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Sustaining Our Spirits
Women Leaders Thriving for Today and Tomorrow
Darlyne Bailey, Kelly McNally Koney, Mary Ellen McNish, Ruthmary Powers, and Katrina Uhly
ISBN: 978-0-87101-382-8. 2008. Item #3828. 132 pages.

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Sustaining our Spirits: Women Leaders Thriving for Today and Tomorrow delivers an unconventional exploration of women in leadership. The premise of the book is based on a five-year examination of interconnectedness among women, leadership, and spirituality, involving women from a variety of sectors, backgrounds, and ages (20s-60s). Topics covered include patterns of power, social grounding, coping mechanisms, and adaptability.
Foreword by Frances Hesselbein
Prologue by Darlyne Bailey

Part One

Chapter 1: Contexts and Core Concepts, Processes, and Products

Chapter 2: Spiritual Leadership for Our Organizations of the Future

Chapter 3: Leading Through the Earthview

Part Two

Chapter 4: Organizational Toxicity and Toxin Handlers

Chapter 5: Self-Knowledge as a Foundation for Sustenance

Chapter 6: Aligning Our Mission

Chapter 7: Personal and Organizational Balance and Boundaries

Chapter 8: Dis-Covering Community

Chapter 9: Connecting the Present and the Future through Role Models and Mentoring

Chapter 10: A Habitat for Sustainability – Coming Home

Epilogue: From Evolutionary to Revolutionary Leadership – Leading Into the Future
Acknowledgments – Thank You!
Works Cited
Sustaining Our Spirits provides an authentic, real-life experience, rooted in research, with perspectives rarely examined in depth. This is a handbook for life’s journey for leaders who are women.

The significance of this new book can be celebrated by women everywhere, as they test, absorb, and make the lessons learned their own. This resource is not about theory but about lives fully lived and examined by eminently successful leaders – the great days, the tough days, the lessons applied and generously shared.

I found support for my view, a variation of Peter Drucker’s advice to concentrate on the tasks, rather than the gender. We are not a category. We are leaders who are women, and we are in the leadership positions we hold because of what we bring to the job, not because of our gender. Yet, you and I know our gender adds a very special dimension to our work and to the positions we hold.

And therein lies the delicate balance. We need to see ourselves life-size in these positions, these organizations, these communities and to help others see us life-size in our contributions, our examples – not through "I am woman," but through our presence, our performance, our results. At the same time, we need to appreciate that one of our leadership imperatives is to recognize the context, the backdrop of our times, against which we measure the present opportunities and the doors that are open to women who lead at every level, even as we recognize those barriers that still exist. These barriers provide an opportunity for us to take the lead, find the partners, forge the alliances and collaborations to open doors, and bring new understanding of the power of the richly diverse, richly inclusive enterprise. As women who can lead at every level and with the significance our society requires and deserves, we ask ourselves, "Beyond my present leadership position, am I communicating the values, the quality, the generous spirit – am I helping others and building the leaders of the future for the organization of the future?"

Here is where the spirit within, the leader within, move us beyond where we are to where we are called to be. When we listen to the whispers of our lives (and something in our genes gives us the ability to listen to that quiet voice within), we rise and move far beyond the old expectations.

It has never been more difficult for girls and young women growing up in the world. There are massive negative forces against their healthy growing up; yet, in our age, as these remarkable authors in this book communicate in word and example, new opportunities are far greater than the obstacles when women help, support, serve as role models, and mentor other women, communicating the remarkable possibilities that lie ahead. So, we discard old preconceptions of gender barriers, recognize those that do still exist, and pour our energy into building and sustaining an inclusive, diverse enterprise that provides rich and equal access to all of its people.

We recognize the remarkable spirits, examples, caring, and sharing of the leaders who have written this journey for the journey; all of them demonstrating that leadership is a journey – not a destination. We take their example, make it our own, and marvel at their present success as women of spirit and leaders of significance and achievement who know they are called to shine a light in the darkness of our times.

When we recognize the power of values lived, of our goals defined, of helping others along the way, we illuminate the lives of others, the spirit within; life shines ever more brightly, and all of it is circular and connected.

When we quietly think back upon all of the people, men and women, who encouraged us, helped us along the way, we realize that it was often not an action but the spirit within that communicated faith, courage, strength – an appreciation of who we are as women, as leaders, and who we could be. Called to lead, called to serve, called to change lives.

