I’ve Met More Than 100 Leaders. Here’s What They Taught Me About Resilience and Health

The most successful entrepreneurs know that in order to make important decisions, they must distance themselves from work.

A few weeks ago I spent four magical days on Ekskäret, a beautiful and lonely Swedish island. Our days began with a fantastic breakfast in the well-designed main house and ended with extensive sauna sessions at the other end of the island. Afterwards, the brave among us plunged into the freezing seawater. After that, I slept like a baby.

Here’s the view from my bedroom:

The setting was the program: together with a dozen other social entrepreneurs and foundation managers, I was on Ekskäret to reflect on Wellbeing/Wellness and its significance for Welldoing/Good Deeds. We were part of The Wellbeing Project’s Ecosystem Network: a group of people who are interested in exploring and promoting health and integrity within the social sector worldwide.

WHAT IS THE WELLBEING PROJET?

The starting point for The Wellbeing Project was the recognition that the majority of social entrepreneurs are exposed to great stress. In an initial review of Ashoka Fellows, 95% said they were suffering from burnout, depression, massive pressure, unhappy relationships and so on. What may sound shocking at first glance becomes understandable when one considers that many social entrepreneurs found their calling through a profound personal traumatization; for example, if they were victims of sexual violence they dedicated their working lives to this very subject.

Initiated by Aaron Pereira, a Canadian Ashoka Fellow and founder of the donations platform CanadaHelps, The Wellbeing Project aims to establish a new culture in the social sector; a culture that not only focuses on the welfare of the beneficiaries, but where the social change makers themselves pursue a more sustainable lifestyle and work style.

The project is planned for 2 years and consists of an Inner Development Program for 3 groups of 20 social entrepreneurs. These are all Fellows of the well-known social entrepreneur networks Ashoka, Schwab, Skoll and Synergos. The selected leaders complete an 18-month program consisting of three one-week retreats, as well as coaching and therapy support tailored to their respective needs over the entire period of time. The program is accompanied by a scientific evaluation team, which in turn translates the findings into a larger network of representatives of major social sector organisations (institutions such as the Rockefeller, Kellogg and Ford Foundations, the Bosch Foundation, but also Better Place).

These learning partners are placed in different groups that meet quarterly online and once a year in person. The Ekskäret Foundation had invited “my” Network Circle to Sweden and in the following days we reflected on the development and evaluation of the Inner Development Program and on our own experiences with wellbeing.

The head of the scientific evaluation team, Nora Murphy, was also present and reported on her previous experiences. Here are some first observations:

The participants of the first cohort, all experienced and successful social entrepreneurs, complained at the beginning of the program about feelings of emptiness and isolation. Many lived in a world of scarcity; too little money, too little time, too little appreciation.

This is what one of them said:

Funding is a significant challenge, and how to establish personal financial stability/security while also trying to find this for the charity. I worry about the money all the time (…) It is exhausting. The other big challenge I find is that of being a mother and a social entrepreneur. This isn’t a 9–5 job (…)

Another participant described his situation as follows:

To give birth to my organisation and to guarantee its continuity and grow was always a real struggle. It is an independent institution and it required all my energy, attention (…) so this led me to a personal situation in which I feel all the time responsible for my organisation’s survival and my own survival. It is a very tense way of living, all the time. So lately (the last 3–4 years) I have been feeling deeply suffocated (…)

They were under enormous pressure and often felt overwhelmed by emotions and close to exhaustion. Some had chronic health problems. As part of the wellbeing program, they hoped to achieve a better work-leisure balance. Going to yoga more often, jogging more, integrating other leisure activities into their daily lives. But also to gain a better distance from their work in order to make important decisions.

HOLISTIC APPROACH INSTEAD OF MORE LEISURE TIME

In the course of the program this original understanding of wellbeing changed. Through the group work, led by outstanding therapists and process facilitators, as well as the intensive exchange of ideas among themselves, the realization matured among social entrepreneurs that it is not only about a better life-work balance for them.

Rather, they explored the importance of self-contact, openness, vulnerability, trauma and shadow integration. Wholeness/integrity became the focus of their process; they experienced how healing it is to show themselves as a whole human being. To observe the “inner critic”, to appreciate the “inner child”. They saw how important it is for their inner growth process not only to cultivate intellectual capacities, but also to involve the heart (emotions) and their body.

The retreats are not about the work of social entrepreneurs, but about their personal development. Whether this will also extend to the health and effectiveness of the organisation can be assumed, but it is not the centre of attention. Many participants report how relieving they find it that they are not only seen as founders/CEOs of their organizations, but that their personal situation is in the foreground. But even this can be challenging, because who are you without your organization?

The experience of a total of 60 social entrepreneurs forms the core of The Wellbeing Project. My group, one of the Ecosystem Network Circles, aims to disseminate and anchor the scientific findings in the social sector.

A NEW EXPERIENCE: SHARING AMONG COLLEAGUES

On Ekskarät, therefore, reflections on the social entrepreneurs’ previous learning paths alternate with exploring our own understandings of wellbeing. For me, the days are also exciting because I experience for the first time certain formats which I know only from my meditation and self-experience groups – triad work,”sharings”, great openness and willingness to show “as a whole human being” – come together with my social entrepreneurial activity and are reflected in the circle of colleagues.

Together we explore questions such as “What are my sources of strength for work?”, “How resilient am I?” and “How healthy is my organization?” In order to explore the latter question of the wellbeing of our own organisations, we can give free rein to our play instincts and create our organisational landscapes.

For me it is exciting to think about how I can live “wholeness” in the encounters that are characterized by power imbalances. As an example, I took a situation in which I faced the head of a large funding organisation and pitched a project. After I had said the first sentence, I realized how closed my counterpart was. She nodded her head and appeared interested, but I knew that we wouldn’t collaborate. I was faced with a dilemma: it would have been more honest to inform her of my perception after the first few seconds: “I feel that you are not interested in this topic. Let’s leave it at that and talk about something else. What are you interested in?” Instead, I just kept on talking, describing why this project was so great and why it would fit so well with her organization. The hollow feeling after this pitch followed me even longer, and I hope to react differently when faced with a similar situation in the future.

Towards the end of the retreat, all participants gathered their personal and organizational wellbeing practices. The collection can be seen (and as soon as it is online, I will make it available here):

The examples ranged from walking meetings through the forest to the checkout practice of the Better Place lab. After longer meetings, we exchanged views on three questions:

1) How do I feel and how was the group process for me personally?

2) How was the group? Were we constructive, appreciative, everyone had a voice?

3) How satisfied are we with the result of our work? Is it innovative and of high quality?

Having worked in the social sector for ten years and having met hundreds of social entrepreneurs, NGO’s and other do-gooders, I am convinced that The Wellbeing Project can make a valuable contribution to establishing a healthier and more honest culture. I find it very encouraging that so many funding organisations have joined this ende avour. If they really focus on wellbeing, resilience and reflexivity in the future, and if social entrepreneurs allow for the necessary new freedom, the widespread self-exploitation in the sector can perhaps be ended. It would benefit everyone, because healthy people will be able to work more effectively.

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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