What Brings You Passion?

Before Christmas I found myself in a church auditorium enjoying a performance by the Agape Ringers, an elite handbell choir in the Chicagoland area. I didn’t grow up knowing a handbell from a doorbell, but I was lucky enough to get introduced to ringing by a good friend who attends handbell summer camp every year. She invited me to the concert one year and little by little I pulled the whole family into it. Now, it’s something we all look forward to each year.

Anyway as I was sitting waiting for the concert to start, I thumbed through the program and read the bios of the musicians. Reading through the snippets (family life, work life and tenure with the group) I was reminded just how much collected passion the performers had for thier craft. No matter who was important to them or what they did for employment, I’m willing to bet that ringing handbells brought them significant joy. In my opinion, it’s hard to be really good at something without a lifelong investment, and having seen the group before, and watched the adoration on my friend’s face, I knew they were really good.

I got to thinking about that — the idea of what brings people passion — as I was driving home. Culturally, we have a tremendous bias toward work and the idea that fulfilling work is the central tenant to a fulfilling life. We spend a lot of time at work, after all, so it feels good to believe that people are fulfilled by that activity. But, I know that isn’t true. For most people work is simply a necessary evil, something that needs to done to put food on the table and roof over their heads. And yet, like most people, I still persist in walking up to people at events and asking, “What do you do?” as if the question will bring a twinkle to their eye. I really should know better, because it’s one of the reasons my husband hates parties. He’s always trying to figure out how to answer that question, either apologetically or covertly, because saying that he is a stay-at-home dad carries such baggage.

Ask my husband about what he does and you’ll get a lukewarm answer, but if you ask him about what he’s passionate about, you will get an earful. Talk to him about the time he brought a 1971 pinball machine back to life or when we got stuck sailing on Lake Erie in a storm. Ask him about his family or the odds of the Red Wings making the NHL playoffs. Those are the things that matter.

I find that it’s the same with most people.

A good friend of mine from high school is a drummer, so in love with the art of drumming that he built a sound proof room in his basement. I know that when I want to see that fire in his eyes I should ask about his most recent drum kit or gig — not about the very successful, well-paying job he has had for over 20 years. Whenever I see a YouTube video of someone drumming like a mad fool I think of him and smile.

My brother has spent most of his adult life writing a musical about the origins of the video game industry. He was able to share the idea with one of his idols, Ralph Baer, and it made him happier than just about any other time I have seen him. I’m not sure I want to know how many hours he’s dedicated to taking it from a rough idea through the fine tuning necessary to make him proud. It’s amazing and even so I’m not sure he will ever think it is good enough. Artists can be pretty hard on their creations.

A guy my husband knows is really into pinball. When he and his wife decided to renovate their house, they dug out their basement to double the square footage and expand his collection. He even had a specialized elevator built to make it easy to get machines up and down. I used to think my husband was too into pinball — and then I went out to his friend’s house, looked around and rode the elevator. On the drive home I acknowledged that I was wrong, his pinball hobby was normal.

I’m a workaholic and I’ve spent most of my life a little in love with my jobs. Like any dysfunctional relationship, when things have gone poorly it’s hurt a lot because I’ve wrapped so much of my own happiness up in doing well. It’s like having a huge stock portfolio in only one stock — I haven’t been very diversified. Heck, if I didn’t have my family, and now this blog, I’d be at risk of putting all of my life eggs in my work basket. Happily.

So, I sometimes forget that the vast majority of individuals don’t get that kind of passion from their work — until I see a handbell concert.

A friend of mine from college just announced that she is leaving her job. She’s one of the most professionally successful people that I know and I am confident that people will look at her decision skeptically. They will wonder what the heck she is thinking. But, if they had truly listened to her, they wouldn’t have to wonder. They would know that after doing what she had to do, doing what was needed, she is giving herself the freedom to pursue her passion. Her passion isn’t in a paycheck or a fancy title, it’s somewhere else and she’s heading in that direction. And knowing her commitment and focus, I’m willing to bet she gets there.

Whether it be hobby, habit or happening, here’s hoping that you have a little bit of energy left over from doing what you have to do for whatever brings you passion. And remember, when you meet a stranger at a New Year’s Eve party don’t ask they what they do. Ask them what brings them joy.

Slow Down

“If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be ‘meetings’.”

– Dave Barry

My work-life is filled with meetings. On an average day my calendar may have less than an hour of non-committed time, with the rest locked down in 30-minute and 1-hour blocks. I run to conference rooms scattered across two buildings and ten floors. No matter how hard I try to make sure I have time to live my “open door” leadership philosophy, no matter how hard I push to say “no” when I am not the right person for the dialogue, I have been unsuccessful in controlling the creeping ooze that is meetings.

And, that is why what happened this week was so surprising and delightful.

