Humanistic Management Journal

, Volume 2, Issue 2, pp 171–198 | Cite as

Self-Sustaining Practices of Successful Social Change Agents: A Retreats Framework for Supporting Transformational Change

Original Research

Abstract

We advance a framework of three types of “retreats” – reflective, relational, and inspirational – that social change agents can use to sustain themselves through challenges inherent in their work. Retreats are defined as intentionally crafted spaces that provide opportunities for reflective practices, relational presence, and inspirational resources. The retreats framework is based on the experiences of a set of successful social entrepreneurs who have played a prominent role in establishing new organizations at the intersection of business in society. We bridge ideas of humanistic management, integral practice, and positive organizational scholarship to identify and detail the personal practices that enable social change agents to fortify themselves as they work toward establishing new institutions and successfully implementing impactful work over time. Findings from this study suggest that the ability for social change agents to sustain themselves is facilitated through the cultivation of retreats that enable these individuals to persevere through adversity in organizational settings, build resilience, advance personal well-being, contribute to humanity’s welfare, and achieve success in their transformational endeavors.

Keywords

Social change agents Self-sustaining practices Humanistic management Integral practice Positive organizational scholarship 

Introduction

“I have days when I feel very strongly about it. When I truly believe that this idea [a big social change initiative] has the potential to change the world for the better... But then I do have moments, quite often, you know, when I have doubts. I have to be careful that cynicism doesn’t settle in. I look at myself and I think I’m probably just another preacher out there, who’s selling something. So it’s a constant up and down to be quite frank. ...It’s not easy to sustain a positive vision.”

-- Respondent, Leader of a Global Business Change Initiative

In organizational life, aspirations to make a positive difference in the world are apparent among change-oriented individuals who wish to channel a strong sense of purpose into meaningful action. Yet as the introductory quote aptly suggests, there are substantial challenges associated with sustaining a positive vision and successfully implementing desired social change. Given the complexity of leading, managing, and enacting new initiatives to “change the world for the better,” including external cynicism, internal doubts, and the myriad other challenges inherent in innovative and impactful work, this paper explores how successful social change agents sustain themselves to persevere in their transformational endeavors. Specifically, what personal practices sustain successful agents of social change as they attempt to establish and execute their initiatives over time?

Social change agents, or social entrepreneurs, are passionate leaders who generate and drive ideas and who aspire to make a positive and impactful difference (e.g., Lichtenstein 2009). By focusing their efforts on solving social problems, these individuals steward a humanistic agenda through the prioritization of human and societal well-being and the advancement of humane and life-conducive organizing (Pirson 2009; Pirson 2015; Pirson and Lawrence 2010). They have what Aristotle called practical wisdom that ‘drives purposeful action in a specific time and place’ and helps them bridge numerous difficulties, negotiate diverse interests, and continue to be creative in the face of obstacles in their efforts to build a better and more sustainable world (Zhu et al. 2016, p. 610).

Social change agents are confronted with considerable challenges in their efforts to achieve transformational outcomes (Steckler and Bartunek 2012), yet we know little about what sustains such individuals in their work over time. Research on what Pfeffer (2010) terms the human dimension of sustainability has largely been constrained to the experiences of particular sets of employees in conventional organizational work contexts, such as service providers and knowledge workers (e.g., Dutton and Sonenshein 2009; Fritz et al. 2011). Despite interest in individual differences in the broader context of entrepreneurship (c.f., Baum et al. 2007; Baron 2004, 2007; Markman et al. 2006), much remains to be learned about the self-sustaining practices of social change agents that support successful transformation.

Backround: Agents of Social Change and Personal Sustainability

Social entrepreneurs accomplish positive change by possessing the intention and risk-taking (Bargsted et al. 2013), inspiration, wisdom, and creativity to develop novel solutions, as well as the fortitude to drive their innovative ideas forward (Martin and Osberg 2007; Chinchilla and Garcia 2017) in the face of numerous obstacles and conflicts. These entrepreneurs tend to be oriented more around humanistic impacts rather than exclusively economic outcomes, which involves the rebalancing of social, ecological, and economic goals and keeping well-being and dignity in focus (e.g., Pirson 2017; Pirson 2015; Pirson and Lawrence 2010; Melé 2016). Leaders of social enterprises involved in pursuing and achieving these types of multiple objectives – including those who are creating new institutions to influence corporate responsibility across these domains, such as the respondents in this study – must overcome considerable difficulties and tensions to achieve desired outcomes (Steckler and Bartunek 2012).

Dees (1998) classically defines social entrepreneurs as innovators, change agents, and risk takers who emphasize both private value and also social value, constantly innovate, adapt, and learn, and act boldly while remaining accountable. As they pursue innovative solutions and initiatives, social change agents must access wisdom (Zhu et al. 2016) as well as space for thinking and reflection to deal with complex tensions created by conflicting institutional logics, i.e., market versus social goods logics (Pache and Chowdhury 2012; Zhu et al. 2016). Numerous accounts suggest that successful social change agents, like other entrepreneurs, can be characterized as highly competent and visionary individuals with the drive, fortitude, and stamina, along with courageous endurance, to push their ideas forward (e.g., Dees 1998; Martin and Osberg 2007; Martin and Osberg 2007). Roberts and Woods (2005) describe such actors as doggedly persistent, creative, businesslike in their approaches, and with a visionary capacity that allows them to see things in ways that others do not (also Ayala and Manzano 2014; Bullough and Renko 2013).

Social change agents have been further characterized by Sullivan Mort et al. (2003) as having balanced judgment, coherent unity of purpose and action in the face of stakeholder complexity, and the ability to create social value (also Chinchilla and Garcia 2017). These individuals require resilience and perseverance to continue in the face of a variety of obstacles (Ayala and Manzano 2014), including advancing values-driven agendas rather than simply economic ones (Melé 2003). The pursuit of this more humanistic agenda – or what Melé (2016) terms “genuine humanism” encompassing characteristics of wholeness, comprehensive knowledge, dignity for humans, development, an orientation towards the common good, some element of transcendence, and an emphasis on stewardship and sustainability – can be supported through individual practices (c.f., Chinchilla and Garcia 2017; Goldman Schuyler 2010) that provide personal resources for advancing such alternative values and organizing paradigms. Personal capacities of perseverance (Eisenberger 1992) and resilience, along with self-control, networking, and self-confidence, among others (Bradbury 2000) are considered requisite qualities for overcoming the obstacles and setbacks characteristic of entrepreneurial contexts (Bullough and Renko 2013; Markman et al. 2006; Sutcliffe and Vogus 2003). Supporting these qualities would also likely relate to thwarting adversity associated with pursuing humanistic values in social entrepreneurship settings (e.g., Melé 2003).

On a day-to-day basis social change agents are likely to be faced with significant and persistent challenges in bringing their visions to fruition (Steckler and Bartunek 2012). They may be confronted with core psychological challenges, such as exhaustion, self-doubt, a sense of lacking control, and feelings of isolation and anger (Sonenshein and Dutton 2009), as well as feeling overwhelmed, angry, sad, mistrustful, ignored and underappreciated (Kahn 2004), in response to their work. Over time, such pressures deplete personal resources such as energy (Fritz et al. 2011) needed to conduct work and make progress toward a desired outcome.