When we change lives, we find that we, ourselves, our own lives, are changed as women, as leaders, and as fellow travelers on the journey to significance, "sustaining our spirits."

Frances Hesselbein
Founding President and Chairman of the Leader to Leader Institute (Formerly the Peter F. Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management)
Former CEO, Girl Scouts of the USA
New York, NY
Don’t worry, Darlyne. A leader does not have to have all of the answers. Rather, a good leader has to make sure that all the right questions are on the table.

– Paulo Freire, personal communication, 1994

Do women absorb the toxicity of an organization to help sustain it? If so, how do they thrive and even survive as individuals and as leaders? What rituals, practices, knowledge, and strategies have they found to manage the paradoxes inherent in leading fully while living fully?

Women’s leadership has been an area of popular interest and academic study for the past several decades. Publications have focused on the responsibilities and roles of women in leadership, the ways in which they work and lead, and their similarities and differences in comparison to their male counterparts. Despite this public attention and the corresponding rise in the number of women in formal leadership positions, women leaders can be likened to an endangered species. Women who lead are not unlike the many animals and plants around the world that face real peril when they lack a consistent, nurturing habitat to ensure their sustainability. The Sustaining Our Spirits project was conceived as an opportunity to discover and disseminate strategies for securing the viability of our women leaders now and into the future.

Recognition of the need for this work came from experiences within my career journey – more than 20 years as an administrator, initially in nonprofit organizations and then in academia – and in manifold conversations with colleagues. It was through these encounters that two truths became apparent. First, despite the increasing number of resources available, strong, compassionate, and effective leadership was hard, not only for women, but for everyone. And second, the paths of women, regardless of whether they worked in corporate, government, faith-based, or other social sector settings, seemed to contain many more bumps, potholes, and even land mines than those of their male counterparts. The growing successes of women as organizational, community, and political leaders had not diminished this reality. As women and as leaders, we seemed to search for safe places in which to connect with each other, give voice to our stories, and re-energize our souls for our benefit and the benefit of those who shared our journeys.

For me, becoming a newly minted Group XIII member of the W.K. Kellogg National Fellowship Program served as the catalyst for an unanticipated sojourn to São Paulo, Brazil, to meet and learn from the educator-activist, Paulo Freire. Emboldened by my acceptance into this incredible leadership program, I telephoned Dr. Freire one afternoon, and he invited me to his home for a visit. This 10-day exchange of honest questions, concerns, and ideas in community with Dr. Freire, some of my Fellows, and one of our advisors resulted in a deepened conviction about the power of relationship through dialogue to produce individual- and group-level change and growth. The core of my leadership style and work in building and discovering organizational and boundary-spanning communities will forever carry the imprint of this experience – this treasured time with a man with whom I was honored thereafter to spend more time and, ultimately, call my friend.

From Freire, I learned that time and space are essential to fostering authentic relationships and facilitating the work of any collective. Over the years, I thought about and then one day deliberately sought to co-create a project where women leaders would learn from and with one another how to sustain our life energies and commitment and, in turn, be able to share those lessons with others. Thus was born the Sustaining Our Spirits project.

Through Sustaining Our Spirits, we used the attribute of relationship building to design a process for a group of nine women leaders from across the United States. The intention was to provide the necessary space and time to individually share our leadership stories and collectively identify, develop, and document strategies that actually worked to sustain us, professionally and personally.

We began by meeting together in a series of four-day retreats over the course of a year. For a number of us, this work then evolved into much more over the following three years. One of the coauthors of this book describes her desire to participate this way:

As a CEO of an international organization, I try to set the example that taking time to go to that deep place to stay centered is an important ingredient for success. With such a busy schedule, it is the hardest thing for me to do. I have been serving in this position for a little over two years. While I have strong allies on the board and within the staff, I often find myself wishing for deeper connections with other women leaders from outside the organization who would understand and empathize with some of my challenges. Our retreats provide that and so much more for me. They are a well I can dip into . . . without them are many more dry times.

Very soon, we began to see that stories like these were shared and were more common than we realized. For that reason, Sustaining Our Spirits became our approach to developing the capacity of women leaders to thrive. The process sought to respond to the fundamental needs of women in leadership through ongoing dialogue; bringing together women who were actively living leadership, as one of our heroes, Frances Hesselbein (2002), depicts it, as a matter of "how to be, not how to do it" (p. 3). Sustaining Our Spirits reached out to women who were making significant contributions to their institutions, organizations, and communities. In providing them space for deep personal reflection and discovery, peer mentorship, and mutual support, we created lasting friendships and networks.

