Preview Thursday: The Courage Way

The following is an excerpt from the intro to the Courage Way by Shelly Francis.

Sigrid’s car flipped over dense chaparral and poison oak, rolling 120 feet until it landed upside down in a tree. It was the only tree on the hillside big enough to have stopped the car from tumbling another hundred feet. She was stunned, still alert in a pile of glass and blood on the inside roof of her car. She honked to alert her coworkers, hoping someone would hear and call 911. “Through courage, I guess, and probably grace too, I managed to stay conscious despite the severe head trauma.”

The car was still running, so Sigrid opened the electric window and fell out the window. She then fell out of the tree, landing in poison oak. Sigrid started climbing uphill. “The EMTs and fire crews had to chainsaw their way down and really find their way to get to me.”

That was in 2003. It took Sigrid many months and more courage to recover. Five years later, the 2008 stock market crash and recession called for a different kind of courage. Sigrid and her husband had to short-sell their house to stay financially afloat. Meanwhile, the Community Environmental Council’s endowment shrank in half. In addition, as assistant director and one of the few staff members remaining after a massive multiyear transformation resulted in a new strategic direction for CEC, Sigrid was unclear about her growth path with the organization. Perhaps best known for hosting one of the very first Earth Day festivals in America in 1970, but since then as a “think-and-do tank,” CEC has focused on deeply analyzing tough environmental problems and then applying creative, real-world solutions. That “think and do” style describes Sigrid’s leadership, too.

For fifteen years, Sigrid had been in charge of the annual Earth Day festival, one of the biggest in the country. But the event was not integrated into the rest of organization’s mission and received very little support. She wondered if it was time to just let it fold or to find a new way to rejuvenate it. Sigrid was feeling very stuck and unsure that her effort was going to pay off.

“We had a complete turnover in our board during that time. We also had a leadership transition in management. By the time we hit 2008, I was ready, internally ready, for great leadership, but it was unclear what form that would take.”

“While I had some really great things in my life, collectively much in my world felt stuck or broken. I couldn’t quite visualize how to move forward. The rather melodramatic image I had during that time was my thumb hovering over the red button. Like ‘I’m going to just blow this up. I’m out! I’m out!’ I probably wasn’t the only person after the great recession to consider making a dramatic change: new job, new town, new life.”

“It took an enormous amount of grit and courage to just keep showing up. And to move incrementally to untangle piece by piece of what felt like a Gordian knot that I was not going to get undone. Often I think of courage as those moments of what it takes to just scrap your way heroically, and the levels of determination we’re capable of when we’re fighting for our lives. But it actually took a lot more grit to just stay and move more incrementally, and work with what you have.”

Around then, Sigrid joined the first cohort of a program created precisely because of the recession to help local nonprofit leaders keep going without losing heart.  An opportunity for renewal and reflection along with peer support was just what she needed. “It caught me at the right time and kept me from leaving the nonprofit sector. I don’t know what I would have done other than this. I was not designed for government or the for-profit sector. I was really designed for nonprofit work.”

Sigrid had thought that courage would be more a matter of daring, of taking a risk to leave CEC or Santa Barbara, but ultimately she came to believe that for her, on a personal level, courage was being willing to stick through the hard times.

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To learn more about Shelly, visit her at www.couragerenewal.org. To learn more about The Courage Way, click here.