With a buildup of these internal and external pressures, change agents can experience burnout (Maslach et al. 1996) if they do not have strategies that create or enhance their perseverance or resilience (Markman et al. 2006; Shambaugh 2010; King et al. 2016) or restore their energy (Fritz et al. 2011). Resilience, generally understood as the ability to rebound after serious setbacks, is an essential entrepreneurial quality necessary for long-term success (Hayward et al. 2010; Calvo and García 2010). Resilience includes the capacity to regenerate and renew oneself, confront adversity, and find hope and meaning (Lloyd 2006). Although the notion of resilience has been identified as a promising capacity (Hoskisson et al. 2011; Ayala and Manzano 2014; Sutcliffe and Vogus 2003; Bullough and Renko 2013), more work is needed to more fully understand what enables individuals to persist under difficult circumstances (King et al. 2016).

Fritz et al. (2011) focus how individuals manage and sustain themselves over the course of a workday through the energy enhancing activities they engage in at work. Building on extant research that explores the existence and value of taking brief, in-the-moment breaks at work (e.g. Trougakos and Hideg 2009; Trougakos et al. 2008), these authors suggest that the strategy of taking “micro-breaks,” i.e., engaging momentarily in activities not directly related to requisite work tasks, can provide space for the personal recovery and respite of individuals conducting their daily work. “Recovery” outside of work, activated through participating in evening and weekend activities that provide rest and rejuvenation, also seems important (e.g. Sonnentag et al. 2008; Fritz and Sonnentag 2005).

Further, research on energy- and resilience-enhancing activities in work contexts (e.g., Dutton and Sonenshein 2009; Sonenshein and Dutton 2009) suggests that individuals faced with challenging work environments can overcome a depletion of psychological resources by “boosting” themselves. Boosting refers to taking small actions that elevate individuals’ capacity for action and that protect and fortify themselves using small actions. Such actions include cultivating positive meaning, relationships, and emotions that provide psychological support and strength (Sonenshein and Dutton 2009). In entrepreneurship contexts Bullough and Renko (2013) suggest that resilience is associated with entrepreneurial training, networking, and active pursuit of the entrepreneurial activity.

The intention to do social good, or the “social motive” that characterizes social entrepreneurs (Bargsted et al. 2013), may itself potentially be inspirational and sustaining for social entrepreneurs (Chinchilla and Garcia 2017). For example, Germak & Robinson (2014, p. 13) found that nascent social entrepreneurs were motivated by five things: “personal fulfillment, helping society, nonmonetary focus, achievement orientation, and closeness to social problem” and otherwise broadening out and sustaining the collaborations and agendas needed (Rocha and Miles 2009). These motivating factors may well help to sustain social change agents in the face of obstacles over the long term. Rahim and Mohtar (2015) indicate that social entrepreneurs build “strong, resilient, and productive relationship between the private, public and civil sectors” along with “creating bridges” of relationships that help them gain resources and even wisdom (Breabout 2013). Such relationships may be sustaining in and of themselves. Citing Henton and colleagues, Rahim & Mohtar (Rahim and Mohtar 2015, p. 11) suggest that social entrepreneurs are “networkers and motivators, convenors and teachers, drivers and integrators, agitators and mentors.” It is conceivable that such relationships to both people and commitment to the cause behind a social change agent’s activities are inherently sustaining.

Mindfulness or other personal reflective practices have been proposed as a possible support for such entrepreneurs (Chinchilla and Garcia 2017; Goldman Schuyler 2010). These practices can enhance self-understanding and awareness, particularly in dealing with the “dual objectives” involved in entrepreneurship with social objectives (Chinchilla and Garcia 2017). Goldman Schuyler argues that leadership integrity, much needed in socially entrepreneurial ventures, can be enhanced though reflective practices (Goldman Schuyler 2010). Along similar lines, practice-based (practical) wisdom, or “the application of ethical practice in day-to-day living and working to create a flourishing society and world” (Zhu et al. 2016, p. 609), has been suggested as foundational to the hardiness, optimism, and resourcefulness (Ayala and Manzano 2014) needed by social change agents.

Explicit mindfulness or reflective practices are thus possible ways in which social entrepreneurs might rejuvenate and sustain themselves (Chinchilla and Garcia 2017). Mindfulness, or the ability to be in the present moment often gained through a range of reflective practices, is associated with outcomes of organizational well-being and performance (Sutcliffe et al. 2016; Langer 2014). Positive social change agency theory (Golden-Biddle and Dutton 2012) emphasizes the importance of identifying and better understanding the personal capacities of individuals that enable them to lead and enact social change (Steckler and Bartunek 2012). Zhu et al. (2016) articulate some of these attributes as qualities of (open and aware) mind, knowledge, insight, and reason, ethical and moral skills, wise action, and a focus on creating positive and sustainable long-term outcomes – attributes that can be associated with reflective and mindfulness practices of various sorts (e.g., Kabat-Zinn 2005; Langer 2014; Schneider et al. 2010; Goldman Schuyler 2010). Despite these insights, not much is known about the actual personal practices that contribute to social change agents’ abilities to fortify themselves and persist in doing their work (Pfeffer 2010) when confronted with the snags and adversity inherent in social change endeavors (Steckler and Bartunek 2012; also, Goldman Schuyler 2010).

Gaining an understanding of the tactics social change agents adopt to persevere in their endeavors is critical for advancing a humanistic change agenda. In considering the strategies or practices that agents of social change might engage in to fortify themselves in their work over time, we considered ideas associated with integral practice (Wilber et al. 2008; Leonard and Murphy 1995) and mindfulness (Goldman Schuyler 2010). Integral practice suggests that individuals can draw strength and restorative energy from personal resources associated with connecting with and having practices that enhance the mind, heart, body, and soul/spirit elements of. It involves a set of exercises or activities that are holistic, attempting to develop and integrate mind (intellectual), body (physical activity, exercise), heart (passions, relationships, connections, emotions) that allow for both self- and other-regarding awareness (e.g., Rocha and Miles 2009), and soul or spirit (meaning-making, religious or spiritual traditions) aspects of life (Wilber et al. 2008). Wilber et al. (2008) and Leonard & Murphy (1995, revised 2005) suggest that a mix of practices covering these four realms can be helpful in creating a healthy, satisfying, and productive life. As the study evolved, the integral practice framework (Leonard and Murphy 1995; Wilber et al. 2008) served as ground for this research. In particular, we were curious about practices that fostered the personal sustainability of social change agents through greater intellectual engagement (mind), physical engagement (body), relational presence (heart connection with others), and inspiration and aesthetic sensibility (spirit/soul) (Wilber et al. 2008; Leonard and Murphy 1995).

Research Process

The data that inform this study come from the life-stories or self-narratives (Shamir and Eilam 2005) of interviews with 23 successful social entrepreneurs who were part of a larger study on how the corporate responsibility infrastructure was built. Resonant with the tradition of humanistic management that focuses on human-centered and life-conducive organizing (c.f., Pirson 2015; Amann et al. 2011), social entrepreneurship provides an ideal context for exploring the personal sustainability practices of social change agents. We believed these practices, not reported in the larger study, are important to understand in terms of the cultivation and protection of personal well-being in the day-to-day work of organizing novel structures and solutions oriented toward providing benefit to humanity. Further, consistent with a positive organizational scholarship lens (Cameron et al. 2004; Luthans 2003; Dutton et al. 2008) that focuses on “what’s going right” (Roberts 2006, p. 294), positive deviance (Spreitzer and Sonenshein 2004), and flourishing (Cameron et al. 2004), we probed the experiences of these agents of social change, asking explicitly about their personal “mind, body, heart, and soul/spiritual” practices to better understand how these individuals were able to sustain themselves.

