Clinical psychologist Liz Resner died twenty years ago this spring. As executive director of what is now Compass Family Services in San Francisco, she hired me into my first job in the human services sector. This was a long time ago – and Liz died at too early an age. You would think that her memory would have faded into ancient history for me by now. It has not.
That is because I have returned repeatedly to the lessons I learned from Liz. Three in particular stand out:
Care for yourself as well as you care for others:
From the start, Liz emphasized the importance of clear boundaries between personal and professional life. The crisis center I worked in at the time served about 3,000 homeless persons annually, and on any given day there were always more people in need, hoping to receive assistance, than we possibly had time or resources to assist. Liz insisted that staff close the office to take a full lunch hour. She pushed us to leave on time at the end of the day in order to pursue our own lives. She closed the office without hesitation for staff meetings and retreats – and not just for training, but also for staff rejuvenation and team building. She took us to movies and ice cream and the botanical gardens!
Liz’s consistent message was this: the line of people waiting for help, alas, will be here tomorrow, and next week, and next year; but if you don’t take care of yourself, you won’t be! If you do not care for yourself as well as you care for others, you will soon burn out and we will lose you to some less stressful line of work. This is a lesson I have never forgotten – and today, in our 24/7 work culture, it is one that is particularly needed.
An outside perspective broadens your vision:
As much as I learned from Liz herself, I also learned from the insightful people she brought into our lives on a regular basis. Even when time and money seemed short, she made it a priority to devote resources to providing outside perspectives. In group and individual consultations, we learned from smart clinicians. In diversity sessions, we were led by thought-provoking consultants. When legal or personnel advice was needed, we benefited from fantastic pro bono advisors.
Liz was sufficiently self-confident to know that these outside experts provided a wisdom different than her own – and not to be threatened by bringing this wisdom into our lives on a consistent basis. These consultants and advisors deeply influenced my worldview. When I succeeded Liz as executive director, it was natural to continue this practice, and it further enhanced my understanding of nonprofit leadership.
Liz’s last lesson was that leaders leave – and that the best leaders cut the cord when they do so. Liz left Compass in 1994 – three years before her untimely death. She moved on to lead the city’s efforts to develop its first comprehensive plan to address homelessness. Liz made a clean break with the organization she had led so successfully. She didn’t join the board. She didn’t hang around for an extended period to give advice. She didn’t call me or my colleagues in response to programmatic changes to let us know how she would have done things differently.
Liz really left. She moved on to other important work, and she trusted in the strength of the organization she had built and the capabilities of the staff and board she had nurtured. For leaders like Liz who have grown and developed organizations to levels of excellence that would have been unrecognizable when they arrived, leaving like this is not easy. I learned from Liz’s purposeful departure that this gift of trust is a critical element of a leader’s legacy.
Liz offered no unsolicited advice after her departure. So as time went on, I grew to covet her advice more and more. When she became ill and died, I greatly missed her wisdom and encouragement. But looking back from the vantage point of twenty years, I am struck by how much she left behind.