Me, too

It’s been two weeks since my social media feeds were overtaken by the hashtag #metoo. As hard as it has been for me to read articles about sexual harassment and abuse perpetrated by and against strangers, it was so much harder seeing friends, relatives and colleagues shine a light on their own pain. I watched quietly, knowing that I had my own story and wondering if any good would come from sharing it. And, more importantly, whether I would be brave enough to bring the words to life.

Two weeks later, the answer is yes.

Unlike many of the women who have come forward, I have not experienced sexual harassment in my career. For nearly 20 years I have worked in male-dominated functions in male-dominated companies. Now, as an executive, I am routinely the only woman at the table. I have worked long hours in empty office buildings and traveled regularly where it would have been easy for someone to use their power to harm me. They haven’t. Yes, I’ve worked with my share of power-hungry jerks, but they were equal opportunity in their actions. They treated men and women badly and, as far as I can tell, never for sex.

I’ve had long moments of reflection on my own good fortune in this regard. When I am feeling self-conscious of my appearance, I wonder if I am simply not an attractive enough target. When I am feeling strong and powerful, I believe that I exude the air of someone who would be unlikely to keep quiet. When I am feeling pragmatic I know that being married early in life created a kind of natural barrier for predators and that I have worked in companies where the culture was inclusive and intolerant of harassment behaviors. I have been lucky and I know it.

I wish I could say that I’d always been lucky.

It was thirty years ago, give or take, that I learned the heart-numbing feeling of being powerless. I have spent many years working to move beyond that feeling and so I can’t get any closer to the timing. I can triangulate the timeframe because of the house we lived in and the fact that I was young enough that my parents wouldn’t have let me stay home with my brothers alone, maybe I was 12 or 13. They went out for errands on a weekend and they wanted us to have a baby sitter, someone to take care of us.

He was an older boy, high school or college maybe. I was a studious, serious bookworm who could be generously called awkward when it came to the idea of boys. When he suggested that we play poker, I thought it would be fun. When he suggested that we play strip poker I felt uncomfortable but didn’t want to seem childish. When he started to touch me I was paralyzed, completely unprepared to deal with the situation. I only remember (at some point) standing and running to the small half bath, locking the door and sitting on the floor waiting for my parents to come home. I could have sat there for 20 minutes or two hours, I don’t know. I just remember that when they walked through the door I pretended that everything was just fine. I was certain that what happened was something that I needed to hide — it was something shameful and bad that would make me less, would make them love me less.

That feeling of shame and guilt is what has kept me nearly silent since then. I told my mother eventually, years later when I was a mother myself. I told my best friend on a quiet night when you feel like your darkest secrets can come out for just a few minutes before you tuck them back away. I told my husband when, in a discussion around why women who have been raped don’t say something, I blew up and told him he had no idea what it was like to face that kind of stigma and that I for one would believe anyone who had the courage to come forward and be judged by the world. The whole story spilled out and he held me while the wave of nausea slid over me. None of them blamed me. None of them loved me less.

I don’t want to have to write these words. Thirty years later I am still physically affected by sharing my story. If this happened to my own daughter, now a teenager herself, I would assure her that she had nothing to be ashamed of and that she was a victim of circumstances beyond her control. But, I have no such forgiveness for the young girl that I was. For her, I have judgement and condemnation: You should have known better. You should have avoided the situation. You should have fought back. You should have said something.

You brought this on yourself.

You deserved it.

I know all too well why people stay silent. I spent two weeks wrestling with whether I had the courage to bring my adolescent self to life in one of her lowest moments and — let’s be serious — on a good day my blog gets 40 hits. It’s not like this is the New York Times.  But, it is important for me to love that young girl for the bright shining person that she was then and for the amazing woman that she has grown to be. I want to be the kind of person who can, once and for all, stop blaming her and support her the way I would support any girl, woman or person in the same position. Yes, I know why people stay silent but I’m finally ready to sit down and say something to my adolescent self, something I should have said a long time ago.

You didn’t do anything wrong, sunshine. I forgive you.


A Lesson from My Roommate

I had five roommates during college. One I lived with for only a day, deciding early that I would be incompatible with the house’s party culture. A second had the single in our triple suite and I remember only two things about her: her propensity for taking our phone into the bathroom and the way she had claimed the common room by the time I arrived with my stuff. I remember talking about it with my roommate and deciding that it wasn’t worth it to make waves. We lived quietly in our shared room for our semester and then parted ways. I reconnected with her recently on Facebook after more than twenty years apart.