These 23 social change agents worked at the edges of traditional organizations to build pioneering institutions and initiatives in today’s corporate responsibility (CR) movement to drive positive change. This group of respondents was relevant to the study because we were interested in unpacking the self-sustaining practices that support individual and organizational success in social change contexts. Exhibit 1 in Appendix provides a brief overview of the respondents and the types of work they have done.

Semi-structured interviews elicited the background, motivations, life history, and goals of each participant. The foundational interview question for this study included slight variations of: “What sustained you in keeping this work going over the years?” Drawing on the integral practice model (Leonard and Murphy 1995; Wilber et al. 2008), the interviewer further indicated an interest in exploring the mind, body, heart, and spirit/soul-related practices of respondents that they may have used to sustain themselves in their work (see Exhibit 2 in Appendix for interview questions). At the conclusion of each interview respondents were also prompted to consider other sources that sustained their “work, strength, vision, and resilience” that might have been overlooked.

Typical interviews lasted approximately an hour and a half on average, with twenty-one conducted in person and two conducted over the telephone. All interviews were recorded, transcribed, and entered into the qualitative research program NVivo. We analyzed the interviews and extracted the portions of the narratives that dealt with possible explanations for how social entrepreneurs sustained their efforts over time. The data for this study resulted in 84 pages of single space text. An open coding protocol was developed to analyze the data closely, compare similarities and differences, and allow the data and emergent insights to inform the findings (Strauss and Corbin 1998). The goal in the initial analytical process was to discover concepts to describe the phenomenon of interest (Strauss and Corbin 1998): the ability of the respondent to sustain him or herself to conduct their work over time. Data content was ultimately coded into first and second order categories and then aggregated into three overarching theoretical variants of what we ultimately labeled “retreats.” The authors discussed and updated the coding structure to best reflect the data and emergent themes in a continuous and iterative process.

Retreats involve intentional practices that tend to occur for short periods of time outside of the work setting and that function by removing the respondent from the day-to-day fray. Inspired by questions related to elements of mind, body, heart and spirit/soul (Wilber et al. 2008), several types of “retreats” used by respondents emerged from the data. However, the pattern of responses differed from what might be expected if all of the respondents were actually using what Wilber et al. (2008) call an integral approach.

Findings: Cultivating Restorative Retreats for Personal Sustainability

All of the study’s respondents engaged in a variety of practices we have designated as retreats, which they characterized as helping to sustain themselves in their work over time. The notion of retreat refers to quiet, sometimes secluded, places or “spaces” where people can go for privacy or rest, or it can mean a time or period of contemplation. It is in this sense (and not its more militaristic definitions in reference to withdrawing under threat or in defeat) that we employ the notion of retreat.

Retreats, the data suggest, are spaces of personal maintenance and restoration. Contrary to our hunch, the retreats did not fall neatly into the mind, body, heart, soul/spirit designations of integral practice as articulated by Wilber et al. (2008) or Leonard & Murphy (Leonard and Murphy 1995 rev.). Instead, three major categories of “retreats” – here labelled reflective, relational, and inspirational – emerged (see Exhibit 3 in Appendix and Table 1). Reflective retreats include personal activities that are characterized as either contemplative, involving religious, spiritual, or meditative practices, or physical, involving exercise. Relational retreats also have two aspects, one that includes intentional efforts to engage with and stay connected to other people, and a second that keeps the participant engaged with the tasks or issues of interest in their work, especially as it relates to more systemic-level relationships. Inspirational retreats include artistic or aesthetically-appealing practices, such as direct engagement with artistry, an appreciation of creative expression, and experiences in and with nature.
Table 1

Consolidated coding matrix

Respondent

Reflective retreat

Relational retreat

Inspirational retreat

Contemplative retreat

Physical retreat

Other-awareness

Systems-awareness

R1

y

y

y

y

 

R2

y

y

y

y

y

R3

  

y

y

y

R4

 

y

y

y

y

R5

y

y

y

y

 

R6

y

y

y

y

y

R7

y

y

y

y

 

R8

y

y

y

y

 

R9

y

y

y

y

y

R10

y

y

y

y

 

R11

 

y

y

y

 

R12

y

 

y

y

y

R13

y

y

y

y

 

R14

y

y

y

y

y

R15

y

 

y

y

 

R16

y

y

y

y

y

R17

 

y

y

y

 

R18

 

y

y

y

y

R19

y

y

y

y

y

DM20

 

y

y

y

 

DM21

 

y

y

y

y

DM22

y

 

y

y

 

DM23

  

y

y

 

Total

15

18

23

23

11

Table 1 summarizes the retreats each of the 23 respondents used, including sub-types within the reflective (i.e., physical and contemplative) and relational (i.e., other- and systems- awareness) retreats. While the study is qualitative, it may be useful to consider the relative usage of different practices or retreats. Only ten participants reported using all three major categories of retreats and one individual used only one type of retreat (relational). Notably, all 23 respondents talked about their reliance on relational retreats at both the interpersonal and larger systems level in which their work issue resides. This finding suggests that the ability to connect with other people as well as with systemic issues related to work provided these individuals with the ability to disengage from their immediate concerns and connect to the bigger-picture concerns with which their work was ultimately involved. The majority of respondents (21) reported relying on at least one type of reflective retreat: 18 on physical practices, 15 on contemplative activities. Twelve respondents reported using both types of reflective and both types of relational retreats. Inspirational retreats were used by just under half (11) of the respondents. Below we explore the evidence for each of these retreats in more detail.

Reflective Retreats

Reflective retreats tend to be solo activities with an “in the moment” ethos that somehow distances the participant from day-to-day activities and pressures. Respondents using reflective retreats, for example, engaged in a variety of contemplative practices that tended to be quite deliberate and relatively traditional, such as religious and other meditative practices or physical practices that provide psychological and emotional space (spirit/soul). A reflective retreat creates a psychological buffer from day-to-day stresses and activities through mindfulness practices, reflection, prayer, or other explicit religious practice or spiritual experiences (Exhibit 3, 1A in Appendix, Contemplative practices, provides some examples) that provide important perspective on their lives and work. Another set of reflective retreats involved practices of physical activity (body), exercise, or similar hobbies – often solo activities that facilitated opportunities for contemplation (Exhibit 3, 1B in Appendix). Physical activities, which included activities like walking, hiking, biking, scuba diving, and running, tended to be solitary activities that create time and space for “just me,” emphasized the individual, and created the potential for clearing the mind, enhancing self-awareness, and giving a bit of “distance” from the press of daily life. Below we illustrate how participants identified these reflective retreats, which we classify as contemplative and physical.

Contemplative Retreats

Both mindfulness and reflective practices, along with explicit, sometimes past, experiences of spirituality or religion, are elements of contemplative retreats. Many respondents discussed reflection experiences through explicit attention to spiritual practices or religion. One individual, a person with a strong religious orientation, deliberately creates a place in his home where he goes daily to reflect, renew himself, and quite literally create a space for prayer, thinking, and writing. He comments,

So I have had a place like this in every home that I’ve lived in ... Sometimes it’s literally a closet. I’ll clear out a closet and make some space and I put a bunch of icons or whatever. I burn a little incense, and it reminds me of the interior of a church.”

