What Does A Kitchen Table Leader Look Like?

“I only lead when I need to; my point has been to share it, to share the wealth.”
—DeAnna Batdorff

Kyra Auerbach is a longtime Sebastopol and dhyana community member. She’s been a frequent self-care sanctuary guest, attendee at all the great events, and now a steady presence at the live Ask Anything broadcasts. She’s connected with DeAnna’s work for more than 15 years and appreciates all the transformations DeAnna has gone through as the Center grew and changed.

What were the early dhyana days like? Kyra knows. She painted a picture of this in 2006, reflecting on Deanna’s particular style of leadership for a course Kyra was taking toward her MBA. She noticed DeAnna offered “kitchen table leadership”, a grassroots style full of integrity, heart, and inspiration.

She writes:

I arrived at the dhyana Center first to observe DeAnna leading a class of 9-12 year-old girls in the basics of Ayurveda.  The first impression one receives upon entering the Center is one of being at home, of being welcomed into a home.  Partly, this is due to the fact that the dhyana Center is located in a home: the former farmhouse of a couple that, after raising their three children, chose to rent their large home to DeAnna.  This welcoming feeling emanates from the bones of the place, from its underlying structure, and also from what fills it now:  living plants, a beautiful huge stove and oven with glass pots of fresh ginger and cinnamon tea, lots of natural light, clean surfaces, warm colors.

We gather around the kitchen table, where we all sit at the same level, DeAnna slightly outside of the circle, but not at the head of the table.  DeAnna’s communication style emerges from a place of sharing her own story with honesty and frankness.  She is clear:  “We should all be listening right now!” She says, and she is very physical, using her body expression, hand gestures, and whole vocal range, inviting those of us listening to respond, participate, and engage.

One of the things she speaks of specifically in this morning’s class is the main needs or goals of clients for simplicity and discipline:  the ability of the practitioner to simplify goals, needs, and processes into a framework that is meaningful and motivates the discipline to accomplish the goals.  This seems to me like the essence of effective leadership.

This morning she is teaching Ayurvedic “face diagnosis,” and I find in this teaching more underlying qualities of leadership:  the ability to look deeply into an individual and assess their strengths, weaknesses, and gifts; to call those out to address and find specific places that the individual contributes or needs support.  Ayurvedic healing, like good leadership, is a process of helping someone out of their box, accessing their other aspects, and managing their strengths and imbalances.

DeAnna focuses for a while on breathing, and how, with every breath, we have two choices that are potentially healing:  to let go of what we don’t need, or to bring in positive energies that we do.  I am struck, again, by the profound truths embedded in this process, and how they are reflected from the microcosmic level of the breath to the macrocosmic level of resourcing an effective team as a leader: letting go of what is not needed, bringing in what is; releasing what doesn’t work, reinforcing what does.

An essential skill for accomplishing these goals of leadership is listening:  “Symptoms tell us everything we need to know, if we can slow down enough to listen.”  She means listening not just to what we hear, but what we smell, taste, see, feel, and sense.  The different colors of food, the lines on a face, the tone quality of a voice.  Letting what is observed (in oneself or another) be what it is:  “It is what it is, and seeing what it is, trusting what it is, no matter what it looks like, is my connection to the divine.”  Leadership is a harmonic resonance between means and ends.

DeAnna’s teaching style includes many examples that draw on images and experiences shared with the lives of her students.  She begins with her identification with the group to create connection and trust, so the group naturally wants to follow where she leads, even when that is into the unfamiliar and unknown.

Organic Empowerment

The week following my observation, we sit at the same kitchen table for an interview.  She laughs, and emphatically states:  “Don’t think of yourself as a leader! Just DO it!”

Her pathway to leadership has always held to her core value of caring for people, “I have never given up where I started,” and her belief in the relationship between beauty and health.  She is adamant that her intentions to honor each individual’s healing journey have protected her and kept her safe:  “I don’t get sick.”  She is inspired and motivated by her deep belief that all people have control over their own health, and the power of understanding mental and bodily functions that creates options for healing.  Although she sees herself variously as a “cheerleader,” a counselor, an educator; the word that keeps arising in our conversation and ties all these roles together is:  EMPOWERMENT.

What are the symptoms of a leadership based on empowerment?  Listening.  Honoring.  Understanding people’s individual personalities and being able to speak from that understanding, generating personal connections through mutual understanding.  Complementarity.  Respect without judgment (“the Biggie”).  And, one of the most challenging for me personally:  Timing, or, as DeAnna puts it, “Sit on it until the timing is right.  The leader has to focus on the Long-Term Flow, not the short-term changes.  In business, as in life, there is a natural flow, and when you force it, it never works.  It’s a waste of energy.” 

The discipline of leadership is reflected in this willingness to hold space, with intention, for one’s team, community, or even oneself:  Timing, revisited.  DeAnna emphasizes the critical ability to discern between an Idea and a Plan.  “Don’t speak until you know exactly what the path looks like.  An idea is not the same as a Plan!  Keep your mouth shut until you know where you are going, or it will cause disrespect and disappointment.  People can’t follow ideas.”

Her focus in creating change is Education:  educating Practitioners so they trust themselves to speak the truth with grace; educating Clients towards self-empowerment; educating Students through observing them and leading them towards their own journey without a sense of control.  This is education in the true, etymological, sense of the word:  to draw forth the deep knowledge of the individual from inside.  What DeAnna calls: listening for people’s stories and giving them back, and what I call: Organic Empowerment.

What is the foundation for this quality of empowerment, and for building the relationship of mutual listening that nourishes it?  Trust.  “If you don’t have it, nothing works.  It has to be developed and secured.”  At dhyana Center, this process of building trust is a very physical one, in the intimate context of personal health, working together with clients doing tandem massage, sharing opinions and complementary modalities.  An essential component of building this trust is honoring individuality; the knowledge that each member of the community brings a gift to the circle that benefits the whole.  As a leader, one has to make sure that anyone entering the community is filling a gap; this requires an awareness of where the gaps are, timing, and patience, as well as the skill of picking the person that will “jive with the whole group.”  To make a community, she shares, you have to like everyone and know how they serve the purposes of the community as a whole; in a business community, it is essential for people to have avenues to make money, to grow their financial as well as their social capital.  “Abundance stabilizes a community.”

How does one begin to lead this way?  Start with a person with Vision.  Add another person with the same vision, and something complementary to offer in its manifestation.  Then someone else shares the vision, and brings something to offer.  Know the components that are necessary to achieve this vision, and plan ahead, even if it takes time.  And, perhaps most important to remember:  Don’t fall into the “leader trap” of making people over in your own image.  “I don’t expect people to be another ME – we need more individuals!”  You are not a model, but a symbol of what is possible. 

My observation and interview process with DeAnna was one of tremendous resonance; she embodies the grace, skill, wisdom, power-to, and inclusivity of a great leader, as well as the clear joy and pleasure of doing something she loves while creating more and more space and abundance for others to do what they love and are skilled at in a way that serves the needs of the whole community.  The qualities of leadership, education, empowerment, and community/team-building speak, as her teacher Dr. Lopsang emphasized, equally from the head and the heart, and directly to the core of what is possible and necessary in developing truly sustainable work.

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