My closest roommate lived with me sophomore year. We couldn’t have been more different, but we had an easy way of coexistence and connection that has endured. I was in her wedding when my daughter was a toddler and we visited her again last year. Our low-stress friendship is characterized by our mutual acceptance of someone for the person they are, even when that person confuses the crap out of you. It’s simple: she knows and loves my crazy and I feel the same about her.

Each of them played a role in my life, but it was my first roommate who taught me the power of learning from someone else’s experience.

When I went off to college I had a vague understanding that meeting people unlike me was important. I felt the limitation of my insulated life and was eager to see what I had missed. That natural curiosity burbled below the surface, popping out in late night conversations with the close friends I made over my first year. My growth was subtle, tucked inside and passive. I learned quietly bit-by-bit without intentionality or drawing any attention to my efforts.

My roommate, on the other hand, telegraphed her intent. She was outspoken about her desire to learn from the diversity and experiences of others. Sitting down with someone she would boldly ask, “What is it like to be __________?” She had grown up in Cambridge, Massachusetts and had lived her whole life in the city, so she found my very different rural Midwestern upbringing interesting. She didn’t have a driver’s license and asked me about the persistence of the car culture in my home state. Didn’t we realize how problematic the fascination with driving was and that we should walk and utilize public transportation? I told her, amused, that it wasn’t an option. We lived miles away from anything and there was no public transportation beyond the yellow school buses that took kids to and from our consolidated school district.

Her sincere interest often came before any deep friendship had been formed. Her questions were sometimes taken as an intrusion into people’s privacy, or worse as a kind of oblivious entitlement. As an 18-year old eager to fit in and find my place in the world, even I failed to see her intent clearly. It is only recently that I can see it for what it was and wonder, in retrospect, whether I would have grown more had I been bold enough to try her approach.

The simple truth is that I have only learned so much from my own experience. Casting a wide net out into the world and keeping my eyes and heart open to the experiences of others has helped me grow more. I feel empathy and understanding building every time I read a book, listen to a podcast or watch a film and wonder, “What was that like?” Even so, those moments pale in comparison to the impact of a close friend sharing their experiences. Those are the stories I tell others, the ones that cause me to reframe every future interaction through their words and the look on their faces. They are burned in my memory, especially when I find myself shaken by something I had never considered.

That’s why I can recall the moment I realized how little I understood about being a black woman in the United States.

I was having lunch with a good friend, an African American woman about ten years my senior. The weather had been pleasant and we had walked companionably the mile or so to the local pizza place down the street from our offices. Sitting down we ordered and then started talking about our children. Mom talk was easy for us, even though her son was in graduate school and mine was still just a little boy. In the wake of the Treyvon Martin shooting, she was sharing what it was like to fear for son’s safety in the world and the feeling of being constantly on guard. The conversation went through a number of twists and turns and then she calmly made a statement that I will never forget. “Mel,” she said, “I regularly get followed by security guards when I’m shopping at the mall.”

My first instinct was dismay. Sitting in front of me was one of the most sophisticated, stylish women I have ever known. The idea that anyone could see her as a shoplifting threat was ludicrous. Frankly, it was easier to believe that someone might look at me skeptically, but I had never given a thought to being a target of store security. And here was my friend, the wife of a police detective, sharing that it was a regular part of her lived experience. I stared. I stammered. I tried to rationalize away her experience as misguided or overly sensitive. Maybe she only thought she was being followed? Maybe she was remembering things wrong? Maybe it was a one time thing and not something that regularly happened? My brain tried to reject the truth of her statement and the calm look on her face and when it couldn’t I did the only thing I could do as her friend.

I believed her.

It may seem like a very small thing, believing that your well-dressed friend could be shadowed by plainclothes security at the mall, but to me it was transformative. Once my brain accepted that she had been profiled, I opened myself up to all kinds of other possibilities outside of my own lived experience. I was able to read articles and listen to stories without filtering it through my truth. If she could be profiled, I thought, certainly that was possible.

Now, more than ever, we need to understand that no one has cornered the market on experience. There are more than 7.4 billion lived experiences on this planet, from an elderly person who has lived their entire life in the same earthen home to the toddler of privilege who has already filled a passport. In a world where my own experience feels too narrow to understand and appreciate the questions of my generation, I find myself channeling that roommate of mine from long ago. No, I don’t go up to people and say, “Tell me what it’s like to be…” but I listen to people tell their story and no matter how hard it is to fit within my experience of how the world works, I try to do one thing.

I try to believe them.


