Pamela H. Witter, MBA
Pain and Rebirth: The Making of a Superhero Nonprofit Leader
In the essay “More Than Normal, But Believable,” comic book genius Stan Lee wrote, “A superhero is a person who does heroic deeds and has the ability to do them in a way that a normal person couldn’t.” To be a superhero, he concluded, you need an exceptional power and must use it to accomplish good. Yet, most superhero stories start on shaky ground—family issues, childhood trauma, evil triumphing over good. As a result, these seemingly normal humans morph into something extraordinary.This notion reminds me of a concept I embraced while studying for my MBA. True North author and Harvard business professor Bill George spoke of great leaders who often face “crucibles” in their lives — issues that challenge their very will, severe trials in which different elements interact, leading to the creation of something new.
However, these fracturing moments do not break them. Those who achieve true followership, longevity, and success take time to do an “inner work,” George says. They look at their life story, pull it apart, and examine it. They figure out who they are and what makes them tick. Once they put those experiences into context, they move forward authentically, creating trust with those they lead.
I think there’s a reason I love superhero stories. Like many of them, my own backstory was marked by pain and rebirth. That may be the very thing that launched me into leadership and my first fundraising executive role at the age of 37.
My first memory of being physically assaulted is from when I was around eight years old. I later learned I was hurt before that, but my conscious memory of suffering began as a little girl, playing on the living room floor. An argument with a family member over a toy escalated. I looked up from the figurine in my hand to see the look in his eyes. The usual playfulness was replaced by a dark stare. “Run,” my mind reacted. “Run!” As the adrenaline overtook me, I leapt into action, sprinting out the door and across the lawn to the sidewalk.
As my feet carried me toward the neighbor’s house where my mom was cleaning, tears stung my eyes. He was faster and older. His legs were stronger. Moments from the front door, I yelled, “Mom,” just as his hands connected with my back, launching me across the cement onto my face.
He hovered above me. I looked up and met his eyes. The light was back, and he was crying. “Please don’t tell,” he whispered. “I didn’t mean to. I love you.” I knew what punishment awaited him if I told. I had seen it before. It was too much for my heart to bear, so I said nothing. When my mom made it to my side, cradling me in her arms she asked, “What happened, Pammy?” I cried and said, “I fell.”
This set the stage for years of violence that grew severe. I laughed it off for years as normal kid stuff. I acted out eventually, becoming the “troubled kid” at school. No one knew what I had gone through, save a couple friends in similar circumstances, and none of us told anyone. The traumas piled up.
This was my crucible. It changed the way my brain responded to stress, fear, even small things like perceived disappointment and everyday anger. This crucible had the power to unhinge my leadership ability and prevent me from reaching my full potential. Who wants to follow someone who is always reacting? Who responds to conflict with aggression?
Fortunately, I was also endowed with a superpower! At the same young age, I became aware of something inside me, seemingly beyond my control yet compelling enough to make me want to engage it. Sitting in the living room of our modest apartment, my fingers tingled. “Write,” my brain shouted. “Write!” I didn’t know then that my compulsion to write would become an entrée into doing good all my life or raising millions of dollars for nonprofit missions. At eight, I simply listened to my body. I found the deepest, darkest closet in the house and pushed myself into its back corner. I barricaded myself in with piles of old board game boxes and books, flicked on a flashlight, and wrote.
As I sat there surrounded by 1980s pop culture products and wearing my Wonder Woman Underoos, I wrote everything—letters to pen pals, descriptions of my surroundings, poems, and eight-year-old memoirs. When I shared my creations, people smiled and laughed. Eventually reading accompanied the writing, and I became a devout learner, consuming everything I could at the library and at school. It made me feel strong and determined. My power generated happiness, but like most superheroes, life would challenge me before the gift could be fully realized.Driving down the winding back road to my country home one evening, I watched the lush green trees lining the creek bed pass by. It had been a good day at my job in the city. My team consisted of passionate and talented marketers, fundraisers, writers, and designers. In a few years’ time, we’d achieved amazing wins—a total divisional reorganization, regional and national awards, an institutional rebrand, the launch of a new website, a revival of the alumni association, the formation of giving societies, approval for a campaign, and growth in philanthropy. I’d also published my third book, an industry text on annual funds. I was proud of my career. It gave me purpose.
