally connected and relational way of thinking.

I recently read an observation by Nobel Prize winning neuroscientist Eric Kandel. His field is memory and how it works. He said, "It took us a year to realize what should have been obvious from the start: the cellular mechanics of learning and memory reside not in the special properties of the neuron itself, but in the connections it receives and makes with other cells in the neuronal circuit to which it belongs." Thus, memory only exists within a field of relationship. Solitary, disconnected neurons, isolated from the larger system of the brain, could not be the repositories of memory.

The idea of "The Commons" refers to all the things that we inherit and create jointly for universal use, and that we must protect for the benefit of generations to come. The Commons includes topsoil, biodiversity, the airwaves , roads, mathematics, the law, DNA, wisdom, languages, democracy, quiet, art, seeds, oceans, museums, blood banks, sidewalks, medicine, jazz, social insurance, the sun, the wind, rivers and jokes. Activist work as apparently diverse as defending the biological integrity and availability of potable water, organizing to keep the internet free public and WIFI publicly owned, and advocating for open access to information.

We are people engaged in the practical day-to-day work of social change, but there are critical moments, and needless to say, this is one, where it is wise to step back and consider our work in the most capacious context. Massive global change is upon us--the already felt impacts of global climate change; the depletion of global fisheries; increased desertification in Africa; and the surge in immigration activism in the US and Europe are but a few significant indicators.

How shall we respond?

Our success now, requires that our efforts emanate from a completely connected, integrative consciousness, and must be directed towards the preservation and enhancement of a completely connected world.

We open the conversation to you.


CHRISTINA DESSER is a fellow of the Tomales Bay Institute, a think tank focused on developing the concept of The Commons as an overarching analytical structure organizing across sectors and disciplines.  She served on the California Coastal Commission and the San Francisco Commission for the Environment. In 2003, she co-founded Women's Voices, Women Vote, a project that successfully increased the participation of single women in the electoral process. Chris was the director of the Funder's Working Group on New Technology, an association of foundations concerned with the environmental, cultural and political implications of emerging technologies such as biotechnology, nanotechnology. She was co-editor of Living with the Genie--Technology and the Quest for Human Mastery (Island Press, 2003).  Chris has practiced environmental law has served on the boards of many companies, foundations and progressive non-profits including Women Donors Network, The Rockwood Leadership  Program, Patagonia, Mother Jones Magazine, and theRainforest Action Network.