Liberated Leadership: Reflections from Storme Gray

Three years ago, I embarked upon the journey to lead EPIP, an organization that plays an important role in creating space for emerging leaders to learn, connect, and grow in their philanthropic careers. Those who know me well, know I am nothing if not candid. So, in that spirit, I want to let you in on a little secret…

I never wanted to be an executive director, president, or CEO. 

As a strong introvert, who is socially awkward at times (hat tip to Issa Rae’s The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl web series) and as someone who has been told at various points throughout my career, that I don’t quite fit in or “look the part,” I just couldn’t see myself at that level of leadership. Beyond that, of the models of leadership I saw, I knew of none that were healthy and balanced. Most of the CEOs I knew were burnt out (or close to it), worked ungodly hours, and had poor boundaries with no true work/life balance. Though they excelled at what they did, I cannot say I saw many CEOs that were thriving personally and professionally, with teams that were also thriving. That kind of future did not appeal to me, especially because so much of who I am is grounded in wellness and healing. 

It wasn’t until a close friend and mentor challenged me to create the change I wanted to see, that I began to reimagine what leadership could look like, and decided to challenge myself with a personal mandate to lead from a place of deep authenticity. To experience my own personal revolution, seeking liberation for myself while also leading an organization that has meant so much to me over the course of my own career in philanthropy. I wanted different…better…more - for myself, for my team, and for our members. 

But ultimately, that change had to start with me. 

As a Black queer woman, I desired to experience liberation in my lifetime;  knowing I could not wait until the various systems of oppression and the institutions that enforce them changed or ceased to exist altogether. In my mind, and in my heart, I knew that I was a part of my own liberation story. I was, in essence, asking myself the question that my friend and respected colleague Erika Totten poses in her work at Unchained Visioning - What does the unchained me look like? 

I took it one step further, moving from personal inquiry to professional, and the exploration of breaking those chains aligned with the opportunity to reimagine leadership for myself and my team. Thus began my journey into exploring liberatory leadership, which sought to answer a few big questions: 

  1. What would it look like to lead from a place of deep self-awareness, authenticity, and mutual accountability? 
  2. How might I, and those I interact with, be challenged and changed in the process? And what is my role in that process?
  3. What fears, assumptions, scarcity-fueled practices, and other limiting beliefs would need to be released as new, more expansive, courageous, and abundant ways of being and leading are learned? 

These are BIG questions, and this is not quick, easy, nor light work. It is a constant exploration, evaluation, and re-adjustment. However, as I look back at the last three years, I am pleasantly surprised by what this journey has taught me and continues to teach me.  In many ways, my personal evolution has created space for a collective r/evolution at EPIP. We’ve done so much work internally to build a culture of care and learning while externally delivering on our mission and supporting our members. I look forward to sharing more about our process as our work continues to evolve. 

In the spirit of sharing knowledge for the benefit of all, below are a few reflections on what I’m learning through my journey to embody liberated leadership: 

  1. The change starts within, so mind your blindspots (we all have them!). Leading from a place of liberation is wholly informed by one’s approach to self-development and transformation. There is no hiding here, and some of your core beliefs about work and leadership will be challenged. I am constantly checking in with Self, especially during points of tension and high stress, to evaluate how I am showing up. Am I acting or reacting from a place of woundedness, scarcity, fear, or anxiety? If so, why? And what might it take for me to move through that and towards a stance that is in closer alignment with a more abundant and liberating way of being? It’s a constant interrogation of the assumptions we hold about ourselves and others, and, in truth, there is a fair share of deprogramming that will occur as we are confronted by our own blind spots, previous traumas, and assumptions. But this is where the magic happens, where the change begins to take root.
  2. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Liberated leadership asks us to let go of what we’ve always done (read: what’s safe and predictable) for the sake of creating a work environment where the fullness of our staff’s brilliance is able to shine through - beyond title and tenure. It’s determining how to bring the best out of one’s team, recognizing that while we all hold different roles and responsibilities, we share a common interest in advancing our mission. In my team, I see individuals who are learning to sit in this liminal space, releasing limiting beliefs about what is possible within our work, reaffirming our shared humanity, value, and worthiness. It is a beautiful thing to see - we’re walking our individual paths to liberation together. 
  3. There is no blueprint! I recall early conversations with colleagues about liberated leadership, as I desperately sought out resources and tools to guide my thinking. What I quickly realized is that there is no clearly identifiable roadmap for liberated leadership. And the idea that there is one singular way to lead from a place of liberation is in direct opposition to the expansiveness that liberation offers. Of course there is no blueprint when dealing with unchartered territory! We are the blueprint, and the work is being created in real-time. I’ve learned to trust my gut more, look for inspiration everywhere (h/t adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategies), and lean on my colleagues, board, and staff to shape that vision. 
  4. There is no “done.” This is iterative work, and it needs to be adaptable and responsive to the needs of the moment. In March 2020, when the world went into lockdown and working from home became the new norm, we established new internal policies and practices intended to support our staff as we all navigated the crippling uncertainty of the pandemic and the racial uprisings happening in the streets. And while some of those practices were truly for a distinct period of time, others have continued on and evolved. As our staff has grown over the years, moving from a mighty trio to a nimble nine, so too has my thinking about liberated leadership. In creating a safe container for my team to explore liberatory leadership on their terms, it became apparent that the container itself needed to be flexible enough to adapt to changing times so that we can build upon lessons learned along the way. Additionally, as this work should not exist in a vacuum, I have begun convening a small group of PSO colleagues to explore liberatory leadership together, sharing strategies and offering mutual support to one another as we explore what liberatory leadership looks like for ourselves and the organizations we lead. 

In liberated leadership, we have the opportunity to make different choices, to adapt to new knowledge, to be brave in learning from our mistakes and missteps - seeing them less as a condemnation of our value, but rather as an opportunity to learn forward. 

To fail is a First Attempt In Learning…and in doing the work of liberated leadership, failure is to be expected. It is my hope that as you strive to embody liberatory leadership, you fail often and fail well, always moving forward - applying the lessons learned along the way.

The road to liberation is neither straight nor clear - it is a wilderness to be explored with joy, wonder, and humility. You will fall in the mud, unintentionally run into wayward branches, hit dead ends, and have to double back on paths previously traveled. You won’t emerge from this wilderness unchanged nor unscathed. But you will emerge. More whole, more connected, more human. And most importantly, more liberated. 

In Solidarity, 

Storme Gray 

President, Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy