Heart-centered leadership lessons: Michelle Baldwin reflects on building relationships, trust and a network of impact

Michelle Baldwin, a visionary leader, purpose-driven community connector, mentor and change-maker, has stood at the helm of Pillar Nonprofit Network for over 14 years and even before that was engaged as a founding volunteer. During that time, Michelle ignited countless projects and community collaborations that have had a positive social impact in our community and region. Under her leadership, the impact of our organization has increased tremendously, growing to include Innovation Works, VERGE Capital and CityStudio London

While the list of projects and accomplishments under her leadership is long, Michelle is most well known for her unique brand of genuine, heart-centered and humble leadership that helps others to rise. As a mentor to young leaders, she models a level of personal introspection that encourages them to believe in their own capacity to change the world around them. As Michelle moves into a leadership role at a national level, she recently took the time to reflect back on her leadership journey at Pillar and share the stories of her most impactful lessons learned along the way.

Lesson 1: Embrace the beauty of the unknown

Thinking back to my early days as a volunteer for Pillar, I was excited to be part of an organization that was going to make connections across the three pillars of nonprofit, business and government. The people who had been involved so far really wanted to make a better community and a better world; surrounding myself with those kinds of people felt like a gift and an opportunity. I saw the potential in being part of something that was mobilizing people towards a common vision. It was an opportunity to step into leadership in an organization I really believed in and felt compelled to continue to be part of it.

Michelle and early members of the Pillar team

It can be a difficult decision to make that leap into leadership. I remember feeling absolute fear and excitement at once and wondering if I had what was needed in that moment. That was a good learning opportunity for me, and for anyone thinking about taking the next step in their career. Sometimes when you’re making those big leaps and risks, it’s ok to feel some fear and uncertainty and vulnerability. That’s what humility is about and that means there’s some essence of beauty and innovation in what is possible. You don’t have all the answers, you don’t have a clear path and you really have to lean on other people to dream up what is possible.

Lesson 2: A network mindset is key to transformation

When I stepped into the role, I hoped to mobilize the three sectors towards a common vision and that Pillar would become a place people could come with their questions about collaborating with nonprofits. What I’m most fulfilled by is how we’ve been able to convene community, listen to community and create action based on what we’ve heard. In particular, the Collaborating for Community Impact program stands out as a jump off point for many of the programs we still operate today. The three-year project allowed us to form partnerships and host collaboration forums to gauge pressing local issues. With community input, we identified the need to create a social innovation shared space and enhance campus-community collaboration towards social change – Innovation Works and CityStudio London rose up to fill those gaps.

What Pillar has achieved isn’t just about supporting a sector. It’s about looking at the root cause of issues, seeing where the systems are broken and focusing on building a network approach to understand issues and ultimately make shifts. Anti-racism and equity and inclusion are critical underpinnings of this work. Learning that was a shared leadership moment for me. I had to learn to be open to learning through doing and seeing, as opposed to me having that vision. The common thread, essence or through line that’s needed to get to systems changeis the network approach; it’s finding the people who need to be connected to uncover the faults in our systems. While these large backbone projects are easy to point to as signs of progress, I think it’s equally important to highlight work that reflects more subtle behavioural shifts, work that has taken more time or is still evolving. After all, transformation is about changing mindsets and mental models.

One example is our work to support anti-racism and anti-oppression. Early on, Pillar began our path to support this work through a board diversity project. It’s been an evolution to see how we first started using the language of cultural competency and cultural humility then moving to diversity, equity and inclusion and now to naming anti-racism, anti-oppression, white supremacy and white dominant culture. To see this evolution, and to learn from impacted communities, has been a huge learning for myself and for our organization. It’s a journey many of us are still on and one we must approach with humility. We have to accept the discomfort of knowing we don’t have it all figured out and that we still have work to do to engage those most impacted.

Lesson 3: Leadership isn’t possible without inner work and reflection

At Pillar, we champion failures as opportunities for growth and learning. When I think of the ways I have failed, what comes to mind isn’t a particular project it’s more about how I viewed myself and related to others in the earlier days of being a leader. Failures aren’t always about big mistakes, sometimes we only see them in the rear-view mirror as we evolve and learn better. For me, I came into leadership with programming that many young girls have been taught – you must be nice and be liked. This manifested in how I presented myself and how I interacted with my team and with partners, but I’ve since learned the value of vulnerability and embracing my truth regardless of others’ perceptions.

I remember there was once a situation where I cried at work and a team member was surprised to see me that vulnerable. It was almost that up until that point, I was packaged up as a leader trying to appear as someone who had it all together without showing vulnerability. The coaching work I’ve done has revealed to me that if you don’t show yourself as a whole human to your team and to community then that isn’t really authentic leadership and relationship building. It served me up until a certain point, but it’s not being a real human. When you do reveal those parts of yourself, you’re more relatable and accessible. At the same time, you don’t have to reveal everything, and you have to pace what you feel people need to understand about you and your complex life.

All leaders face crossroad moments where it feels like fate hangs in the balance. When I’ve encountered these moments, I think of a favourite quote I coined: “Innovative projects require being bold, perseverance, tenacity and a sprinkle of panic.” That philosophy drives me. Sometimes feeling slightly on edge drove me and propelled me forward to go all in. That was true when I stepped into the role at Pillar and when I pushed forward on initiatives like Innovation Works. In these moments, having an entrepreneurial spirit and a possibility mindset is essential.

