Nonprofits

Making nonprofit work effortless, energizing and impactful

The first time I heard Shonda Rhimes’ amazing TED TalkMy Year of Saying Yes To Everything, I got chills. I was 2 months away from stepping down as CEO of the organization that I'd founded and run for a decade, and I was feeling unmoored and adrift. Then I heard Rhimes talk about the "hum."

In her talk, she describes moments when she is hard at work doing exactly what she wants to be doing in exactly the way she wants to be doing it. She says: There's a hum that happens inside my head when I hit a certain writing rhythm, a certain speed. When laying track, it goes from feeling like climbing a mountain on my hands and knees to feeling like flying effortlessly through the air.”

In these moments she says, she knows that she is doing what she was meant to do in this life. 

Author Gay Hendricks refers to this hum as our “zone of genius.” He says - and I truly believe - that we all have one. There is a mind space where our passions, skills, and core ways of being converge. When we are in this space - this zone of genius - we are at our most gifted. Our work is most effortless and energizing and impactful. 

The whole notion of a zone of genius can feel opaque … difficult to actually define. It is not the same thing simply as doing work that we’re very skilled at, but that doesn’t light us up. Hendricks calls that the “zone of excellence.” It’s also not just about doing the things that we’re most passionate about. I’m passionate about dancing but I’m not Misty Copeland

Rather, our zone of genius is about the unique convergence of our skills and passions; The coming together of work we love with work we do extremely well - perhaps better than anyone else. Each of us has our own unique zone of genius that we cultivate as we grow and that we can tap into to find our greatest and most meaningful success. 

For Rhimes it was more than just writing – it was the convergence of creating and institution building and collaboration with teams of people to "build worlds." For me, it has always been sensemaking and strategy; Bringing clarity to chaos. 

What struck me as I listened to Shonda talk about her hum, was the role that it played in her life. She credits the hum as the root source of her energy, her creativity, and ultimately her astounding success. She says, "When you have a hum like that you can't help but strive for greatness."

I remember feeling the hum at times when I was leading my organization. I would have moments when my work felt effortless. When I instinctively knew the right answers and how to move forward with purpose. When I reflect back, I didn’t feel exhausted by my work or by the challenges of running an organization in those moments. Instead, I felt like I was at my most creative and inspired. To be clear: I did not feel the hum all the time! But when I did, for those brief moments, I was able to tap into an energy that I could use to sustain myself during the tougher times.

This is why I believe it’s so important for nonprofit leaders to think about and work to identify their own zone of genius - to find their hum. It goes to the heart of the practice of leadership. 

Leading an organization is hard work. It requires a sustained practice of motivating and stewarding others towards the achievement of a common goal. It’s an ongoing, constant endeavor, and for that reason, we have to think about how we sustain ourselves in that endeavor. Ultimately, I believe that tapping into “the hum” - finding a way to lead from ones’ zone of genius - makes leadership a more sustainable endeavor.

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