After each retreat concluded and we left our physical circle, we carried our individual and collective strengths with us into the broader world. As we talked about the project with others, it became clear that many more wanted to join us. Our journeys mirrored their journeys. Excited by the prospect of engaging other women in this transformative work, we began enlisting their participation through conversations and focused interviews. The results were affirming, exhilarating, and humbling.

We have been fortunate. We have had the chance to tell our stories and listen to the stories of others. We have all been positively impacted by this work and the wisdom generated by our ever-growing circle of women. We paid close attention and documented all that we heard – the joys, struggles, strategies, and dreams for the future that emerged through our retreats and our conversations with others. This book is an attempt to share these interactions. We do so not simply because we believe that what we learned is important but because, over and over, the women we met and spoke with about this work told us that sharing our lessons is essential. So now it is our honor and responsibility to broaden the circle, connecting with women and men like you who are committed to discovering how women can sustain themselves and begin to thrive as leaders.

My coauthors and I join in believing that Sustaining Our Spirits can make a difference for many over the years to come. If, today, women leaders are an endangered species, by collectively exploring those elements of our world that most challenge us and nurturing those that most enable us to flourish, we can learn how to manage what threatens us and strengthen the healthy sustainability of ourselves and our organizations. We believe that there are few better ways to serve the world.

Thank you for expanding our circle by joining us on this journey.

With best regards,
Darlyne Bailey. As the founding Dean of the College of Education and Human Development and Assistant to the President at the University of Minnesota, Darlyne Bailey was formerly the Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Teachers College, Columbia University, from January 2002 to September 2006. Prior to that she served as the Dean of the Mandel School of Applied Social Sciences at Case Western Reserve University for eight years. Dr. Bailey earned a master’s degree in psychiatric social work from the School of Social Work at Columbia University and a doctorate in organizational behavior from the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University.

A recognized leader, Dean Bailey is both a Group XIII Fellow in the W. K. Kellogg National Leadership Program and the first recipient of the Campbell Leadership Chair in Education and Human Development. She is committed to multidisciplinary and multicultural practice, which is reflected in her research, teaching, and service on local and national professional and community boards. Dr. Bailey has written numerous book chapters and journal articles, along with several books, including Managing Human Resources in the Human Services and Strategic Alliances among Health and Human Services Organizations: From Affiliations to Consolidations. Dr. Bailey has come to see her life’s work as creating visionary and engaged leadership to ensure that individuals, organizations, multiorganizational partnerships, and communities fulfill their highest potential.

Kelly McNally Koney. Kelly McNally Koney is a consultant with 20 years of experience in the nonprofit sector. Her practice centers on the interconnection of people, ideas, and efficacy, and she is passionate about strengthening connections in all aspects of life and work. Kelly partners with organizations and community groups through the use of strategies such as planning, partnership development, and participatory change and engages with people through inquiry and collaboration to transform the resources and energy around them for personal, organizational, and community benefit.

Kelly has worn many hats in service of the nonprofit sector, including administrator, educator, and board member. She received her master’s degree in science in social administration from Case Western Reserve University and her baccalaureate in human ecology from The Ohio State University. She has partnered with several colleagues to explore collaboration and its role in organizational and community change, coauthoring Strategic Alliances among Health and Human Services Organizations: From Affiliations to Consolidations, as well as numerous journal articles and technical reports. Over the years, she has extended this work, integrating her diverse experiences and interest in spirituality to delve deeply into how individual relationships, a sense of wholeness, and the power of energy contribute to the health and functioning of communal systems, and she seeks to help these systems and their stakeholders to leverage this inherent energy for their well-being and healing. To maintain her personal balance, she is a Reiki practitioner, a marathoner, and a triathlete. She lives with her husband in Chicago.

Mary Ellen McNish. Mary Ellen McNish is General Secretary of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). In this position, she administers a staff of 500 overseeing programs in 22 countries around the world and in 46 cities in the United States. AFSC is a corecipient of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947 for its work in post-World War II Germany on behalf of Quakers.

