Letting Go of Power

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January 1, 2011
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Rachel Cowan

On four occasions over the course of my lifetime, I have stepped down from a job. I am about to do so again. Each time, I realized that I was ready to move on to something new. Each time, I hesitated — out of fear — for quite awhile: Would I disappoint my employer? How would it feel to turn over something precious that I had helped create? And, what would it be like to face the uncertainty of what would come next? I also feared giving up the power, influence, and visibility that I had managed to accumulate with great effort. And, of course, I worried about financial security.

That was certainly true when I left my position as director of Jewish Life and Values at the Nathan Cummings Foundation in 2003. The position holds a certain leverage and influence. And leaving such a job, one’s IQ drops 20 points, or at least that’s how it feels; for suddenly you receive fewer compliments, or requests to “pick your brain,” or invitations to meetings.

I was leaving to start a nonprofit. And, although the foundation had funded dozens of start-ups and grass-roots organizations, I had no idea how hard it would be to raise funds for an organization — even one whose mission clearly and, it turns out, successfully, filled a communal gap. Had I known, would I have abandoned my gorgeous office, great colleagues, reliable IT support, and steady source of income?

Absolutely! At a certain point, we know it is time to move on. After fourteen years, the Nathan Cummings board deserved a new voice, a fresh burst of energy, and a new perspective. As a funder, it was also important for me to step out into the field, to expose myself to the harsh realities of those we serve. I also wanted to help build an organization whose work and mission were completely in sync with my professional and spiritual passions.

No work has been more rewarding and satisfying than directing the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, an organization that I have led for the past seven years. Why, then, is it now clear to me that I must step down? I am turning 70 this year, and the institute needs a next-generation voice to lead it into the future. As well, my energy for the constant fundraising and administration is flagging. I want other things in my life to take precedence: teaching, writing, exploring new dimensions of work — particularly, learning and thinking about developing spiritual practices for wise aging. I will, though, remain at the institute as a senior fellow with responsibilities for teaching and program development.

While the decision is logical, it is not easy. A parade of fears marches through my mind: Will the strength of my relationships with my colleagues dissipate when we are not in constant contact? Will the new director be dramatically more successful, making obvious my weaknesses? Will the staff feel I abandoned them? Will my beloved board members value my successor more than they valued me? Will I immediately regret what I have given up? How will the successor and I work supportively with each other? And, of course, who will I be without this position of influence?

These fears are normal; how to work with them, then, is critical. First, I must remain mindful to see fear for what it is, a construction of my mind, not a prediction of the future. A second task is to watch my ego — to be mindful of what feelings arise, what stories I begin to create. From fear and its sidekick, jealousy, emerge stories such as: “Nobody is paying attention”; “That was my idea!”; “My friends are abandoning me”; “I have lost control here.” These musings could result in constructing self-protective barriers, perhaps indifference. Or they could lead me to meddle. While there is nothing wrong with wondering about our changed roles, it is crucial to refrain from acting on self-constructed stories.

From what I’ve read, a successful transition depends on the ability of both the new and retiring directors to see each other as a partner and a resource, rather than as a competitor. Clear guidelines for communication with board, staff, and donors, as well as the larger community, are crucial. This requires trust, open communication, and attention to clarity. All this is quite possible with mindful attention.

After a month of downloading my information and making introductions, I will take a three month paid sabbatical to allow the new director to step into the position. Then I expect to rejoin the institute as a colleague — just as wholeheartedly and wisely as the other members of the staff.

It is a big step to step down, to acknowledge my age, and to learn to approach these next years fully and mindfully. I aim to cultivate the equanimity that allows me to hold both joy and grief, to build the future with hope and energy and passion while accepting the ever more present reality of limitation and impermanence. The verse from Psalm 90, “Teach us to number our days,” is richly resonant for me at this moment.

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Rabbi Rachel Cowan is executive director of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality. She was named by Newsweek in 2007 as one of the 50 leading rabbis in the United States, and by the Forward in 2010 as one of the 50 leading women rabbis, and she was featured in the PBS series “The Jewish Americans.” From 1990-2003, she was director of Jewish Life and Values at the Nathan Cummings Foundation. Her writing has appeared in magazines and anthologies, including Illness and Health in the Jewish Tradition: Writings from the Bible to Today and The Torah: A Women’s Commentary. She is the author, with her late husband, Paul Cowan, of Mixed Blessings: Untangling the Knots in an Interfaith Marriage. She lives in New York City, near her two children, Lisa and Matt, and three grandchildren, Jacob, Tessa, and Dante.

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