Tuesday, July 18, 2017

A Longish Post about Leadership

Beginning in middle school, I found myself on the “leadership track.” If there was an event or workshop designed to build leadership skills, I was invited to participate. In the 80s and 90s, the leadership being emphasized was the kind that put the leader front and center. It would take awhile for me to experience the power and value of a quiet, steady, behind-the-scenes kind of leadership. And even longer for me to recognize that that was the kind of leadership that I embodied.

I remember a few coveted leadership opportunities being given to other people. At the time, I was disappointed and confused about being overlooked. Wasn't this what I'd been primed for? What was wrong with me? What could I have done better to achieve this role?

Now I see the value (and good fortune) in those perceived losses. So often we learn far more from the nos than from the yeses. What I now understand is that another narrative was being written, and it would take some time, life experience, and perspective for me to recognize and appreciate the other story.

I stood on the edge of the stage in my high school auditorium. I was small in the cavernous, ornate space. The other teenagers attending the auditions seated in velvet seats beyond the stage were acquaintances. I didn't know yet they would soon become good friends. I had never auditioned for a musical. I could carry a tune, but could the director hear my voice over my nerves? They took center stage as my voice quivered and registered low in volume.

Days later those same teens gathered around the orange stage door where the cast list was posted. I was in! I was a nameless member of the chorus. Play practices dominated my after school schedule, and I quickly realized this nameless role was perfect for me: I could sing, dance, and enjoy the camaraderie of my cast mates without the pressure of memorizing tons of dialogue. From my marked spot on stage, I saw how the dedication of the chorus formed the backbone of the whole production.
I noted the times when the members of the cast—basking in the glory of their leading roles—weren't prepared. They stumbled over their lines. They couldn't get the timing of their solos. They tripped over the choreography. They relied on their natural talent assuming it would take the place of hard work or repetition. The director scolded them for these lapses, scratching his balding head. Why does the chorus have the choreography down? Why can we run through their songs without interruption?
Arriving at practice prepared and taking my behind-the-action work seriously was a form of leadership.

I bundled up in head-to-boots winter wear intended to keep out the cold. Shoulders up to my ears, I stretched my mittened hands over the open fire burning in the metal drum. I was a junior in college, vice president of the group forming a campus chapter of Habitat 4 Humanity. On this frigid Iowa night in November weeks before finals, we abandoned our studies and recreated a homeless night in the cold. It was intended as a lesson in appreciation and a reminder of what Habitat 4 Humanity was working to eliminate. Toes tingled with penetrating cold. We snuggled close to friends inside the shelter of a cardboard box. Some slept, others merely rested. The discomfort was bearable since hot showers, clean clothes, and warm breakfasts would greet us with the morning sun.

From cardboard shelters on snowy ground to planning meetings in the warmth of a conference room, this service work engaged my head and heart. I was a motivated, vital member of the chapter. I had ideas and knew how to implement them beside the other board members. I found my groove; I was in a leadership position, but in a supporting role to the president.

My senior year I ascended to president of the chapter. I missed the members who had graduated. We were still an active group, but something felt different. I was overwhelmed by my role as president. I didn't feel as effective as I had the year before. It wasn't that I was incapable of leading or didn't want the responsibility. While no one suggested that I performed poorly, I knew I was far more effective in the support role than I was as the figurehead. It was a gut feeling. And it struck me as an important thing to take with me as I graduated.

This behind-the-scenes leadership has taken me into adulthood. My day job entails writing gift acknowledgments for medical school executives. I write the letters, and other people sign them. The only visible mark of my work is the lower case initials that follow the upper case initials at the bottom of each printed letter. But the powers-that-be trust my judgment and the power I wield with words. I am often consulted on how to approach the delicate nature of donor relations using well- crafted words.

In a politically charged environment, I am finding my footing as a novice activist. I am working to figure out how to best use my voice and my energy to advocate for those who are voiceless and for causes that honor all of humanity, not simply a segment of the privileged few. I often have found myself overwhelmed and disappointed that I am not doing more. As I navigate this uncharted territory, I am reminded that it takes all kinds of temperaments and personalities to achieve great things. And so, I return to my strengths: calm under pressure, quiet confidence, empathic awareness of the needs of people around me, solution oriented, and optimism. I live and lead from those places, and I am certain I can make a positive impact. 
I have been a witness to transformation in the lives of two little boys. My friends have devoted months to training, home preparation, and heart and soul exploration to become foster parents. Shortly after their credentials were finalized, two young brothers were placed in their care. When we first met these children, they were shy and scared. Under the loving, firm, and consistent parenting of my friends, these precious boys have blossomed. They smile often. Their eyes twinkle. They run straight into my arms and shout my name with each visit. 
I am certain that I could not do what my friends have done. Theirs is the front and center leadership that does not come natural to me. But I have also learned that foster parents need supportive safety nets and safe places to share and recharge from the intensity of the parenting and advocating they do on behalf of these children. I can be the soft place for this family to land by babysitting, active listening, and checking in via text. I can be a member of the village that supports these children, and I am proud to do it. 
This post has taken me months to write. I struggled with questions. By asserting that I'm a behind-the-scenes leader, was I selling myself short? Was I falling for a message spoon fed to women that promotes fading into the background?

I marinated in these questions waiting for answers, to better understand what I was working to articulate. I've given a lot of thought to who I have become in the past two years. I am a vastly different woman. I trust myself more than I ever have. I listen attentively to what guidance my gut offers when I ask her for clarity. This quote from Martha Beck appeared in my email in-box one day a few months ago. It comforted me and reinforced what I've been working out in this post.

We typically think of leadership as a “superior” dominating the behavior of an “inferior.” That is not the kind of leadership that will help the Team, or save the world. Part of the transformation of human consciousness is understanding that we can lead from any social or economic position, if we access our power to direct our own thinking, make our own choices, and respond to our own sense of right and wrong.” 

I better understand that I will continue to grow and evolve. Perhaps someday life will call me to things that today seem unlikely or impossible. But if that doesn't happen, I feel confident and competent to express myself and lead in the ways that I have cultivated since I was a child.
Among the many differences in me over the past two years is the fact that I now direct my own thinking, I make my own choices, and I respond to my own sense of right and wrong. I also trust myself and honor the spaces I am leaving behind, the new ones I am living into, and the liminal spaces in between. I have heard repeatedly as I blog about the hard places, as I check off items from my bucket list, and live into my new life that I inspire people. I am surprised by this every time I hear it, but I also understand. By living truthfully and openly, I create space for others to do the same for themselves on their own terms and timelines. 
It's appropriate that I end this leadership post with the words of one of the presidents whose biographies I have read. His words encourage me to continue accepting the quiet role of leadership that comes naturally to me.

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”                                                                                    

                                                                                             - John Quincy Adams


  1. Extending the points you've articulated so we'll above: in addition to individuals learning how to live and lead from their giftedness, organizations need to learn how to value and develop the "other" types of leaders needed to make a team effective.

    Also, I've had a copy of that John Quincy Adams quote clipped from a newspaper and carried in my wallet since 2012. It shares a slot with my library card so that it is seen regularly.

  2. I am so grateful for your readership and commenting, Kevin! So great to spend time with you last weekend. Hope you've settled back into non-reunion life!

  3. Then, I too, am a leader. Behind the scenes but nevertheless, PRESENT.