Grace Notes

By Bryan Sickbert

Max De Pree has said that “volunteers are at the heart of our society and become the grace notes in our American song.” Musically, grace notes are embellishments to the underlying melody which are not essential to the musical line, but add nuance that draws out beauty and meaning from the theme. In “Leading Without Power,”* DePree suggests that the voluntary character of the nonprofit sector in America represents the core values of the American experiment. These are values that have little resonance with free-market ideology or our assumptions about leadership as the exercise of power. Rather, they are about human longing for meaning and purpose, or what the founders truly meant by the “pursuit of happiness.”

Genuine pursuit of happiness is the motivational engine that drives the voluntary sector. Nonprofit organizations are places where we pursue our own potential and the potential of our society. They are places where we lead from a commitment to the common good rather than servicing the advantage of a few. The symphony of our national commerce is intense and concussive. It needs the playful relief of grace notes to transcend its fundamental monotony. Those notes, embodied in volunteers finding deeper meaning in the theme, dance joyfully above the beat.

We often say that CHHSM is about the why, not the how, of our work. When I consult with governing boards, regardless of the presenting issues, I strive to bring the grace notes into play. Too often we conduct only the music of management for our boards, as if the totality of our potential was contained in strategic and financial execution. But we need to understand that people are in the room because somewhere in their deepest selves is a passion for the work that is essential to their own pursuit of happiness. The most important function of leadership is to create a welcoming space for that passion to be expressed.

These days I am regularly asked what I plan to do in retirement. I’m sure I’ll do a lot of things, but I think I want to be a grace note. I do not need or want to sing the melody. I want to find melodies sung by others that I can embellish with graceful and active affirmation. Perhaps I am only now realizing that a grace note is what God has called me to be all along. What about you?

*De Pree, Max. Leading without power: finding hope in serving community. Jossey Bass, 1997.

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