We Make The Road By Walking, Together

July 17, 2015 //

Last week, Pia ended a really thoughtful and heartfelt post by asking us how we survive spiritually in our work. What buoys us?

She began her reflection by noting that she was marking her first year as TWI’s co-executive director. I’ll begin my answer to her question there as well – primarily because the first thing that springs to mind when I think of what buoys me is our present co-leadership.

Before we both started in this new role, I was feeling increasingly drained and stretched. As the driver of what TWI had become in the decade after our Founder Fred Whitman’s death, it was immensely gratifying to see how far we had come in 10 years. It was also becoming harder to hold everything. More importantly, for TWI to fully move toward our aspirations it was becoming clear we had to increase our internal capacity.

Looking back over the past year, I’ve been struck at how much sharing my own leadership and power has made TWI a more powerful organization and advocate.

I’m also aware of how much lighter I feel, rather than depleted.

I think different models of co-leading are increasingly popping up for both of those reasons. Co-leadership is a bigger topic than I am going to address here, but co-leading with Pia has certainly lifted my spirits. I am enriched, and TWI is more effective by the fact that our co-leadership is cross-generational, cross-gender, and cross-race.

Writ large then, I’d say moving from a frame of “I” to one of “We” nourishes my sense of spirituality.

As I write that phrase, I can’t help but think of TWI’s mission and how dialogue, relationship building and inclusive leadership contribute to a greater sense of “We.” In a very real way, our mission — and the continual invitation and challenge to walk our talk — holds deep meaning for me. As does striving to fulfill that mission with kindness, empathy, curiosity and respect towards others.

It may sound simple, but in a field full of logic models and theories of change and measures of impact, I sometimes think those qualities are not given their due. For me, practicing them is one of my answers to Pia’s question, “What are your antidotes to despair?”

The problems of our time can sometimes feel overwhelming and depressing. What keeps me grounded and hopeful are the relationships I am in – both in my personal and my work lives. My relationship to nature also means a lot and experiencing the natural world is something I increasingly value. Walking in nature and working outside create a meditative space for me. In short, reflection and connection feed my soul.

In John A. Powell’s recent interview with Krista Tippet (which I listened to yesterday and highly recommend) he speaks powerfully about the importance of feeling – and acting – from a place of connection with both humanity and the natural world. As I continued to reflect on Pia’s questions, his words resonated strongly with me.

He also talks about the importance of moving from the “I” to the “We” and of living in a way where we hold an awareness of suffering while acting from a place of love.

As a funder, to be able to support in different ways so many inspiring people who are tilling that very soil in their work remains profoundly gratifying and humbling.

And so, while I recognize the dark sides of philanthropy that prompted Pia’s question of how we survive spiritually in this work, I also acknowledge how much my spirit is lifted up by the passion and dedication of those I have the privilege to support and serve.


  1. terry700 on July 20, 2015 at 2:44 pm

    Thanks, John and Pia. I resonate with so much in your recent posts. As always, you’re articulating things about leadership that go beyond my own oft unquestioned assumptions and the dominant messages about what leadership is and how it works.
    Keep on!

    Terry Chadsey
    Center for Courage & Renewal

  2. Pia Infante on July 21, 2015 at 8:51 pm

    Thanks for sharing your response to our posts! We appreciate you, and your work at CCR.

  3. aeo on July 21, 2015 at 11:38 pm

    As I read this post, a feeling of affirmation arises. The work of the Gift of Compasson has grown as organically as one could wish, given all of the obsession and time spent in the world of philanthropy to defining theories of social change, articulating the right metrics, and synthesizing the findings from work undertaken each year. New theories emerge, new measures are requested, and structures for reporting grow ever more particularized.

    For our part, we see people young and old who want to know the same thing, “How do you do that?” The “that” is to find calm in the midst of chaos. It is bringing to life and sharing of the gift each person possesses and, if discovered, can bring sense to an otherwise nonsensical world. Nature shows perfection. Human beings are imperfect by nature. Yet, we know there is something each of us can do that is exactly what we might call “a gift.” In TWI’s case – it’s being there, holding space, and allowing patience to play a part.

    • John Esterle on July 23, 2015 at 4:51 pm

      Thanks so much for your affirming and thoughtful response. Your reply brought to mind a recent experience I had at Images and Voices of Hope’s annual Summit. At the Summit, there is a practice called “traffic control” where on the hour, soft music comes on for a minute and you stop whatever you’re doing, including talking, and just sit in silence. It’s a reminder of how we can practice reflection throughout the day. Anyway, in the midst of the soft music and reflection an emergency siren went on in the distance. I noticed at first how my attention immediately went to the siren. It took intentionality to come back and hold both the siren and the reflective music at the same time. As both the music and the siren ended, there was a moment of silence — and then the dialogue began. It seemed an apt metaphor to me for the times we’re in.

      Thanks for your positive response as well! Actually, when I experienced the moment above I just referred to, I thought of Parker Palmer and how he talks about the importance of holding polarities or living in “the tragic gap” between the word we envision and the world as it is. How do we live with our hearts broken open? How do we move forward with what he calls “the politics of the broken-hearted.” We’re able to live in that gap by engaging in circles of trust.

      We appreciate both the Gift of Compassion project and Center for Courage and Renewal and are grateful for the gifts you both bring to the world through your work.