There is nothing that makes you NEED to deal with your junk as much as being a leader. Whether it is in your family, an organization, a team, a business, or a small group, there are various ways we lead. It is fun to start something, but getting into the midst and dealing with people and maturity–that’s where the hard work begins. When you see what is being duplicated from your leadership…it can be disheartening if you are not living and leading in awareness and growing in maturity.
From our earliest days, we experience being led. I was a pleaser and wanted to be a good part of the class, choir, etc. Generally, I was in a very safe environment with people who cared about my best interest. In my 40s, I just realized the ongoing tape in my head as a child became “do not disappoint people.” Leaders loved me–ha. However, that is not a healthy narrative to be building my life upon. Seriously–it is quite a dangerous standard to be working toward setting up some really unhealthy patterns in life, leadership, and relationships. I did not know how to draw boundaries. This is the reason I am passionate about helping my children and those I lead in teams to learn that boundaries are good and healthy.
Lessons in Leadership:
At my first school counseling job at 26, I was in an urban school where there were 950 kids with more needs than I could fathom. I walked into that job with a calling to serve, to minister, and to help. From day one, I took ownership, and I wanted to be helpful to teachers, students, and families. Adrenaline pumped high every day as I walked into the building and triaged many situations and people. I could tell you some unbelievable stories as I am sure you could from your experiences. There was NOTHING boring or mundane about that job.
Spoiler alert: I burnt out. I worked with someone who was tired and did the minimum, and I tended to overcompensate for him. In the first year, I was asked to lead the whole school’s reaccreditation, and I said yes because “don’t disappoint!” Every day there was a special case and a child in need to consider, and I was drowning. I remember the very day that I was examining a student record in the record’s closet when a special ed supervisor from downtown confronted me about a boundary I made with these words–“I thought you were on the side of the kids–you really disappointed me.” You can understand why that moment is clear in my mind to this day. It was the first moment I started to practice having a voice. I said, “I’m sorry, but I cannot do it all and do it well. Others have to be held accountable to stand up and take ownership.” The glowing reviews she used to give me abruptly stopped, and she had no use for me anymore. In that moment, I noted that I did not want to be a leader that leveraged guilt and pressure in an attempt to control people. I walked away from that job burnt out with nothing left.
In the summer of 2003, I began leading a group of young college women. Tuesday nights in my home were a learning lab for leadership and love. I learned to lead out shaping curriculum and offering a vulnerable place for questioning and sharing. Questioning and sharing are messy and unpredictable and require flexibility and courage. My skills improved over time as they started very shaky. Prior to this, conflict was a four letter word to my “never disappoint” soul. I believed the lie that I could perform my way out of it, and this group was a place where real relationships were happening–thus conflict could not be escaped. We had to learn to deal with one another in truth and grace instead of pretending it was okay or just ditching the relationships.
In my limited experience leading groups before, It was never long term, and That tends to keep vulnerability to a minimum. With the learned mantra of “never disappoint,” it was not safe to be vulnerable. However, disappointment was part of the program because I could not be enough for everyone, nor should I be. (and because I did not know what I was doing!) The less it became “about me,” and more it became about them there was the power of group members befriending and experiencing one another separate from my relationship with them. That was a win that I want in every organization I lead. I learned the joys of leading through transitions. Saying goodbye is never easy, but, again, I learned it was not about me. Our group grew deeper as I learned not to be afraid to ask for commitment and to draw boundaries. It felt risky, but it proved to be a wise decision.
This relational learning was not from a book or a manual. It was an experience in perseverance by showing up week in and week out when I was stressed and tired. When there is no one to defer to…its an opportunity to practice follow through. I made mistakes, and I was shown gracious love in the midst. That group ended 11 years ago, and it was heartbreaking to let them go. I believe we all walked to the other side as different people.
What have I discovered about leaders? An organization will take on the healthy or unhealthy concept of the leader. All of us have our junk–every.single.one.of.us. The more self-aware we are, the more we can grow into more healthy patterns of leadership. It takes humility and teachability to be a healthy leader…and I will follow the humble so much more readily. I can sniff out insecure in a leader. From my experience, it always ends up being all about that person, their power, their fear, and their patterns and not the best of the organization.
Leadership creates culture, and I long to be in healthy thriving cultures. Are their patterns of fear, control, and shame in the culture? Is there a culture of collaboration, vulnerability, and empowerment? Is it a culture where mistakes are feared or where it is safe to try new ideas? I have experienced both as an employee and as part of organizations. I have also felt the pull of both when leading others.
The journey never ends in growth as a leader, and it is important to keep our hearts and heads in check. Is there vulnerability and transparency or is there control and a preferred narrative? Is their empowerment or micromanagement? What is the pattern of our leadership bringing within our homes, organizations, ministries, and businesses?
What have been your lessons in leadership?