As I approached the end of year holidays (and the week I habitually take off between Christmas and New Years) a remarkable thing happened. I watched with giddiness as one by one meetings fell off my calendar, cancelled or rescheduled for next year. It felt like everyone took a collective breath and admitted, all at once, that their crisis wasn’t as urgent as they thought. Nothing catastrophic would happen if the discussion or decision or action happened a few business days later. We wouldn’t all turn into pumpkins if it didn’t happen before — bwahaahaa — the end of year.

In the course of a day, my calendar tipped from 90% meetings to 90% free time. And, faced with that unusual reality, I was able to act differently. I was able to lean into three transformative conversations and address each issue with my full capabilities, giving it not just 30-minutes of my thoughtful attention, but the amount of time the relationship or challenge needed to make true and real progress.

One of those examples started with a completely random event. Walking to the restroom, I saw a project manager from one of my big development efforts heading back to her desk. I paused and asked her how she was. She made a throwaway comment, the kind that says, “Not great, but I’m working it out.” In my normal life, faced with my normal calendar, I would have given her a conspiratorial wink and told her to keep at it.

But, not this time.

In that moment, with a calendar unconstrained by another meeting, I slowed down. I listened past her words to see the tension in her eyes. I thought I could sense that, under the bravado, she was signaling that she needed help. My help. With a wide-open calendar the next day, I asked if she happened to be in and whether she could free up some time for chat. She was and could. She scheduled 30 minutes for us the next day.

We connected as planned and after our 30 minutes were up, she had barely had enough time to brief me on the knotty challenge she was facing. On a normal day, I would have whipped off a few witticisms and metaphorically shouted “next!” to whoever was in my waiting room. But, with the freedom of an open calendar, we had time to explore. I asked probing questions to gain understanding. I jotted down ideas on my white board. What about this? How would that be perceived? Are these ideas connected? Would this be understood?

Together we realized that we didn’t have one challenge, we had four. And that the challenges were not independent but tightly related to a single business trade-off that we could address on a continuum. With an aligned mindset, we modeled an approach that would allow our business leaders to explicitly respond the in an upcoming meeting; we defined a way that would allow us to enlist them in the deciding the answer instead of pushing something on them.

It was invigorating and I went home that night feeling that I had done less but delivered more.

The next morning as I was getting ready for the day’s activities I looked up to see her standing in my doorway. She was smiling and just wanted to let me know that after we talked she had connected with our business sponsor who had been just as excited about the direction we had identified. We talked a bit about the progress we had made the day before and what had made it possible: Approachability. Purpose. Listening. Time.

Later that morning I found myself with another executive and I shared the experience. I told him that we needed to find a way, as leaders, to create more opportunity to shift from activity to engagement. We needed to give ourselves the time to think deeply and help our teams pause long enough to understand the issues fully so we could really resolve them. I looked at him and asked rhetorically, “What happens if we can only count on those moments happening once a year when the vast majority of our team members are on vacation?”

I don’t have an answer. All I can say is that I have been as guilty as the next leader of incorrectly correlating productivity with activity and motion with progress. But this week I was faced with a striking example where real results were connected not with “time-boxing” and “efficient agendas” but with simply being open to listening and letting the conversation go where it needed to go, with letting connections happen not purposefully but organically. That example has led me to a goal for myself.

Next year, I will create an opportunity to do it more.

The More Things Change

This weekend I found myself on my hands and knees struggling around in my crawlspace. I’m short but it turns out not short enough to avoid the crossbeams of a space designed more for utility access and rarely used bric-a-brac than for human movement. The smart plan would have been to get in and get out focusing on the Christmas decorations that had sent me there in the first place.

But no, not me.

Instead, I navigated in the darkness looking for the box of books I was sure was there. Somehow in our last move I lost track of a stash of books I had from college and while I don’t have an inventory, I know that I wouldn’t have jettisoned my copy of Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels or the Marketing textbook I researched a case for in graduate school. I didn’t find them, but instead I found a milk crate of my own history.

Nestled in a back corner I found it, filled with small remnants from my 20’s. I found the theatre portfolio I submitted to get placed into the right lighting design class, the binder that contained the artifacts of my journey to grad school (application, acceptance letter and letters from the Dean for grades) and a hodgepodge of stuff from my final desk cleaning when I left my first real job, starting the zig zag of my career.

At the top of that last pile, tossed carelessly in amongst the other miscellaneous desk contents, was a simple printed document. Titled “360 Development Feedback Report” and dated 2006, it contained anonymous comments on my strengths and opportunities for improvement from my direct reports and peers. I scanned the pages, eager to see how much I had changed since then.

My team then, both subordinates and peers, commented on my confidence, clarity of vision, willingness to share technical knowledge, ability to create team and support of my team’s work-life balance. And they noted that I needed to work on my delegation, communication, defensiveness when challenged and ability to manage my own work-life balance. When I finished reviewing the pages I flipped back to the beginning to make sure I was looking at the right thing. I was confused because, to be honest, those comments could have been written about me this week as easily as 10 years ago.

