by Libby Hoffman, author of “The Answers are There: Building Peace From the Inside Out“
When I received a significant inheritance in the early 2000s, my first thought was “How can I use these resources to help create a better world?”
As a political science professor specializing in religion and peacebuilding, I had always felt called to help people and communities to fulfill their own potential and make their own decisions rather than rely on outside aid. I saw the windfall as a sacred invitation to do this work in the way I most deeply believed it should be done.
So I established the foundation Catalyst for Peace (CFP), whose mission is to create space for communities to lead in their own development and peace after war or crisis. The West African nation Sierra Leone had just emerged from 11 years of civil war. Its communities were in need of healing and repair. In partnership with Sierra Leonean human rights advocate John Caulker, I led CFP in designing programs predicated on asking local communities in Sierra Leone what they wanted, and building from there — a nearly unprecedented step in international aid work. Since their inception over 15 years ago, these programs have grown into a major presence in Sierra Leone and a source of inspiration around the world. I write about this journey in my new book, “The Answers are There: Building Peace From the Inside Out“.
Nothing about this work has been easy. There have been countless obstacles and roadblocks along the way, in the form of both outside events and my own internal struggles. There still are today. But there is one thing that has remained constant, something I am convinced is foundational to producing meaningful, lasting results in any field:
The transformational power of being intentional not just about what I do, but also, how I go about it.
This does not mean micromanaging myself or others. Rather, it is about infusing each action I take and each decision I make with meaning and intention by bringing my whole self to my work, while working from a place of wholeness. It’s an approach that’s at once deeply spiritual, highly personal and resoundingly universal.
Here are its foundations, which I share not as a prescription, but as inspiration:
A commitment to embodying my highest values in how I work, and to trusting them as a guide.
When leaders live out the values they advocate, their examples can magnify transformation. When a program or initiative is structured intentionally to invite and support that, what is good for the whole can truly . . . lead. Whether we’re having conversations or reflecting on decisions to be made, when we allow our highest values and a commitment to living them out in practice to guide us, they will pull us forward toward solutions, together. Letting my vision and values lead me has continually challenged me to become a better version of myself as a leader and practitioner.
Recognizing that I’m part of a much larger whole, and letting my actions reflect this.
At a critical juncture in my work leading CFP, I realized that my capacity to do and lead does not come from personal heroism, or from my individual resources and capacities. Instead, it represents a much deeper and more infinite resource, one that I am merely tapping into and that flows through the communities I serve. When we recognize this, and are willing to see and yield to it, we can draw from a much deeper wisdom. This has informed my own growth as a leader and contributed to the success of CFP programs, which are founded on listening and acting from the perspective of community wholeness. There is power in the flow, in the back and forth, in the mutuality.
Actively making space for not knowing all the answers.
The system we operate in tells us that we must be experts at what we do; that being an expert means knowing everything already; and that being in-process is wrong and bad and unnecessary, a distraction from our “real” work. Yet, I have found immense value in putting aside the tendency to assume we have (or should have, at least) all the answers. When we shift away from that mindset, we can take the time to look and listen, to step back and pause and reflect – individually and collectively – thus actively making space for not knowing. From that place, we uncover new answers and new resources, and discover how not knowing can actually be powerfully generative.
Expecting that to fulfill my vision I must grow and change.
It is said that the best leaders are those who make the most space for others’ growth and development. Yet, leaders, too, must consciously grow more fully into their leadership capacity. In 2013, I ran up against the limits of my capacity to function as I had been since CFP’s inception, as a source of support working behind the scenes and inviting others forward. I had become invisible, and I had lost my capacity to see, name, and claim my own desires and needs. Pouring everything out in service to helping others step into their leadership, now I was spent. I needed help reclaiming what was mine to do —which meant it was time to demolish my strong internal barriers to receiving the same kind of support I so freely and easily offered to others. So I gathered a trusted cohort of friends and colleagues for a week-long retreat to support me in my leadership, in my growth as a person, and in discerning the way forward for CFP.
From the outset, I had invested in CFP not just money, but the fullness of who I was and who I was growing into. This juncture in 2013 was perhaps the most poignant, but not the only, moment to date when I’ve had to ask, “Am I as willing to receive (help, support, learning) as I am to give? Am I as willing to transform myself as I am to support others’ transformation?”
These are questions leaders must ask in an ongoing way.
Acknowledging that my work is a living process.
In our results-focused world, we tend to begin initiatives with a detailed advance plan, predetermined project timelines, goals, and outcomes. These demands make it difficult to work in long-term or emergent ways — all the more so in the realm of social change. “Outcomes” are visible things, outward accomplishments; yet so much of what really drives initiatives forward is interaction — living process, in living relationships, over time. Building work spaces that honor living processes and relationships is essential to successful outcomes.
Together, these steps open up a more soul-centered approach to leadership, for both an individual and an organization.
Libby Hoffman, author of “The Answers Are There: Building Peace From the Inside Out“, is founder and president of Catalyst for Peace (CFP), a private foundation helping empower local communities impacted by violence to lead their own path to peace and development. Hoffman produced the award-winning documentary film Fambul Tok and co-authored a companion book by the same title.