I have learned that inner work and reflection is essential for being a good leader. A critical component of my own reflective practice is connecting to the natural environment both as a source of strength and as a call to reflect on my responsibility to the land. My own inner work has led me to realize one of my greatest personal lessons – what other people think of me is none of my business. One of my gifts is being able to bring people together but, on the other hand, leadership means that even if you’re authentic and vulnerable, sometimes, you aren’t going to be liked. People aren’t always going to like you or your decisions and sometimes you have to sit in that discomfort. Regardless of where you’re at in your journey, I think it serves all people to remember that we’re all really layered humans, and often, what you’re seeing isn’t the whole person.

Lesson 4: Building relationships is about authenticity and trust

Systems, networks and issues we’re trying to change are all connected to real people. At the core of everything is relationship building and trust. If you look at team building, fundraising, advocacy, government relations or partnership building, at the heart of it all is finding a common vision and shared alignment. Sometimes I think we try to systematize or create something formulaic but it’s all really about authentic relationship building. As a leader in the nonprofit sector, being able to build strong external relationships is critical, but the most important relationships you will build are with your team. I find the same philosophy can and should be applied to building relationships in any context.

To me, the first priority is about being accessible to people, and that means all people, within a team or the community. I think that my being accessible has made Pillar feel accessible to people. You have to not choose who you connect with based on influence and power and privilege. If people show an interest in the mission and what you’re doing, you listen and you think about how you may be able to connect on that. It’s about finding a shared excitement for something and following through. My biggest advice to young people is, if you just follow through and do what you say you are going to do and connect the dots, it’s a formula for trust and relationship building.

Building authentic relationships also requires an equity and inclusion mindset, which includes being aware of and naming power dynamics. As a leader, you have to be mindful of how when you speak it influences a discussion. Even if your intention isn’t for it to be weighted more heavily as the way forward, there’s an inherent power and privilege that comes with holding a leadership role. It’s important to speak openly about the power you hold and either say: I’m adding my voice to this but it’s not my decision, or this is a decision that I’m going to have to make. I have not always got this right. The bottom line is, prioritize the human relationships, without them, progress isn’t possible. 

Michelle throws a ball in the air while members of the Pillar team pose as if catching it
Lesson 5: Embrace risk and dwell in possibility

All leaders face crossroad moments where it feels like fate hangs in the balance. When I’ve encountered these moments, I think of a favourite quote I coined: “Innovative projects require being bold, perseverance, tenacity and a sprinkle of panic.” That philosophy drives me. Sometimes feeling slightly on edge drove me and propelled me forward to go all in. That was true when I stepped into the role at Pillar and when I pushed forward on initiatives like Innovation Works. In these moments, having an entrepreneurial spirit and a possibility mindset is essential.

Embedding risk taking and an entrepreneurial spirit in our organization has been possible thanks to our network approach; I never felt alone in achieving anything. To know that we’re all in it together has been so amazing. It’s about holding the whole team accountable to the goals of the organization instead of taking it all on yourself and connecting with others who can help you on the journey. An entrepreneurial spirit is especially important in nonprofits, whether it be exploring a new programming area or perhaps a social enterprise. It’s all about being able to draw inspiration from others and shifting from the scarcity that can often be a part of nonprofits – often as a result of broken systems – and moving towards an abundance mindset.

Members of the Pillar and Innovation Works team celebrating the opening of Innovation Works

I try to balance being positive and a realist. I’m always conscious of naming resilience and positivity as a choice because it places the onus on the individual rather than seeing individuals as part of a system designed to advance some over others. I recognize that being in a position to be a possibility thinker is a privilege. At Pillar, I found the opportunity to stay in the mindset that there was a possibility in what we were doing. Sometimes that means tweaking, shifting and adapting. Pillar’s secret sauce is being adaptable, we don’t think we have to stay the way we were. We’re always trying to evolve and looking towards a future forward outlook. Embracing failure and having forgiveness have also been areas of growth in being a realist. Being curious, feeling like there’s possibility in something and that change is possible has been wildly meaningful.

Having the opportunity to work at Pillar for these past 14 years has been a great honour. I want to share attribution and immense gratitude for all of the relationships, learning, and trust built within the network. While I’m happy to share these lessons from my career, I also want to name that sometimes, we make assumptions and put leaders on a pedestal. We may think that a leader is the reason something happened. If we think that, we’re simplifying things. We often want to simplify and point to an individual as achieving an innovation or bringing a concept to life or fruition, but it takes countless hours and many hands to make it happen.

Our network has accomplished remarkable things, but I’m also very aware that any sector or network is never in a static state. It is always evolving and changing so you never finish mobilizing a certain group or sector, there’s always more to do. If you’re truly engaging the next generation and new people coming into your community, there’s always more opportunity for connection and learning and to know when it is time to step aside. Today, the need for collaboration across sectors that Pillar has always encouraged has never been more apparent. With a network approach, we can hold the complexity of humans, relationships, change and innovation and realize that together is the only way forward. We can no longer remain in our own lanes; we all need to embrace the collective call for equity and justice for all people and for our planet.