“Soul resides in the tension between apparent opposites, born from our own experience
and reflection on experience.” – Alan Briskin, The Stirring of Soul in the Workplace
In Saint Mary’s College of California’s Master in Leadership program, all learners undergo the process of developing their own definition of leadership. Hearing this as a new “learner” in the fall of 2014, it became clear to me: the knowledge of leadership that I hoped to gain in this program would not be handed down to me, as I had experienced so many times within the traditional “teacher” to “student” paradigm. Rather, this knowledge would be something that I would have to create. And so, over the course of the following 19 months, I and my fellow learners in Cohort 33 engaged in a true learning process — fumbling, fashioning, and refining our own understanding of leadership. By graduation, I came to define my leadership as a spiritual practice of connection: connecting to God by fostering my connection to myself, others, and the world around me. Since graduation, I’ve come to see that sustaining my learning also requires balancing two “apparent opposites” that the program invites learners to practice: action and reflection.
Together, these two seemingly paradoxical concepts provide the basis of Action Research (AR), which we utilize for our final Synthesis Projects in the MA program. My project was called, “Embrace, Empower, Recognize: Young Women Living Lasallian.” I and six other young women used AR to explore three research questions to help navigate our transition from Lasallian Volunteers to professional educators: Who are we? What are we called to do as who we are? How do we support ourselves and each other in the process? AR involves addressing an inquiry with multiple “cycles” of research, each involving two components: action, to implement a strategy or attempt a particular change, and reflection, to ask critical questions, assess outcomes, and make necessary adaptations for the next cycle. When the program first introduced us to AR, this reflection stuff seemed a little too…California to me. In a society that constantly asks more and more from us in less and less time, I had always prided myself on “getting stuff done.” Honestly, stopping to reflect just sounded counter-productive. After all, I thought to myself, the “R” in AR doesn’t stand for “reflection” anyway!
Well, I soon discovered that that “R” might as well have stood for “reflection,” based on how invaluable it was to the research process. With the space and time to revisit our initial inquiry and the purpose behind the research, my co-researchers and I could more effectively assess the impact of our action steps and make adjustments. We took away more critical learning during our reflections, and with each cycle, our research became more relevant to all those involved.
As it turned out, the balance of action and reflection that brought validity and purpose to my research also provided a life-giving spiritual foundation. In “action,” I turn outward to connect with God through my interactions with others and the world around me, and in “reflection” I turn inward to connect to God within. Here too, I’ve had to face my resistance to reflection. After always being on-the-go, at first it felt uncomfortable to just be with myself – especially with the thoughts, emotions, and other “stuff” that emerged, given the opportunity. But with the support of family, friends, mentors, and therapists, I’ve discovered that the Divine is with me in this space as well. So, whether it’s meditation, journaling, prayer, yoga, sitting in nature or enjoying a really good cup of coffee, I try to spend a few minutes at the start and end of each day with some quiet form of self-love. Beautifully, I’ve found that this presence to myself in “reflection” actually enables me to be more present in “action.” As the program suggested, I could not expect to offer my best to the world if I didn’t start by offering it to myself.
This is my emerging leadership practice. In this context, I’ve had to re-frame the phrase that practice doesn’t make perfect…and that is okay. There are days when I get caught up in action, and all that “stuff” that I didn’t give time and space to process still comes up, just usually mis-directed at someone or something else. While I may not see my best-self shine through, this brings me back to my need for reflection. On the other hand, there are days when I’d like to stay forever in the peace and comfort that reflection can bring, yet something always draw me back: responsibilities of family, friends, work…or just my stomach growling. Either way, these moments of imbalance actually serve as blessings. In leadership, as in life, I am humbled that my work is imperfect, growing, and changing. As a “learner,” I am grateful that my goal is learning to respond with more grace, forgiveness, and compassion whenever I falter. Unlike being a student, this learning, and leadership, is a lifelong practice. And after graduating from Saint Mary’s College of California’s MA in Leadership program, I am proud that I’ll take “seeming a little too California” as a compliment, any day.
In closing, and in honor of the spirit of the holidays, I include this poem which faculty member Elissa Perry shared with us during a course–Love after Love by Derek Walcott.
Authors Bio: Katie Delaney, MA in Leadership Graduate, May 2016
Katie graduated from Saint Mary’s College of California’s Master in Leadership program in May 2016, and is on fire for writing, spirituality, vulnerability, laughter, yoga and green-smoothies. Her last job was with the Catholic Institute for Lasallian Social Action (CILSA) at Saint Mary’s College. Currently, she is continuing her journey as a “learner” through her first international experience as a Good Shepherd Volunteer for one year in Santiago, Chile.