Yet something inside me remained unsettled. In fact, if I’m being honest, I just wanted to run. Some days, the urge overtook me. Like the time my heart had been aching for weeks. I prayed feverishly for relief. In an attempt to get away, I flew my daughter and I to Taos, New Mexico, on the opposite side of the country. To say the trip felt like my own painful pilgrimage would be an understatement. I visited a place called El Santuario de Chimayo, a little compound in the New Mexico mountains dating back to the 1800s. Soldiers and sailors subjected to the Bataan Death March made it an annual pilgrimage to give thanks for their deliverance from the war and to memorialize their suffering after returning home.
The sanctuary was brilliant. Adobe walls. Rounded archways. Outdoor worship areas. Trees and fences covered by hundreds of rosaries. A stark silence. Serenity. I made my way to the inner chamber of the healing room. A perfectly round hole in the ground contained dirt said to be blessed. I picked it up, closed my eyes, and cried out a prayer for deliverance. When I walked away, I hoped to leave my pain on the dirt floor. Not much happened in that moment, and frankly, I missed home. I knew I couldn’t run from my mind anymore, but what I did not know was that something would be waiting for me—a profound rock bottom and hope for a new beginning.
It’s funny how sometimes the most socially adept adults can experience the worst inner aloneness. I would say I spent the vast majority of my adult life feeling alone inside, save the time I spent with my daughter, who was now growing up and seeking her own independence. When I returned from my pilgrimage and one of my close family members experienced a relapse and figuratively disappeared, the loneliness overtook me. J.K. Rowling once wrote, “Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.” I crawled forward as if I were crawling out of that chamber at the sanctuary with nothing but a handful of dirt and some hope.
Like the superheroes in my favorite childhood stories, I had fallen apart. However, I still had my superpower, one I had nurtured since I was eight, even in the most difficult times. I was a learner, a writer, a reader, and a student of life. I put that power into practice. The rebuilding process I committed to would transform my life. My journey included joining ACA (Adult Children of Alcoholics/Dysfunctional Families), starting counseling for trauma, and coming out of isolation in regard to my inner feelings.
Over the subsequent eighteen months, I learned things about myself. I learned I had Complex PTSD from childhood trauma, and I frequently dissociated from my feelings and memories. I began connecting the dots of the past to the present, learning how the physical violence and fear I experienced as a little girl led to disorganized attachment in relationships. I learned about the myriad triggers in my life. I engaged in therapies to help rewire my brain’s response to stress. I met people just like me and learned to trust my fellow traveler. I made friends and began to experience communion with another human being on a daily basis—real, deep, vulnerable communion. Through a key recovery relationship with my now best friend, I began to see that my inner child or true self was safe, had a voice, and could even play and have fun in life.
I also learned why I made so many bad choices, choices I was mostly able to cover up. Why I found myself a single, pregnant woman on welfare at the age of 25. Why I had a string of broken relationships. Why I could never stand up for myself or exercise my voice under stress without becoming angry. Why with certain personalities, I grappled with severe codependence.
So what does any of this have to do with work or leadership or fundraising?
I have two answers to that. First, by finally doing the inner work Bill George suggested, I put my life story into context and became a more authentic, consistent, and trustworthy boss, employee, and coworker. I hear from peers on the executive team that they see the change in me. Coworkers I engaged in frequent conflict with transformed into partners working toward a shared strategic plan. I handle conflict better. I’m not as scared of conversations about accountability with team members.
Second, once freed from the guilt, shame, and blame of my past, I began to make healthier choices. Through my inner work, I shed my fears regularly and operate out of passion as opposed to perfectionism and distraction. I have greater empathy and a sense of calm, and can balance that with a less chaotic view of getting to the goal.
If you’re reading this, your inner work may look totally different from mine, but in all the interviews Bill George conducted for his book, he found a consistency. Great leaders with sustained success did their own inner work and then maintained a relationship with at least one other human being with whom they could be vulnerable. As a result, they became focused, trustworthy leaders.
Nowhere is that more in demand than in the nonprofit industry. Fundraising is a vocation marked by communication and relationship-building. It’s about connecting donors’ passions to mission opportunities. I can do that better when I’m not a mess inside, when I’m confident and comfortable in my own skin and therefore more connected with others. This simple step toward better self-awareness is the foundation on which we build organizational relationships that lead to astounding growth and innovation. Ultimately, those wins lead to a strengthened institution and enhanced ability to serve our community. Isn’t that why we do what we do?
In The Dark Knight Rises, Batman says, “a hero can be anyone.”
As fundraisers and nonprofit leaders, we engage in acts of service every day. Yet one of the greatest acts of service we can ever do is to care for ourselves. By committing to a lifetime of inner work, you nurture your own spirit. Only then can you offer your very best self to the work you’ve been called to do.
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