Today, AFSC’S work for peace and justice has enabled Mary Ellen to speak out on behalf of human rights, economic justice, and conflict transformation. She has represented Quakers on peace delegations to North Korea, Iran, and Israel/Palestine. She has also represented AFSC at Nobel Peace Laureate Summit Meetings and participated in panel presentations with the Dalai Lama, Mohammed Yunus, Kim Dae-jung, and Mikhail Gorbachev.

Mary Ellen has 35 years of progressive management experience in nonprofit business settings. She has a baccalaureate in education from East Stroudsburg University and a master’s degree in business from The Johns Hopkins University.

Ruthmary Powers. Ruthmary Powers brings a background in the field of education as a teacher, principal, superintendent of schools, and college instructor. Over a career spanning thirty years or so, Ruthmary has been a teacher of teachers and a life-long learner. Her undergraduate work was done at St. John College in Cleveland, Ohio. Shortly after she earned her baccalaureate in education, Ruthmary attended Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois where she obtained a master’s degree in English literature. Many years later, she received her doctorate in educational leadership from the Union Institute, located in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Ruthmary has been engaged in the partnership movement, working with Riane Eisler, author of The Chalice and the Blade. Ruthmary’s published works are in this field, and most recently, she authored a chapter on structuring partnership in schools and classrooms, found in Partnership Education in Action. As an avid feminist, she has made many presentations on the possibilities of partnerships between women and men. Also as part of this work she has long been an advocate of the empowerment of women and worked with many groups to help develop self-determination in women.

Culture and diversity have also been a life-long passion. As the principal of an African American School, she was able to develop many Afrocentric programs that deepened a love of that culture not only in the students, but also in her. As a superintendent in the Southwest, she was able to appreciate and enjoy the beautiful and challenging aspects of both Native American and Mexican culture.

Ruthmary, a Catholic nun, recently completed her tenure of service as the Major Superior or President of her religious community, the Sisters of the Humility of Mary. The Community Center, Villa Maria, is located in Western Pennsylvania. She now serves as the Assistant Superintendent of Schools in the Catholic Diocese of Tucson, Arizona.

Katrina M. Uhly. Katrina Uhly is a Research Fellow in the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota. Prior to this, she worked as a budget and research assistant in the Dean’s Office at Teachers College, Columbia University, where she also received a master’s degree in education leadership, policy, and politics in 2005. She completed her undergraduate work in 2004 with a perfect GPA in English literature and Spanish at Elmira College, studying abroad during her junior year at la Universidad Autónoma de Madrid in Spain. Her interests and passions are found in the areas of partnerships, gender, leadership, and culture, and she is currently learning her third language, French. In addition, she is an active member of the Community of Sant’Egidio, a lay international Catholic association dedicated to solidarity with the poor, ecumenical dialogue, and peace.
This is the most honest, wise, and courageous book about women’s leadership I have ever read. What I found so compelling was the brave and candid quotes from women leaders interwoven with the skilled and clear synthesis of the authors. The depth of the experiences and the wisdom gleaned from them make this a luminous work. Every woman leader will feel wiser, more grounded and committed to her leadership for reading this book.

Margaret J. Wheatley
Author, Leadership and the New Science, and other books


Sustaining Our Spirits makes an important contribution to our understanding of how women can succeed and flourish as leaders of organizations. The authors draw on research literature, the experiences of contemporary women leaders, and their own insights into spirit-led leadership. They present original perspectives on how best to nurture oneself while providing leadership that maximizes the potential of all those who work in an organization. Written in an engaging, accessible style, this book will prove enlightening to all leaders and aspiring leaders, male as well as female.

Demie Kurz
Sociologist and Co-Director of Women’s Studies
University of Pennsylvania


Five successful women leaders examine and celebrate their unique ways of moving in the world, putting forward strategies for maintaining a feminine leadership model that works, even in male-dominated systems. Their voices, courage, power and authenticity are translated into the practical uses of interconnectedness, emotional honesty, spiritually based decision-making and body-based authenticity. Any woman in power, whether beleaguered or thriving or both, can benefit from the rich experiences and collective wisdom of these ground-breaking women.

Belleruth Naparstek
Author of Invisible Heroes: Survivors of Trauma & How They Heal (Random House) and Your Sixth Sense: Unlocking the Power of Your Intuition (Harper Collins); and creator of the Health Journeys audio series (Time Warner).