Other participants evidenced contemplative practice through meditation, which allows for not only the emergence of self-awareness but also self-renewal. Finally, others create space for reflection of this sort through hobbies of various kinds that create a literal distance between them and the world. For example, one participant states about his photography, which can also be viewed as an inspirational practice,

“… when I look through a viewfinder, I’m looking at a discreet box image, and I’m also looking at how to edit that image so that it works somewhat. …it’s the same thing I do with writing. Exactly. It puts a distance between me and the object.”

He added that adding distance or space enables one to both see something better, as well as how it can be improved, which are core capabilities for effecting social change.
As the quotes in Exhibit 3, 1A in Appendix, illustrate, deliberate or explicit reflective/spiritual practice seems to take four forms. The first form emphasizes self-awareness, including presenting a sense of optimism or drive. The following quote highlighting a distinct sense of self comes from the individual cited above who created the deliberate reflective/religious space in his house:

“I have said in other places that I am a strange mix. In one sense, I am straight, white, male, privileged Protestant old stock American colonial family, and so ought to be just effortlessly part of the deeply un-self-aware privileged class. On the other hand I spent my whole childhood with a serious chronic illness, which kept me in braces, which meant that people were visually afraid of me, and I was discriminated against, in all kinds of ways, subtle and not so subtle, and lived in constant fear of what would happen if the medical care that was essential for me to survive was suddenly subjected, as repeatedly people threatened to do, to free market wealth.”

A second way of creating reflective retreats is by going into or connecting with nature (6/23), as reflected in the following quote:

“I actually have to get outdoors for at least an hour—and I don’t care what the weather is—and preferably for two hours. If I don’t get that, I can feel it the next day. I walk or bike. And going to a gym helps, but it’s just not the same—it’s really the connection with nature, you’re not in your head, and that’s where I am all the time.”

The third method for creating reflective retreats is physically getting away, often to a place of beauty, where separation from day-to-day responsibilities is possible. As one respondent states:

“I’ve bought two gorgeous retreats—one on the ocean, and one on the lake. An island on the lake and a place on the ocean that’s like spiritual heaven to me.”

The fourth reflective retreat strategy involves tapping into an explicit religious or spiritual experience, either on-going or in the past, which can overlap with other forms of contemplative practice. Quotes like the following from three participants are representative of this type of retreat:

I think, you know, we live in a secular age, but a lot of people are motivated by religion and I think if I had a religious framework it’s much more to do with Gaian notions.”

I also felt very fortunate having gone to college with the Jesuits, I don’t think that I would have learned to be reflective, to meditate, that’s stayed with me and been really important.”

I think that many people’s favorite phrases these days is the phrase by Gandhi that says, be the change you wish to see in the world. So instead of talking about community first I really want to talk about individuals because that’s really where I want to start. And that’s really what my business is all about. So we believe that there is an integration been mind, body and spirit that’s very critical to the survival of our planet.”

Each of the four variants of individual contemplative practices provides an opportunity for individuals to remove themselves from the ongoing set of daily pressures in ways that enhance self-awareness. Such practices of imposing distance between the individual and immediate activities or responsibilities generate space in which reflection can occur. This opens up the possibility of being “not in your head,” as one respondent suggests, and allows for contemplation beyond immediate tasks or pressing action items. The ability to “connect” with something bigger than oneself on a regular basis or under difficult circumstances – with nature or with a sense of some greater influence, for example – seems to be an essential element of these reflective retreats, which have a decidedly spiritual element to them. One respondent put eloquently how such reflective retreats enabled him to persevere through difficulty inherent in his work:

“…it just reminds me that there’s always a door no matter how difficult things may be in my life and in the world. There’s always a door to open.”

Physical Activity Retreat

Physical activity is also used by the respondents to create a form of reflective retreat. Most, though not all, respondents described engaging in some sort of physical practice that helped sustain them. Physical practices discussed include running, walking, hiking, cycling, swimming, kayaking, weight training, rollerblading, cross-country skiing, yoga, basketball, scuba diving, tai chi, and racquetball. Over half of the respondents explicitly mentioned physical exercise, or “working out,” as a personally sustaining force. We note that these activities tend to be more individual rather than team-based (though a couple do involve teams or competitive interaction), and all are quite different from the day-to-day activities of work. Strikingly, many of these activities enable the individual to create a personal “space” where reflection is possible even while being focused on the physical activity. Consistent with contemplative practices, being “in the moment” is necessary for these physical practices since they tend to be individual activities that require mindfulness and self-awareness (Kabat-Zinn 1995, 2002, 2005; Langer 2014) rather than interaction with others.

In addition to a set of practices that explicitly integrate body and mind such as yoga, tai chi, chanting, and meditation that were mentioned by about half of the interviewees, other reflection-in-action activities or explicit experiences that connect the physical and spiritual were attributed by respondents as important sustaining practices (e.g., Jordan et al. 2009). For example, one respondent remarked:

“Tai chi turns out to be, after trying other things, the thing that is most rewarding just from the extent that the mind and body are one thing, that relaxing your body relaxes your mind. ...So that’s been very helpful.”

“I’ve meditated for a long time. I think being outdoors and being on water or in mountains is sort of a way of communing that I find really refreshing. Regenerating.”

“And I’ve discovered that running can be liberating... Well, you recapture your childhood. As children you run. It’s something about the air passing by the face. But it’s also about using the body differently. I’m not talking about being a mad jogger and doing marathons. I’m mostly talking about the feeling of using your limbs to proceed quickly over fields, you know? So a lot of walking and a certain amount of running. Being fit is very important. Being healthy. I get out of breath by taking exercise every day. Every single day. Without exception. And if I don’t I feel bad. Very important.”

“I’m fairly fanatical about getting up and walking at night. It clears the head. Keeps me healthy, from getting depressed about this.”

These quotes, as well as the ones in Exhibit 3, 1B in Appendix, illustrate how physical practices are used to liberate and bolster self and vision over time in terms of providing respite and strength to both body and mind. Physical practices separate the individual from tasks and routines of work life, creating a different type of space where thoughts can be cleared, and where the individual can relax and refresh oneself. Such physical retreats also provide for an integration of mind and body (e.g., noticing that “the mind and body are one thing,” above), or “connecting” with something bigger than oneself (e.g., being in nature is “sort of a way of communing,” above). As a result, physical practices provide a sense of personal well-being that is generative and strengthening (e.g., “Regenerating,” “running can be liberating,” “Keeps me healthy,” above).

Numerous respondents found this sense of renewal and self-awareness particularly notable in physical activities that connected them with nature, as the following quote about restoring land illustrates:

“So I am a passionate nature lover. And one of the things I’ve done in the past three or four years is with my wife – we’ve bought some land in England, which is ridiculously, ridiculously expensive, but we bought a little wood and some meadows, and we spend a lot of time restoring this land that was ravaged by the iron industry and then ravaged by overexploitation of timber and then commercial farming. And we’re kind of restoring it.”

Notably, many physical reflection practices nurture the body, as well as the mind and heart.