Claiming Leadership

Yesterday, my cousin posted a graphic on the characteristics of individuals based on birth order. Curious, I glanced at it and found myself reflected in the adjectives of the oldest child column: Natural leader, high achiever, organized, on-time, bossy, responsible, adult-pleaser, obeys the rules.

Chuckling under my breath I typed a quick response, “No comment ;-)”

Enjoying meme humor is one thing, but to be honest I’ve never liked the phrase “natural leader.” Personally, I have walked away from many challenges to lead so when a blanket term like “natural leader” is bandied around, I quietly reject it as too binary and simple. Yes, I do tend to lead but I don’t always lead. Yes, leadership feels consistent with my character but I consider myself a journeyman in the art of leadership, learning every day how to be more effective. But, I never had a more nuanced model to offer so I quietly accepted the moniker of “natural leader” and just left it alone.

At least, until now.

This week I listened to Why Everyone Should See Themselves As a Leader, an HBR IdeaCast conversation with Sue Ashford, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. As a graduate of Michigan State University’s Eli Broad School of Business, I was naturally skeptical of the content [insert friendly in-state rivalry, years of alumni give and take here], but I came away believing in Dr. Ashford’s view. Her model on how leadership emerges was the first to fully explain my own experience and how I see leadership in the day-to-day world. Fundamentally, she states, leadership is not about position or formal authority but rather about whether someone wants to claim leadership and whether those in the group are willing to grant it them.

I liked the idea so much that I shared it three times that day and now I’m sharing it with you.

Looking back on my earliest experiences, I can see that my leadership emerged in situations where I felt willing and able to claim leadership. I easily claimed leadership in organizing chores and games with my two younger brothers, certain that they would grant it to me. Once I had a group of trusted friends, I confidently claimed leadership of our activities, at least those activities where I knew they would believe that I had the ability to help us do the right thing. In school, I recall formal and informal leadership roles over academic projects or extracurriculars, places where I was buoyed by past academic success to step in and claim leadership. They mostly granted it to me.

My craziest example of being granted leadership happened in my senior year of high school. I was competing on a creative problem-solving team and we were in deep trouble. We had been tasked to build a light-weight drivable vehicle and had spent most of the year committed to an approach. Now, less than a week away we were staring at a vehicle that was too heavy, could not support a driver, and would not move. We were doomed to fail and yet I claimed leadership, suggesting that we compete anyway and create a skit focused around the fact that our vehicle didn’t run. They granted my claim and we headed off to competition with a misguided sense of possibility. In the end we were trounced, but I remember it with happy nostalgia — I’m still honored and a bit stunned that they let me do it.

But for every moment that I’ve claimed and been granted leadership, there is another one where I haven’t claimed it at all. I never ran for student government, at any level. It took me years to seek out a leadership role on an affiliate group board when I was working in academic audit. I was elected on my first try, but abdicated before starting when I left my audit role. My senior class voted me “most likely to be president” — and many of my friends have indicated that they would vote for me for political office — and yet the very idea of claiming leadership by election is one I have soundly rejected. After reflection, I’m not sure if I am failing to claim it because I don’t want it or because I am worried it wouldn’t be granted. Maybe it’s both.

The truth is no one who routinely and regularly claims leadership gets through it without getting hurt. Not all leadership claims are supported and frankly not all should be supported. I reflect back warmly on the cases when — in a high trust group — other claims of leadership have been made and I have withdrawn in favor of a better approach or more ready resources to achieve success for all of us. Those times help to offset the other less positive experiences, worst among those when a group has rejected my claim for no other reason than I was an outsider.

What I like best about the concept of claiming and granting leadership is that it rejects the idea of being born a leader and reminds us that all leadership is situational. Yes, oldest children are able to practice claiming leadership early in life, but that doesn’t grant them some unique capability or right to leadership. You can be the youngest child and claim leadership over a family matter that is important to you. You can be a junior analyst and claim leadership over developing a learning program for you and your peers. You can be a rookie on a sports team and claim leadership over a play or technique by investing in learning and teaching. Yes, it’s possible your claim may not be granted, but in my experience that is rarely the case. In fact, I see moments every day that are desperate for someone to see a need and claim their leadership by simply saying, “Hey, how about I take this on?”

At this stage in my life I have the title and the authority to confidently call myself a leader, but I know that my foundational opportunities to claim leadership came much earlier. The people who have come to value my “natural leadership” built me up, brick by brick, as they were willing to grant my claims. Looking back, I don’t regret any time when I claimed leadership, whether it was granted or not.

If fact, looking back I only have one leadership regret: The times when I was too scared to make a claim.