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Clenched Fists? Open Hands?

Posted by BoardSource on Sep 26, 2014 10:31:42 AM

photo (4)By Ryan D. Jacobs, CEO, Ten Thousand Villages Canada

This post is one in a series written by nonprofit leaders who are presenting sessions at the 2014 BoardSource Leadership Forum on October 9 & 10 in Washington, DC. There’s still time to register!

More than a decade ago, a mentor of mine shared an image that has stuck with me ever since. It was inspired by a book by Henri Nouwen titled With Open Hands:

I have come to believe that we approach each and every situation — and life in general — somewhere along a continuum between clenched fists and open hands.

Being in the clenched fists state equates to close-mindedness — an unwillingness to embrace (or sometimes even explore) new possibilities. It’s a defensive stance, the expectation and assumption that almost everything that comes one’s way is an attack on one’s position or values.

In sharp contrast, operating from an open hands perspective represents a willingness to engage with other people and with ideas that might challenge you to move beyond your comfort zone. It requires humility and empathy, so you can see things from the perspective of others.

I think we all know individuals who generally approach life from either one of these states. You quickly learn that you need to “walk on eggshells” around some people, because anything you say can be interpreted as a challenge or a threat. Even the most innocuous suggestion can set off a defensive rant.

On the other hand, there are those who are able to approach even the most difficult situations with openness and level-headedness. They don’t jump to conclusions, and they take the time to really listen to ideas and opinions — even ones that might require them to rethink their own position.

The reality is we’ve all been in both places. We’ve all had days when everything seems to go wrong, and when no one can say or do anything right. It's easy to reach a point where all you want to do is shut everyone and everything out.

But after, say, spending a lazy Saturday afternoon curled up on the couch with a good book, you’re likely to have the patience and composure of a saint, even when your kids spill melted red freezie all over your white chair. (This recently happened to me ... the spilling part, but alas, not the patience part!)

As a leader in a nonprofit organization — whether serving on staff or on the board of directors — it’s important not to close yourself off to people and ideas. We all come at the challenges that face our organizations with different histories, assumptions, and perspectives. But if we’re all working toward the same goal, then we need to respect each other enough to at least hear each other out with openness.

Then, and only then, can we truly tap into the potential that exists within the talented individuals who are working to help our organization achieve its mission.

Questions for reflection:

  1. Have you closed your hands to the world, and to those around you? Are you protecting yourself against something negative, but losing access to all that is positive in the process? Or are you keeping an open posture, not just toward those who are easy to be around, but also toward those who push your buttons?
  2. What is your default state? Clenched fists or open hands?

Ryan Jacobs is presenting a session titled “It Takes a Village: The Intersection of Board and Staff Roles in a Nonprofit Turnaround.”

Topics: BoardSource Leadership Forum

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