Both contemplative and physical practices that comprise reflective retreats are generally solo and self-directed activities that seem to give their practitioners self-awareness, renewal, and strength, and a way of disengaging, even for a short period, from day-to-day activities and doing or thinking about something other than work. Also notable, there is a clear “in the present moment” sense of mindfulness (Kabat-Zinn 1995, 2005; Langer 2014) to these practices that appears to provide centering and a sense of groundedness in the here and now for the individuals that engage with them. One respondent sums up the benefits of a reflective retreat as follows:

“I’m bad at meditating but you know I try to find a space in each day where it’s just time to reflect, and I’ll normally read a poem or read something from the Bible. Or on my nightstand I actually have a Koran since my trip to the Middle East. And I just read from various faith traditions and to me there is this wonderful connection between them all. I draw a lot of personal strength from that. I hope that there’s a connection from my life to what I can give to the world. So it’s that sort of spiritual practice that is a very important thing that keeps me going.”

These findings suggest that reflective retreats can promote self-awareness, which has been associated with leadership (Goleman et al. 2002) and more recently with ethics and (corporate) responsibility (Crilly et al. 2008). Such activities are also related to developing or enhancing personal strength and resilience (e.g., Dutton 2003; Sutcliffe and Vogus 2003; Luthans 2003) and centeredness, as well as promoting well-being in organizing (Pirson 2015). All but two respondents engaged in either a contemplative (spirit/soul) or a more bodily (physical) oriented form of reflective retreat. Overall, reflective retreats appeared to enhance either “spirit” or “soul” aspects of integral practice through intentional contemplative practices of meditation, spirituality, or religion, or through the well-being of “body” through physical practices that focus on health, strengthening, or balancing work demands with physiological needs.

Relational Retreats

Relational retreats provide support through networks of like-minded people, family, friends, or colleagues, and foster connection and engagement with the whole of humanity, or through ongoing connection with the bigger system and issues related to the participant’s social entrepreneurial work. Relational retreats evolve over time and emphasize connectedness with others or the broader system, and were a major sustaining force for all participants.

Relational retreats, like reflective retreats, have two variants. Other-awareness relational retreats engage the individual with other people – often family, friends, and other people, such as work networks, who nourish, support, and connect with the respondent. This nourishment suggests that perhaps these retreats enhance emotional (heart) aspects of integral practice. Systems-awareness retreats involve participants with the larger systems in which they are embedded, enabling them to become more aware of interactions, interdependencies, issues, and potentials for change. This second type of relational retreat appears to enhance intellectual engagement (mind), as well as emotional engagement (heart).

Relational retreats appear to evolve and persist over time, promote other-awareness at local and global levels, and seem to emphasize emotions of connectedness to others. Such retreats provide support through networks of like-minded people, family, friends, or colleagues, and foster connection and engagement with the whole of humanity. These relational spaces appear to facilitate engagement, provoke interesting new ideas and insights, and expand awareness of the “other” in ways that reflective retreats do not. All of the respondents in this study engaged in both subtypes of relational retreats, which suggests that they benefited from the emotional support as well as the intellectual stimulation provided. Below we provide examples and discussion of these two different types of relational retreats: other awareness and systems awareness.

Other Awareness

The first subtype of relational retreat we called “other awareness” because it involves developing and sustaining on-going relationships with others, including family, friends, and networks of like-minded people. In general, the relational retreats category encompasses the idea that social entrepreneurs recognize the necessity and benefit of interaction with people who have different ideas from their own and from whom they can learn to effect positive change. For example, one individual remarks:

“It’s about sort of generative conversations that get you to new places. … It’s meeting interesting people and having conversations with them. Hopefully ones that go on over time.”

Another participant emphasizes growing their understanding through engagement with other people:

“But it’s also extraordinarily exciting. It is an extraordinary community of people around the world involved in environment and human rights, sustainable development, corporate citizenship, these sorts of areas.”

“The thing that keeps me going is that there are so many things in our society that are worth preserving, fostering, nurturing and emphasizing, and there are so many things that are out there that are going to destroy those very same thing.”

Note that meeting others fosters recognition of what needs to change and what needs to stay the same in systems settings, in addition to providing a rationale for doing the work itself.

Respondents developed a capacity for other-awareness through their connections with family, friends, and mentors, as well as through engagement with colleagues, at professional meetings, and in the process of being involved in learning opportunities such as travel or thought-provoking games (e.g., the game of Go for one respondent). The vast majority of interviewees cited their personal relationships with family members as critically important for sustaining themselves in their innovative work. Family members mentioned as being sustaining forces of their life and work include: children (e.g. daughters, sons, adopted children), significant others, parents, siblings, grandparents, immediate and extended family (e.g. nieces, nephews, cousins), and previous and future (e.g. grandchildren) generations.

Relationship with family is critical because it provides a stable place of support that participants consider crucial to their work. Two representative respondents’ comments about the importance of family support highlight this idea:

“I don’t know how anybody could do this kind of compulsive stuff if they didn’t have that kind of [family] support.”

“So they [spouse and three children] give me total emotional backing. And that has been extremely important, I think. They give me a lot of strength and balancing. Family really has been important to me, I must tell you, especially the last five years or so. I greatly treasure that. And they give me – I can be selfish in pursuit of long working hours and so on and traveling, but I always know I have a place. When I’m coming back, I have a loving family and kids so that has been important, I must say. Quite important.”

Other examples are given in Exhibit 3, 2A in Appendix. Family relationships and support provide a safe place for these social entrepreneurs, a place where what is important is the relationships themselves, and a space that is separate from their work. As the second quote indicates, there is a home and family “place,” a “coming back” to quality of these relationships that seems to provide comfort and safety in a world that, from the perspective of social change agents, is troubled and needs to change. In addition, the idea of deriving vitality through a relationship with future family members is also compelling as a sustaining force as mentioned by several respondents who distinguish themselves as particularly forward-looking. For example, the following quote indicates a future-oriented sense of generational relationships and responsibility that provides not only a rationale for hard work, but also an engagement with another person that is of a very different quality than the work can provide:

“You know, because seeing a new passage of a generation and the appearance of the next one and realize that this little kid’s going to be here for, you know, 50 years after you, at least, if not more. What world is she going to face, you know? And you can say this intergenerational concerns in equity and sustainability and so on, but man, I’m telling you, until you look in the eyes of [chuckle] your flesh and blood and see those and realize that’s what we’re actually talking about here. There it is, right there. Two legs, you know. It gives a whole different sense of responsibility. ...I mean, you look at a grandchild and your sense of responsibility just becomes palpable.”

Connecting with people beyond the family also provides an important source of well-being that has helped to sustain participants. While these relationships may sometimes be work-related, they provide a sense of engagement with others that is not directly related to the “doing” of the work but rather to the importance of the relationship itself and to the space away from the direct work that the relationship provides. Most of the respondents cited relationships with people outside of their family as essential to preserving self and vision over time in their work endeavors. These include relationships with their peer group, friends, mentors, and inspiring historical figures; people they work or meet with in organizations, in the field, or in broader social movements; and people and communities they get to know on their travels.

Below, one respondent discusses the importance of a sense of camaraderie, support and momentum within a wider movement of social activists to sustain-ability, while another discusses membership in a generalized sense of community and interpersonal interaction that is both personally stabilizing and invigorating:

“...it was the community of people. It was the energy that we got from each other, the ideas, the support we gave each other, so it wasn’t like people were out there doing their own thing. They were doing it as part of a social movement.”

“And so I think the thing that stabilizes me is people. Ultimately. Not hobbies, not things, not art, not sport -- it’s ultimately people. ... In other words, I function through interaction. I don’t function primarily through reflection. ... And so what I’ve become in the place I have within the community or the communities that I participate in, I think had something to do with that because that’s how I think. That’s what makes me turn on as opposed to going to pause.”

