A friend shared on Facebook one of her favorite poems, “The Peace of Wild Things.” It inspired some thoughts on the needs of nonprofit leaders.

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
-Wendell Berry

It seems to encapsulate much of the world today. And it highlights the realities of leadership in many nonprofit organizations, especially small- and medium-sized ones.

Being a nonprofit leader can be an all-encompassing experience. It necessitates a deep understanding of the organization. It requires an awareness of what it takes to provide the services the organization offers. It gives leaders to liberty make decisions, small and large. And it gives them burdens that keep them awake at night from terror or excitement about the future.

The ideal versus reality of leaders’ time

In my first nonprofit leadership role, I inherited ambitious plans for expansion of the organization. I spent my first 6 months absorbing information that was critical to our ability to expand and I had a deadline that was, at best, unrealistic. I realized was I was long on information and short on time. Honestly, I wondered if I could make a quick exit that no one noticed.

Sydney Opera House, vacation 2010.

My peers told me I wasn’t alone. Other small nonprofit organization leaders had similar experiences. It wasn’t, “Ready! Aim! Fire!” It was, “Ready! Fire! Aim!”

The Call of the Wild

The truth about leadership in the nonprofit sector is it carries a burden to address the flaws or shortcomings of the organization that become apparent. When those things loom large, leaders will sometimes put themselves into a state of call-and-response with those challenges. It overwhelms. And that state can become their new normal.

One of the things I ask leadership coaching clients is how much time they spend in reflection. I’m almost always met with an incredulous look and horrified response of, “Why would I block out time in my calendar for that!?”

My answer: I understand how easy it is to be lulled into a sense that the needs of the organization should always come first. I’ve spent weekends and vacations on things I put off because I was committed to my job. I believed that if I filled my calendar with work-related meetings and tasks, and sacrificed my weekends to move my organization forward, I would be wiser for the experience.

But experience can teach us only if we give it a way to do so.

Amsterdam, vacation 2013.

But wisdom did not come. I ended up more frustrated and more exhausted because of my decision to work nonstop. But that changed when I started spending time each week in reflection and planning.

Reflection is one way to let our experiences teach. It allows us the time and space to think, create, review, or plan. It’s imperative for leaders to spend time in deep thought because their decisions often have an impact on other people and, potentially, other organizations. Some of my clients find that time they spend in reflection is offset by efficiencies they gain in doing so.

Finding peace in chaos

The peace of wild things is no accidental paradox. Berry’s insightful use of language strangely matches the realities of leading the organizations that do good where you live. The chaotically wonderful environment is happily exhausting for many of their leaders. And those are the very reasons that also demand the peace of still water.

Bradley K. Ward, PCC, TICC is a leadership and personal transformation coach at Brad Ward Coaching in Palm Springs, CA. Contact Brad to find out how coaching can help you reach for the impossible!