Sunday, April 14, 2013

Setting the Right Tony


Last weekend, at FIC's spring organizational meetings in Prescott AZ, Tony Sirna (leaning against the railing in the middle of the image above, schmoozing with Amanda Creighton and Jack Strasburg) declined to re-up for another three-year Board term. 

That means that at our next set of organizational meetings this fall, we will not have Tony in the room for the first time since the spring of 1995. Tony was only 23 years old when he showed up for his first organizational meeting, and served as a volunteer to help keep track of book sales. At the time, his forming community, Dancing Rabbit, was renting a house in Berkeley and was still two years away from buying land in northeast Missouri. Yikes! 

While 17 years on the Board makes him second only to Harvey Baker for the obscure honor of most years in harness, Tony will be sorely missed for much more than his trenchant and insightful comments about Board matters. Though the camera caught him in an uncovered moment above, Tony has worn so many FIC hats over the years that he's rubbed his pate smooth in the steady need to shifting chapeaus—all of which bear feathers marking his estimable contributions. Here are some highlights:

Finance Manager
Right from the beginning of his tenure, Tony labored to put our financial house in order, computerizing our accounting system (using QuickBooks) and establishing a standard for financial reporting and concise analysis that we've relied on ever since. While this skill is not rare, FIC finances are complex and the organization faces the unenviable task of filling rather large shoes in manifesting a new CFO of comparable quality.

Web Manager
From the standpoint of hours spent in devotion to the cause, by far the largest claim on Tony's FIC time has been as manager of our family of websites. This work was pioneered by Elph Morgan & Jillian Downey (who were prescient enough about the future importance of web-based services to have secured a two-letter domain name for FIC in 1994) and Tony took over the helm from them around 2001-02. He managed this crucial area for a decade, until he handed over the wheel to Susan Sloan last year.

Under Tony's guidance, the web became the #1 medium for public interface with FIC, and he oversaw the release, in 2004, of our Directory of intentional communities as a free, searchable, online database (which is currently viewed by more than 2000 unique visitors every day, each requesting an average of seven pages). We now have a team of four people trying to replace him.

Communities Directory Editor
Twice Tony served as Managing Editor of the book version of Communities Directory (for the 2005 and 2007 editions), and he was the main technical support for the 2010 effort as well. Each book takes more than a year to produce and represents a massive logistical effort—not the least of which is determining with sensitivity what it means when a group does not respond to our invitation to update or affirm the accuracy of their old listing.

Silence can mean many things. Is the group dead, dying, disbanded, dispirited (tired of responding to naive inquiries from strangers), distracted, disorganized (no one left who has the energy to respond to inquiries), demonized (by a wider society that doesn't understand or approve of their choices, causing them to hunker down and drop below the radar), disgruntled, defensive (weary of being misunderstood), demonstrably happy (and not looking for new members or attention), or just plain dumb (as in not speaking)? Who can be sure if they even received the message? I'm telling you, it's a booger.

ERB Member
Tony served steadfastly as a member of our three-person Editorial Review Board from 2000 to 2012. This group mainly labors behind the scenes to make sure there isn't a scene when something goes out in public under our flag. Think of it as a group of firefighters who typically doesn't get called in unless something heats up. Occasionally it means putting out a fire, though more often it's to advise on the least incendiary way to proceed without smothering information.

FIC does not try to duck controversy, yet neither does it try to court it. The ERB is asked to safeguard the FIC's core value of promoting cooperative culture while being even-handed in collecting and displaying information about what group's stand for. It's a dance between transparency and discretion and it doesn't mean everyone will like your moves.
• • •
Now take into account that everything that Tony did above was a sideline. By far, his main work the last 17 years has been to create and nurture the development of Dancing Rabbit. In fact, he's stepping down now from active Fellowship involvement not because he no longer cares about our mission, or is too old to do the work (he'll only be 41 in May); rather it's because DR is at a crucial stage in its development as a model ecovillage, and he wants to give all of his attention to the attempt to successfully navigate the difficult transition from cohesive community to thriving, eclectic village.

Understandably, Tony wants Dancing Rabbit to make a difference in the world and he sees the potential of offering an example of how to create sustainable, village-scale culture from scratch that doesn't rely on residents having at least a six-digit grubstake to get in the door. He's reaching for a large and lofty goal and I wholly support him in that effort.

Make no mistake about it, DR is an important experiment and I fully respect Tony's choice—even as I'm personally disappointed to lose my friend as an active partner in the Fellowship's equally important mission to foster the development of cooperative culture.

One the most amazing things about Tony is his commitment to trying to be an example of healthy leadership in a cooperative setting. He's exceptionally talented in the art of making complex topics accessible to a lay audience. He listens carefully, has the emotional capacity to work sensitively in the presence of strong energy, is brilliant at balancing perspectives, and has his ego firmly under control. He works tirelessly backstage to address concerns and open up the flower of dialog that would generally be too delicate to withstand the harsh light of plenary debate. In short, Tony gives way more than he takes, and most people know only a fraction of what he does. 

While he's mostly respected and beloved at home, that attitude is not universal and he fields a near-constant stream of minority criticism as a powerful person who's motivations for being such are considered prima facie evidence of poor ego management. (Unfortunately, we have a long way to go yet in understanding the healthy uses of power and leadership in cooperative culture, and the pathfinders in this effort are taking a lot of arrows.)

For all of the laurels I've heaped upon Tony's bald head, he isn't Superman. He can be broody, and is often impatient with slow thinkers, victims, the short-sighted, & whiners. He fidgets in meetings that aren't moving productively, and tends to keep a lid on his emotional reactions until they boil over (which is no fun to be scalded by). Still, taken all together, I think Tony is as good an example I know of someone who has devoted himself to positive social change and cooperative leadership without taking his foot off the gas. The world needs a lot more Tonys and I'm proud to have him as a friend and confidant.

While I'll miss him in FIC, there's no need to close the door on the possibility of his returning down the road, and I have every confidence that I'll meanwhile still have access to my compatriot for informal consultation.

I take solace in the fact that: a) Tony lives only three miles away from me at Sandhill; b) I visit DR a lot because my wife, Ma'ikwe, lives there; and c) we're in the process of raising money to build a permanent FIC Green Office on the second story of Dancing Rabbit's new common house. Thus, I prefer to view this change in Tony's relationship to FIC as a shift more than a departure. 

It's all about setting the right tone Tony.

No comments: