Walk a Mile

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NaBloPoMo 2018:  What I’m Learning

These last 5 years, I have had the privilege of caring for designated leaders of all kinds—business leaders who also lead their families, their faith communities, their professional societies, and myriad other entities. I have studied and presented on the intersection of health and leadership, the reciprocal relationships between self-care and care of others.  Each day I ask probing questions of my patients’ habits of thought and action, and they answer with honesty and candor.  It’s particularly fulfilling when I hear, “Huh, that’s a good question, I’ve never thought of that before.”  In those moments, I feel I bring value beyond interpreting blood pressure and cholesterol results.

I’ve been interested in leadership for a long time, and had opportunities to lead in various small ways through the years.  In January 2018, I was given a more visible title and designation than I had ever had—YIKES.  I was surprised and unsuspecting, though not totally unprepared.  And, like parenting, nothing can quite prepare you fully for the experience.  I spoke to a leader in my organization about a year ago, who expressed loneliness in his position.  I admit that I half dismissed the idea, thinking there should just be a way to balance collegial, friendly, and leader-led relationships.  I think I was about a week into my new role when I fully, viscerally, understood his perspective and humbly admitted my own loneliness.  I felt guilty and a little ashamed for my reflexive disregard for his confession of vulnerability—because even if I did not fully dismiss his experience, I did judge it.  And that speaks more to my own fear of loneliness and isolation than it says anything about him.

Thankfully, I did not wallow in guilt or shame for long.  “How fascinating,” I thought.  Being judgmental like that is not consistent with my core values.  These ten months have been a practice in navigating and managing that loneliness—cultivating relationships in new ways to maintain connection while simultaneously practicing the required discretion in information sharing.  Often I have felt profound humility (and now more embarrassment than shame) at how I thought I knew so much about effective leadership, mostly from the point of view of being led, and only sometimes as a leader myself.

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This fall Brené Brown saved me from further self-flagellation over my lack of skills and understanding of what it takes to be a good leader.  The thing I admire most about her is how she walks the talk of vulnerability and courage.  She shares her mistakes, missteps, and learnings so openly, and anyone who reads her books or sees her presentations gets to profit from it all.  I will always remember where I was, because I laughed out loud in sheer relief, when I heard her read from her latest book, Dare to Lead:

Over the past five years, I’ve transitioned from research professor to research professor and founder and CEO.  The first hard and humbling lesson?  Regardless of the complexity of the concepts, studying leadership is way easier than leading.

When I think about my personal experiences with leading over the past few years, the only endeavors that have required the same level of self-awareness and equally high-level ‘comms plans’ are being married for twenty-four years and parenting.  And that’s saying something.  I completely underestimated the pull on my emotional bandwidth, the sheer determination it takes to stay calm under pressure, and the weight of continuous problem solving and decision making.  Oh, yeah—and the sleepless nights.

I thought, well, if Brené Brown still had stuff to learn after assuming a new leadership role, then I’m doing okay!  I am both freed from self-imposed, unrealistic expectations of perfection, and also still responsible for continuing to practice self-awareness, humility, and honesty.

I have learned to look harder at the cynical stories I tell about my leaders, and seek to understand better the divergent and competing interests they must balance every day.  I can withhold judgment of their motivations until I have more information, and if I’m not entitled to all the information, I can decide how much I trust my leaders to act in my best interests, or at least in the best interests of the organization.  I can hold myself accountable to my own standards of honesty, candor, and integrity.  I can ask and challenge, inquire and resist (or accommodate), all with curiosity and respect, and making the most generous possible assumptions of others.

How lucky am I to have this remarkable learning opportunity?  To practice the skills I have observed, admired, and studied in others for so long, to own them.  I have walked a mile in these new shoes.  I have a few shallow blisters for the journey so far.  But the shoes are the right size, and the leather is softening.  I’m still feeling fit.  The path will wind and climb, and that’s okay.  I don’t walk alone; I have mentors and role models walking ahead and by my side.  So bring it!  We’ got this.

I Hereby Commit to NaBloPoMo 2017! Day 1: Shitty First Drafts

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2015 November Gratitude Shorts

2016 Letters to Patients

2017 Field Notes from a Life in Medicine

Day 1:  Shitty First Drafts

I first heard this concept listening to Brené Brown’s book Rising Strong.  It refers to Anne Lamott’s writing process, described in her book Bird By Bird.  Brown uses it as a way to work through strong emotions.  When something hard happens, intense emotions can get the best of us.  Anger, resentment, defensiveness, judgment, shame, and a multitude of other difficult feelings can overcome our senses.  How can we keep from getting sucked into a raging emotional vortex, dragging others along with us?

Write a Shitty First Draft, or SFD for short.  I have done this a few times recently.  I take a pen and paper and let loose.  I vent, rant, SWEAR IN ALL CAPS, draw angry faces, scrawl everything I feel, with total abandon.  This is the first, most subjective and raw version of the story I just experienced.  Man, it feels good, documenting everything from this (self-)righteous point of view!  But it doesn’t stop there.  Sometime later—whenever I’m ready, I return to the SFD to edit and revise.  Curiosity is key here.  What other versions are also plausible?  What am I missing from the other side(s)?  What other story will allow me to suffer less?  What makes me so attached to the SFD?  What core value has been violated here?  What is the most generous assumption I can make about the other people involved? I also learned that last one from my girl B2.

Turns out some SFDs are easier to edit than others.  Seems it depends on the circumstances, relationships, and (inter)personal stakes involved.  In the end, though, it’s well worth the effort.  I realized it this week and posted a musing on Facebook, and my friend offered me a chance to expound:

“CC: Curiosity, Transparency, Integrity, and Openness are saving me right now.

“Friend: I’m glad they are but curious to know how they are?

“CC: They are keeping me focused on the best and most meaningful contribution I can make to the team. As more moving parts get added to the process, I can stand on these practices to respond effectively. In the end, regardless of the project outcome, hopefully I can look back and know that I have very little to regret. …And if I do regret anything, hopefully I will have at least also learned some valuable lessons.”

The more I practice my SFDs, the sooner I can get to healthier iterations of my life stories—ones that allow for forgiveness, equanimity, gentleness (on myself and others), and inner peace.  I used to secretly berate myself for not getting to the peace part faster, easier, more efficiently.  But now I know, the healthiest way out of the shitty feelings is straight through.  The Shitty First Draft is the perfect vehicle for getting to the other side, and I get to drive every time.