December 2016

December 2016

Jennifer Almanza

How has your understanding of your own leadership changed through the Fellowship to date?

When I started this Fellowship, I thought of leadership skills as something outside of myself to search for and acquire. I envisioned expensive workshops on a myriad of titillating topics that would polish me into a leader that would change the delivery of women’s healthcare (or something like that). This was an immensely naive understanding. I have come to see leadership as a choice, an ethic and a skill. It is a decision to respond in love and hope rather than defeat and dismay. It is remembering the pause before the response, and asking, “I am in the right mind, using the right words, taking the right action?” It seems that my leadership path is a gentle one, which is something that those who know me might be surprised by, it has certainly surprised me! I have learned much from my work in this Fellowship about following the flow of energy, about always being responsible for my thoughts and my actions. This deep work permeates through all aspects of my life, not just my life as a leader. We are living in the midst of great collective mindlessness. Of more people choosing to be right rather than choosing to be kind. Of immeasurable selfishness. Of leaders choosing to blame instead of choosing to take responsibility for what can change.

Another revelation has been the perspective of leadership as the capacity to be real in the face of being right, being smart, or even (gasp) being professional. Since I have started this Fellowship I have: started a doctorate program, dealt with almost losing my father, moved my parents into my (tiny) home, sent a kid to college half-way across the country, almost lost a kid to mental health issues, worked through the grief of having a wayward spouse, sold a house, and moved – twice. In the past 17 months. It’s like the Universe was waiting for me to start this Fellowship and Doctorate program to dump a virtual shit storm on my family.  Any one of these issues could have dropped me to my knees. But they have not (at least not yet). Through the cultivation of my inner-leadership skills – the deep work, I have learned to not be a victim. I have learned to approach things with curiosity and patience (and sure, in certain circumstances, a little rage). I have spent some 3 a.m.’s on the bathroom floor in a puddle. Yet, I have managed to continue to be a good mother, a decent teacher, a fair student and a present family member every day. I have managed to continue my work in the community in issues that are important to me and are the focus of my Fellowship (publishing, policy work, health equity). I have had some of the most real and inspiring conversations of my life. I have learned that all around us in our homes, in our offices, in our schools, on the train, there are people who have also chosen to use their challenges as a catalyst forward rather than a weight that holds them back. I chose those people. I chose to allow people to see me as a real human, struggling with all the very real things we humans get to deal with. When we don’t share our very common life tragedies we disallow the opportunity for another in similar circumstances to believe that they too, despite all the “things” can and must fulfill their own destiny. Being a leader who is real is a gift to others. It is a part of destigmatizing hurtful experiences that sometimes cause shame, but don’t need to. 

I have been reminded recently of my very distant life as a peace studies major. I remember the 19 year old me who was an agent of peace and a “militant” pacifist (thank you Einstein). I remembered the fiery hope in that young girl who believed that I could make a difference in the world. Alas, I have found the sage wisdom of ancestors telling me that truly, to change the world, I must change myself. I have been reminded to stop being “against” anything, but rather to give that energy, time and work to that which is positive and good.

How do you now view the role of self-care in sustaining your ability to lead?

This is an area I have necessarily cultivated. I have always known myself well enough to understand that how much I move and what I eat impacts my capacity and my mood. For the past three years I have practiced meditation, but have definitely deepened my practice since starting this fellowship. I have been pushed me to hone in on support of spirit and discipline of mind as the primary place from which my wellness emanates. I have been tasked to find the most impactful ways to maintain a clear and peaceful mind. While I am not always in that space, I know that it is always there for me, and that is the most wonderful reassurance in the world.  I have found some other small things which also help; keeping good books in the car to listen to during commutes, opting for herbal tea in lieu of coffee, playing more and spending time with good friends more regularly.  Pretty simple things that are great add-ons for a clear and happy mind.