We can see in these comments that interaction with others has both intellectual and relationship components that provide energy, support, stability, and connection, and that relieve the pressures of the work, while simultaneously providing stimulation and engagement. These relationships also provide connection both to other people and to a bigger sense of purpose in life that emerges directly out of that connection.

Systems-Awareness

Systems awareness retreats place the participant in the context of understanding the broader network of issues of relationships and systems where their work is embedded, as well giving them a sense of seeing and anticipating a need for change. Some respondents described connecting with historical figures or well-known and admired individuals working in related organizations, while others mentioned active affiliations with peers working in the same field, or with people that they met in the field or when traveling. Others refer to particular mentors who have strongly influenced their own personal development.

These relational aspects of creating systems oriented retreats endure over time, and help to ground and connect these social entrepreneurs to people, ideas, and influences, e.g., different political, social, or cultural systems. This activity provides individuals with perspective on the systems in which they hope to effect change, and enhances understanding of these and potential alternative systems as well. As one of the respondents notes,

“Every now and again I need to look up and I need to sit and talk with Buddhists and Hindus about what business means to them. Or I need to go after some big ideas.”

In effect, this respondent is describing a strategy of cultivating a systems-awareness relational retreat in order to overcome setbacks, recharge, or to feel inspired. More than half the respondents mentioned such systems awareness and their embeddedness during the interviews.

As the quotes in Exhibit 3,2.B in Appendix illustrate, there are four variants of systems awareness. One, which the vast majority of respondents in this group evidenced, is labeled “generativity” because it comes from respondents gaining a sense of progress or small steps toward their goals. For example, in addition to the respondent quoted in the Exhibit, another person stated,

“I was very shy as a child and would tend to be somebody who wouldn’t sort of get involved in crowds. … But I really like being part of an expanded movement or set of movements who are all broadly moving in the same direction. And I think with environmentalism, I think with all of the movements that have cross-cut this sort of space within or outside the sustainability framework I have that sense of space.”

Another, talking about the initiative with which he was associated, noted,

Then it gives me such a kick because I know the idea is alive and kicking]. And it’s these kinds of little observations which really make me so happy, huh? And that give me so much inspiration, huh? And this happens quite often….”

The second type of systems awareness retreat that respondents reported is labeled “interplay of ideas,” which is associated with interacting with many different people, travel, and intellectual pursuits. Perhaps because of the nature of their work’s being embedded in social change and ideas about the system, such interplay provided needed intellectual sustenance to many respondents. Other respondents focus on the centrality of ideas, the vision of change that they had in mind, and small successes along the way as personally sustaining. Their capacity to create or engage in a space to protect, celebrate, and honor their vision for change and progress, typically within a network of like-minded individuals and across a system of institutional entities, can be a vital component of a change agent’s personal sustainability, as the following comments suggest:

“…I really like being part of an expanded movement or set of movements who are all broadly moving in the same direction. And I think with environmentalism, I think with all of the movements that have cross-cut this sort of space within or outside the sustainability framework I have that sense of space.”

“The power of the idea, the maturation, seeing it come to fruition as an idea, as an institution, was incredibly gratifying. I’d do it again in a minute.”

Connection with ideas and movements, with something bigger than self that fosters a sense of greater purpose, seem to be elemental to the inspiration that sustains successful social change agents, helping to provide a context for action and for the generation of new ideas. Following this line of thought, a significant number of participants mentioned intellectual activities that occur around an interplay of ideas as critically important to what “keeps them going,” or what sustains them. To access and activate this multi-relational idea space, many respondents cited the practice of reading. For example, one individual referred to a “strict discipline” for reading, while another talks about being “compulsive” about making time for reading. These respondents read from a wide variety of sources: from mysteries and biographies, to e-newsletters and company reports; from fiction and poetry, to complexity theory; and from histories and political commentary, to best-sellers and newspapers or magazines. The following is illustrative of this sensibility, which provides a distinct space for personal renewal and contemplative activity:

I like to read things which are very different outside of this, you know. A lot of historical stuff, a lot of biographies, but I’m also a very eclectic reader and never can tell where I’m going to find a good idea. And so that very much is a part of what keeps [me sustained] – stokes the mind.”

Not only is reading a source of ideas and inspiration, but interviewees also discuss the importance of making space to engage in stimulating, multi-dimensional conversations with others around ideas. For example, one individual identifies being sustained in his work by taking part in seminars. Similarly, another shared an element of his personal sustainability strategy in terms of engaging in “debate and discussion about the great issues of our time” with a variety of people. This entrepreneur comments:

“I love… getting people together to think about their common interests and needs and resolve some of their issues. So that keeps me going.”

Two other respondents comment on the importance of connecting with others in the field and on their travels as essential to sustaining self:

“I think that the kind of people in the kind of field I work in–you tend to meet, I think, good people on the whole. You tend to meet people in business who want to reach out. People in government who want to also reach out. So you tend to meet people who can think out of the box, are willing to reach out and do something different.”

“I travel an enormous amount, and I like that. I really like parts of it, the stimulation. ... I’m very stimulated by getting outside of who I am. … One of the reasons that I like to travel…is that it forces you to look at your own world very differently. ... So that’s a big part of my world, is getting outside of my skin, and I get a lot of enjoyment and stimulation out of that—question my assumptions, question our assumptions, to think, and to get how other people think.”

The third type of systems awareness, labeled “groundedness” which refers to a sense of connection to reality (Exhibit 3, 2.B.1 in Appendix), seemed to help keep the respondents connected to others in the world whose lives were perhaps not so privileged as theirs. In addition to the quote in the exhibit, another respondent noted,

This thing that I think about is all the disgraced CEO’s of the recent scandals who were essentially robbing shareholders. I know you can’t say anybody did anything until the court said it, but the court has actually found a few of them guilty. And how much is that because they hadn’t ridden the subway for fifteen years? You know. They don’t even have to go through airport security but they can pilot jets everywhere. You know? And what kind of hubris results from living in that glass bubble, you know?

The fourth form of systems awareness was related to the particular kind of “work” that these individuals were doing at the intersection of business in society. As the quote in Exhibit 3.2.B.d in Appendix suggests, there is the recognition that creating understanding among people provides new understandings of reality. Another respondent remarked about the sustaining nature of the work itself that:

It’s very interesting. So I identify with that kind of pragmatic social change tradition.”

In summary, all of the respondents in this study engaged in relational retreats, whether through connections with other people like friends and family or through participation in organized events like seminars or less formally through conversations. Relational retreats enable respondents to draw inspiration and strength by engaging socially and intellectually with people and ideas in these figurative and literal sustaining spaces. Interestingly, two individuals discussed the importance of inviting others, especially nay-sayers – or opponents of a vision for change – to join in a relationship to understand and overcome systemic challenges together. As expressed below, there is a commitment to creating the relational space or interpersonal connection where constructive dialog and idea generation can happen, and that this contributes to the social change agent’s ability to sustain oneself in the face of doubt and obstacles:

“I have a very deep philosophy about human participation. ... And as a leader or a manager, that’s what you have to do. Your job is to invite everybody to participate and then sort out where they go… So when we started off in [the particular initiative], what would happen very often is that people would come and say, ‘You know, this is going to fail. This can’t work. Surely you realize that.’ My response to this, I actually developed it into almost a mini speech that I could play the tape because I had to do it so often…my response when someone came and said, ‘you know, this is probably going to fail. It’s all going to break down.’ I would say, ‘You’re probably right. What we’re doing is very demanding. And there’s a lot of complicated parts to it. I do know that it would be more likely to succeed if we had your engagement in it, because you have some experience, and some skills, and some perspectives that would allow us to avoid making some mistakes. I sense from your question that maybe you’re not quite ready to help us out. But what I would really like to invite you to do, is that if you could figuratively sit in the bleacher here, and keep a very close eye on what we’re doing, and if you have any suggestions and criticisms, send them to me because I want to hear them. And if at any point, you are ready, or you’ve found a spot where you want to make a contribution to this, because you know it will increase the chance that this will succeed, if at any point, you want to step down off the bleacher, let me know, because we’re eager to have you.’”

