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.

Incomplete Thoughts on Suicide

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Not selfish

Not thoughtless

Simply belief beyond shadow that no one will mourn you, people will be better off without you

Unimaginable for those who have not lived it

Most who try once don’t try again

So better to keep guns away

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One of my high school classmates killed himself when we were seniors.  He shot himself in the head at home.  He was the vice president of our Students Against Driving Drunk chapter (I was president).  He was a member of the National Honor Society.  He was well-liked, always friendly, generous, smiling, encouraging.  He was a nerd, and so was I, so I thought nothing of it.  I did not know him well, and I never asked him about his life, that I recall.  I have no idea whether he was bullied or what drove him to take his own life.

The morning we found out, our calculus teacher had to sit down in the middle of the lesson. She was overcome.  One of my other classmates got up and hugged her.  She had more presence of mind than I.  I can’t remember if it was that moment or later, or if it was our teacher or someone else altogether, who said something like suicide is ultimately a selfish act.  That it was inconsistent with our classmate’s character to cause so many people so much pain.  That if he had known how much he would hurt people by this act, he never would have done it.  I can’t say I had thought anything about suicide before then, and I have probably not thought enough about it since, but her words stuck with me.  I’m not sure I would have ever come to this conclusion.

The way I understand (think I understand) it today, suicidality is such dark state, a place so far removed from where we connect with our true selves and others, including (especially?) loved ones, that people really do believe that everybody else will be better off without them, that there is nothing worth living for.  I cannot fathom that kind of disconnection and loneliness.  It feels almost too scary to even contemplate.  I feel totally incompetent to address this kind of pain and suffering.

I saw this video recently and it moved me.  A young man jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge and survived; he tells his story of instant regret for the attempt, and gratitude to be alive.

I pray tonight that if anyone in my circle is feeling suicidal, I may say or do something to help them know they are loved, wanted, and connected, and to keep them with us long enough to get help.