The Legacy of a Friend, Now Sadly Gone

Just before Christmas I lost a friend and mentor. My heart continues to mourn, just as my head continues to be filled with her thoughts and ideas.

She left us far too suddenly.

Brenda Zimmerman Ellis was an amazing woman, as all the tributes to her have attested. She was so important to my own intellectual and professional journey that it’s hard to put a measure on it.

I met Brenda in 1999 in Philadelphia, at a day-long symposium on complexity theory and health care. The session was part of a larger conference on leadership, hosted by the VHA (Volunteer Hospital Association). The VHA, under the leadership of Kurt Lindberg, was engaged in a three-year exploration of complexity theory and its implications for health care leadership. Brenda was one of their thought leaders.

I’d been exploring some of these ideas on my own for years, but the VHA was my first opportunity to interact with a large group of like-minded people.

It was spellbinding. 

Brenda helped bring my fuzzy thinking into sharp focus. She encouraged me to really experiment with some of the ideas in my role as VP of Organization Development at a large hospital in Toronto.

In the following years, we met occasionally for lunch and exchanged ideas and experiences. Her patience never ceased to amaze me. She was infinitely wise and I wanted so much to be part of her intellectual world, but the gap felt enormous.

Five years ago, as I was beginning to work on my doctoral dissertation, I fell under Brenda’s formal mentorship. I was exploring a deeper understanding of organizational factors that facilitate emergent change: a characteristic of complex, adaptive systems.  I was working on the literature review, which was a massive undertaking.

Brenda was my mentor.

At one point, when I thought that I had something worth reading, I sent it to her and then arranged to meet to discuss my work. I remember I had a brutal cold that day and nothing was really penetrating my thick head – which turned out to be a blessing.

As I sat down, I saw my pages in front of Brenda. They were clearly well read and covered with notes and comments.

She opened up by saying, “Peter, you have a choice to make. Do you want to write like a consultant or do you want to write like an academic?”

“No question, I want to write like an academic,” I replied, no doubt dreaming of seeing my name in scholarly journals and on the cover of books – just like Brenda.

She looked down at the pages and said, “Well in that that case, this is just crap!”

She then proceeded to go through my doctoral dissertation page by page, pointing out my errors of logic, structure and even citation. It was brutal hour, fortunately dulled by my head cold.

It was also the most important hour of my academic career.

It forced me to re-evaluate fundamental questions of competence. I was no spring chicken at the time and Brenda was four years younger than me. But as they say, she took me out behind the woodshed that day.

Having been completely humbled, I learned to think and write in a profoundly different way.

That same year, Brenda asked my partner Marion Howell and I to be part of an amazing physician leadership development program that she had developed for the Canadian and Ontario Medical Associations, under the banner of the Schulich Executive Education Centre. We were asked to come on board as coaches.

This was a real stretch for me.

Up to that point Marion had been the coach in our practice; I prefer to be at the front of the room or at my desk writing.

As we walked to Brenda’s house to meet with her and Brian, her husband and the lead coach, I had decided to withdraw my name. However, from the moment we arrived, it was clear that this hasty retreat was not happening.  Those who know Brenda know that you don’t say no to Brenda – especially if you have already said yes.

So, I jumped in and found my own way to add value.

During the third cohort, Brenda asked me to take on a small piece of teaching and I was right back in my happy place. It continues to be an amazing learning experience that I would not trade for the world.

We were all devastated when Brian died suddenly just before the end of the first cohort, just as we’ve now lost Brenda in the middle of the fifth. Now, with her gone, I feel this incredible privilege and challenge of living up to her legacy and her wisdom as I likely will take on more of the teaching on complexity.

Brenda, I promise you, I will honor you in whatever I do.

I have to, because you poured so much of what I know directly into me with such generosity.


Courtesy: Waterloo Institute for Social Innovation and Resilience

A friend of mine sent me a note this morning. Dr. Jon Johnsen, a family physician in Thunder Bay, was in the early cohort and I was his coach. We soon realized we were brothers in Christ and became close friends. In his letter Jon wrote:
As I reflected [on Brenda’s passing] I recalled the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Hebrews (12:1) regarding the cloud of witnesses. It brought a smile to my face as God connected the dots in my head and I audibly said to Brenda: ‘Welcome to the cloud!’ The lessons these people gave us, and continue to give us, last forever in the cloud. I’m honored to have been able to include Brenda in my cloud.

What a lovely way to remember her.

Brenda knew that I was deeply committed to both my work around complexity and the health care system and my passion to bring these same ideas to the Church. My colleague Gary Nelson and I will soon have a book out called Leading in Disorienting Times: Navigating Church and Organizational Change. Brenda wrote the forward to the book, which is now doubly meaningful to me.

It saddens me that we didn’t have more opportunities to talk about faith in the context of complexity, emergent change, and self-organization. Either I was too shy or she wanted to maintain some boundaries, but for whatever reason we seldom crossed over from one field to the other.

I wish we had.

But given that lack, I am more determined than ever to open up the conversation and to apply what my friend has taught me to a richer understanding of the presence of the Kingdom and the Mission of God.



Peter_bio2Peter Dickens
Peter Dickens is passionate about leadership and change. He helps people and organizations that serve others to revitalize their leadership and ministry at Follow Peter on Twitter (@Dr_PeterDickens).

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