This type of conversation fosters personal sustainability by actively reducing barriers to the success of the work, as well as by enhancing the possibility for achieving an increasingly shared vision for change. Notably, this individual’s sustaining practice involves creating a kind of metaphorical space, a relational retreat, with which others can choose to engage in order to reflect together on the specific changes that an initiative is addressing.

Systems awareness is a form of relational retreat that connects the respondent to the bigger system of which they are a part. Specifically, strong connections with community or society as well as a commonality of purpose in pursuing a social change agenda are credited by many of the participants in this study as being important, motivating, and sustaining forces (e.g., Dutton and Heaphy 2003; Hayward et al. 2010; Pirson and Lawrence 2010; Spreitzer et al. 2005) in overcoming obstacles and achieving success in their work. Relational retreats inherently involve relationship with other people or with the broader system in which the individual is embedded, which can provide a space for mutual or even public reflection (Raelin 2001). Whereas reflective retreats put the self into relationship with the self, relational retreats put the self directly into relationship with other, whether that is specific others, such as family and friends, mentors, or more generally with other human beings, natural life forms, or systems created by – and often for the benefit of – humanity.

Inspirational Retreats

Inspirational retreats engage an aesthetic sensibility either through engagement with or appreciation of creative activities, the arts (e.g., music), and, sometimes, nature. Inspirational retreats, the least practiced (by less than half of respondents), involve an appreciation of the beauty that underlies art, nature, or systems more broadly, have inspirational or creative qualities, and seem to emerge out of a sense of passion for engaging in such practices. Such retreats are primarily associated with the emotions (heart), with subthemes of spirit/soul. They foster creative resonance and personal passions through work or activity that is done simply out of love.

Inspirational retreats provide opportunity to separate the self from the daily grind and experience beauty, creativity, artistic expression, and new learning. These inspirational retreats appear to have a timeless or flow-like (Csikszentmihalyi 1991) quality that transcends the here and now and links the past with a possible future. This type of retreat seems to have had an important sustaining influence for some of the respondents, but fewer than half described engaging in these types of activities as strategies to keep them going. This finding suggests that such practices, while potentially quite important to some individuals, may not be a primary sustaining factor for successful agents of social change.

Such retreats promote renewal through a connection with beauty, creativity, arts, and learning in a way that is quite different from whatever specific work is being done in the regular work life. Similar to the other major categories of retreats, inspirational retreats create space that is distinctively “away” from work. Although this type of retreat seems to be less common among this sample of successful social change agents, it is a sustaining factor for nearly half of the respondents. Inspirational retreats are often learning spaces associated with some sort of aesthetic appreciation or activity. These practices may be associated with an integration of heart and spirit/soul, as well as with engagement of the mind (and occasional physical activity as well).

In the first type of inspirational retreat – hobbies – respondents seemed to appreciate the challenges that ideas, creativity, or other sources of personal passion and inspiration give them, some of which create space between them and their work and some of which more deeply provoke them in considering their social change efforts. Multiple respondents mentioned activities or hobbies such as musical interests, attention to the arts, and to collecting beautiful or meaningful objects. For example, one individual collects sea glass and dolls-as-art, while another expresses a love of traditional folk music. Others emphasize being a patron of the performing and visual arts, enjoying classical music, singing, painting, the beauty of the underwater (interestingly, two participants were scuba divers), and writing. The importance of being engaged in these types of inspirational practices is framed in another quote:

“Well, I have a great love for contemporary performing and visual arts. And you know to the extent to which I have time, I love being around people engaged in the arts and I love the opportunity to be kind of provoked and inspired by ways that I think only art and performance art can.”

Although this particular individual is not himself an artist, it is clear that the art world provides a source of inspiration that is fulfilling and quite distinct from day-to-day work activities. There is an emotional quality to this comment that speaks of the engagement of the heart that allows for both self-expression and appreciation of the artistic expressions of others.

Another comment highlights how aesthetic sensibility derived from an inspirational retreat can be enriching and sustaining, while simultaneously enhancing understanding about the context of one’s work:

“You know I was in New York City a number of years ago and had some extra time before a meeting, and they were having an exposition on amber. I was about ten inches away from an amber, a beautiful piece of amber, in which there was a small ant that had been captured by the amber, sort of like Jurassic Park, and the little placard said that this piece of amber was discovered wherever it was and that the ant was captured by this approximately 35 million years ago. I thought 35 million years ago, that’s really a long time ago. How long is that? And what really made it seem huge was when I redid the math and realized that the ant had been in the amber for 350 thousand centuries. That really made me feel the scope of things.”

The space created by the inspirational retreat in this quotation is one for reflecting on the entire ecosystem over a long historical span, which helps provide a sense of context and place in the world for this individual.

For many respondents who expressed this aesthetic orientation, simply being out in nature to appreciate beauty, whether scuba diving, walking (also a practice of reflective retreat), or collecting nature-worn objects (e.g., sea glass from beaches), is an important source of inspiration, sustenance, and renewal. One individual, for example, relates the ways in which experiencing a connection to beauty-in-nature helps facilitate personal balance in the following remarks:

“But it’s really – nature gives me the balance. It’s the contemplation of nature and the pleasure in seeing it, really. Nothing is more beautiful than a small mountain creek. I’m kind of obsessed with mountain creeks. It’s the symbol of purity and life renewal and the trout has to be the most beautiful animal. It’s probably a bit too extreme but I’m quite serious about it. There’s nothing more beautiful than walking a creek up some rocky hills.”

Connecting with nature through a variety of practices seems to enhance balance and a sense of fulfillment for many of the social change agents. Linkages among mind, body, heart, and spirit/soul are demonstrated in the following comment by a person who feels a deep sense of fulfillment by observing, appreciating, and connecting with what is beautiful in the world:

“You might call it praying or worshipping or whatever, but I mean actually being somewhere beautiful or just staring at a leaf can be extremely fulfilling. I don’t know what you want to call that.... I call it connection, yeah, connection. Whatever. I mean I see that as a full moon. I suppose it’s me showing reverence toward the world I live in.”

Inspirational retreats evoke a timeless quality and connection to the bigger context in which one exists, emphasizing beauty and other aesthetic qualities. Inspirational retreats provide space for connections to ideas, hobbies, and nature, and temporarily extract the participant from normal work activities and the challenges of social change, and elevate the individual into what is considered a more inspired, or even what some might refer to as sacred, space. Interestingly, three of the individuals who did not identify any particular contemplative practice were engaged in some sort of inspirational practice that functioned in terms of fostering distances from the day-to-day grind of work and challenges and creating space for enlightened thought and reflection (Fig. 1).
Fig. 1

A retreats model of personal sustainability

Limitations and Future Research

While we believe the results of our study to have substantial value in outlining how successful social entrepreneurs sustain themselves and fortify their transformational change efforts through reflective practices, we recognize the limitations of the present study. Because the original data collection was based on a sample of social entrepreneurs gathered for a larger study, the sample size is limited to 23 and only to social change agents who were successful in their endeavors. Future researchers may well want to sample both successful and unsuccessful social entrepreneurs – including those who have worked more from within existing organizational boundaries as opposed to those included who have launched new institutions.

Additionally, future researchers may want to expand the sample for comparative purposes to include conventional entrepreneurs as well as leaders and managers (non-entrepreneurs) in existing businesses and institutions. This would help to determine whether the types of practices we have identified in this sample of successful social entrepreneurs are present (or not) for less successful social change agents, for entrepreneurs in general, or for individuals who are managers and leaders in more conventional organizational settings. Further comparative research could be undertaken with individuals who are successful in particular lines of work in enterprises of different sorts, or are, for example, artists, consultants, or others who work independently of established organizations. These avenues would be generative for further exploring the nuances and salient contexts of this study’s findings, as well as for advancing an understanding of practices that support humanism in management more broadly (e.g., Breabout 2013).

Discussion

In pursuing a humanistic agenda inherent in social enterprise (Pirson 2009), reflective, relational, and inspirational retreats may act like “booster shots” (Sonenshein and Dutton 2009) to keep individual social change agents fortified in the face of challenges inherent in their work (Steckler and Bartunek 2012). Such retreats may also act like vitamins: when taken regularly, they provide ongoing strength and nourishment for what might otherwise be missing from day to day resources. In a sense, these retreats can also be understood to act as a vaccine might over a long period of time to protect social entrepreneurs against the kind of harmful attacks that might otherwise derail them. Like the choice to use vitamins or get a booster shot, engagement with reflective, relational, and inspirational retreats tends to be activated in an effort to bolster oneself when needed. Further, some individuals seem to need more frequent or different types or different mixes of retreats than others to sustain themselves, although all relied on relational retreats to sustain themselves over time.

As we previously suggested, resilience and the ability to avoid burnout might be related to having an integral practice. The results of this study suggest that a full-blown integral practice of concurrent mind, body, heart, and spirit/soul activities (Wilber et al. 2008) may not be necessary to sustain oneself through challenging work endeavors, at least in the case of these social entrepreneurs. Most participants engaged in specific practices that allow for aspects of “self” to be expressed, reflected upon, and cared for in different ways — whether through contemplative mindfulness, spiritual, or religious practices, or through physical practices that create space for reflection (all but two respondents used at least one of these approaches). Notably, all of the respondents noted the importance of relational retreats, in terms of connectedness with “other” and an understanding of the broader social system, for sustaining oneself over time. In parallel, this suggests that tending to heart and mind may be particularly important for sustaining social entrepreneurs over time – and in parallel for advancing the characteristic holistic values of “genuine humanism” such as wholeness, comprehensive knowledge, dignity for humans, development, the common good, transcendence, and an emphasis on stewardship and sustainability (Melé 2016) – because of the complexity and challenges inherent in their work. Finally, nearly half of the respondents engaged in various forms of inspirational retreats, which were often associated with the arts or other aesthetic (“beauty”) appreciation.

So what does the use of retreats, even if not deployed as the deliberate form of integral practice as articulated by Wilber et al. (2008) and Leonard & Murphy (1995, Leonard and Murphy 1995), suggest about the ability of social change agents – in addition to other organizational actors who must routinely overcome adversity to achieve work outcomes – to sustain themselves and their work effort through difficulty? We argue that cultivating such retreats in the form of a variety of reflective, relational, and inspirational practices is essential for enhancing personal well-being and sustaining oneself through challenging work-related activities over time. In particular, relational retreats appear to have helped study participants become more aware of, sensitive to, and engaged with “other” or others, including human- and systems-considerations more broadly. In this study, relational retreats were of paramount importance to the personal sustainability of successful social entrepreneurs. All participants relied on sustenance from relationships with others and in connecting with systemic or big picture issues, often in ways that informed and provided a sense of relevance and importance about the work itself.

Insights from this research further suggest that in addition to relational retreats, reflective and inspirational retreats also serve as important holding spaces for meditative, spiritual, religious, physical, or artistic practices that successful social changes agents may be likely to use to sustain themselves and create positive and meaningful understandings of their work (c.f., Jordan et al. 2009; Crilly et al. 2008) over time. The social entrepreneurs in this study experienced the need for such space to clear their thoughts, facilitate other ways of viewing the world and themselves, and find new sources of inspiration. Importantly, the specific retreats practices cultivated by participants were as unique as the individuals themselves. Finally, perhaps more so than for other actors in traditional economic market oriented work settings, social change agents – whose work is fundamentally tied to fostering the well-being of others (Pirson 2009) – are likely to be inspired, strengthened, and sustained by the nature of the work itself (see also, Dutton and Heaphy 2003; Clifton and Harter 2003; Spreitzer et al. 2005),

We speculate that self-sustaining outcomes of cultivating relational, reflective, and inspirational retreats could generalize to other types of entrepreneurs as well as to organizational actors more broadly, however additional research with different participant samples will be necessary to make that determination. In drawing attention to the experiences of individuals who have successfully stewarded social enterprise initiatives we provide a window into a set of critical components that both shape and sustain the considerable effort needed to effect significant social change over long periods of time.

Conclusion

This study provides a framework of different types of retreats that successful change agents – drivers of humanistic transformation –can leverage to boost their resilience and sustain themselves and their work efforts over time. The social entrepreneurs in this study fortified themselves and their work through periodic reflective, relational, and inspirational retreats. Retreats provide space for individuals to engage reflective self-awareness, relational connectedness with others or systems, and inspirational qualities of creativity, art, or nature through a range of different practices that provide renewal, regeneration, and replenishment. Such spaces are particularly important for individuals facing significant challenges in achieving desired work outcomes, as social change agents frequently do. Findings from this study suggest that there is no “one size fits all” prescription for developing personal sustainability; however, cultivating some form of relational retreat appears necessary based on the experience of the successful social change agents we studied. The use of reflective and inspirational retreats is also prevalent among these individuals.

The main insight from this research is that social change agents should deliberately distance themselves – take retreats – from their innovative and obstacle-fraught work endeavors for at least short durations to enhance their capacity for sustaining vision and supporting their transformational change efforts over time. We suspect that most individuals would benefit from these types of retreats to sustain themselves and their work efforts over time. By extension, we anticipate the retreats framework that emerged from this study has broad application to the well-being, work success, and values-based contributions of individuals across a variety of organizational and organizing contexts. The nuances with which these findings might relate to other kinds of entrepreneurs or to individuals across organizational contexts more broadly remains a task for future research. Overall, retreats foster personal sustainability and ultimately support transformational impact in terms of recharging the individual and refreshing the work effort by providing new perspectives, renewing relationships, and creating different understandings and novel insights that come from the distance imposed by stepping, even if momentarily, beyond oneself and one’s work.

Notes

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

On behalf of all authors, the corresponding author states that there is no conflict of interest.

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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Manning School of BusinessUniversity of Massachusetts LowellLowellUSA
  2. 2.Carroll School of ManagementBoston CollegeChestnut HillUSA

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