Maybe you’re not surprised. After all, it was in the 19th century that author Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr coined the phased “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose” or “the more things change the more they stay the same.” Maybe it’s not that surprising that someone who was described in 2006 as “one of the most relentless and energetic persons I have ever worked with” is still high-energy. Or that someone who “should sometimes put more faith in her employees, not only by delegating more, but also by trusting the work of the employee and not changing/altering everything that has to go up to senior management” still has a tendency to own the final version of a presentation before it hits prime time. Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised that at my core I’m the same person now that I was then. And, I guess I wouldn’t be surprised except for one basic thing:

I believe, in my heart, I have been living a growth mindset.

Our beliefs are tricky things and no beliefs are trickier to manage then those about ourselves. I just finished a book called The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck and while Mark Manson’s shocking title (and prolific use of a word frowned upon in polite circles) might put people off, one of the key points of the book is that being open to being wrong, especially about deeply held beliefs, is a key to happiness. He notes that questioning your own values and whether you are living them is critical to determining what you care about (what you should give a f*ck about) and living a life of purpose.

For as long as I can remember, a huge part of my personal identity has been wrapped up in the value that every day is an opportunity to gain insight and develop new and better capabilities. And yet, faced with the fact of the 360 feedback I was given long ago, I can’t help but wonder if I truly value growth as much as I espouse. Ten years, two organizations and a handful of job titles later I appear to still be strong where I have been strong and weak where I have been weak. The more things have changed, the more they have stayed the same.

Normally, I like to end these posts with some witty closing, some quip or quote or answer that will pull the whole thing together. I like to note what I’ve learned, how I’ve grown or what big question I’ve answered. I don’t have that tonight. Instead, I’ve got some more thinking to do, some more staring the facts in the eye and wondering what it means for my beliefs and my way of going after life. So, this one will have to be a cliffhanger, a two-parter that ends with more questions than answers.

When I know what I think, I’ll write it here.

Borderlands

It’s noon on the Saturday after Thanksgiving and if you listen closely you can hear the sound of football. There’s the play-by-play and the color commentary, crowd noise and the backseat refereeing. Occasionally the sound of a cheer shouted or swear muttered interrupts my thinking and makes me smile. I’m sitting at the table of my in-law’s house where my husband and his mother are garbed in their respective colors: maize and blue for him, scarlet and gray for her.

They love each other, but they are still fighting the Michigan Ohio war.

One day a year my hometown becomes ground zero for one of college football’s biggest rivalries. They brainwashed us early, telling us in elementary school that we needed to pick a side. I remember two things about being a kid heading into Thanksgiving: learning to draw a turkey by tracing my hand and celebrating Michigan / Ohio State day. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t describe the difference between a quarterback and a quarter pounder or that I wasn’t a fan of either team, it was crystal clear that neutrality wasn’t an option.

My husband is a Michigan fan who had the misfortune of being born on the wrong side of the border to a family that all supports Ohio State. I could never explain how it happened, how he managed to buck the trend and become a loyal and devoted fan of “that team up North.” But recently I watched a documentary called Michigan vs. Ohio State – The Rivalry and it all became clear. The man I love was a two-month old baby when Bo Schembechler took the helm of Michigan in 1969 and beat Ohio State, an undefeated juggernaut defending their national championship from the year before.

He has always loved a great win and his loyalty once gained doesn’t falter; mystery solved.

For someone who has been a begrudging participant in this particular tradition, Michigan football has become a big part of my life. Saturdays in the fall have a force field around them, the three or four hours of the game walled off from any other activities. I knew that I was destined to get married in the summertime, because even our wedding wouldn’t take precedence over a game. Our daughter was born in Ann Arbor on a football Saturday, arriving after a sleepless night and ten hours of labor. Exhausted, we watched the game on a tiny tv while our newborn daughter slept in a plexiglass bassinet next to us. Ask him about the day and he will share his still fresh disappointment that Tyrone Wheatley dropped the ball and cost Michigan the game in the last minutes. Ask me and I’ll bristle, reminding him that it was the best day of his life.

If you’re from the borderland, you have friends and family on each side. My best friend and her husband are Buckeyes while my husband is a Wolverine. The first fall after our daughters were born we drove to their home to watch the game with my daughter dressed up in a Michigan cheerleader outfit. A young woman that I know just had her first child and her infant son spent today wearing a Michigan shirt and an Ohio State pair of pants. When we bought our first house, I remember my husband’s feeling of relief to be living in Michigan. He was ecstatic to be in friendly territory until our neighbor hung an Ohio State flag.

In this strip of land, you never know where the loyalties lie.

I’ve spent most of my life in the borderland and this rivalry has been a part of my life for a long as I can remember. This year’s game will be over soon and it will be just another data point in a long tradition. The people I know and love will head back into their lives, some victorious and others defeated, while I sit on the sidelines wondering yet again why I am not wired to care as deeply as they do. Instead, I’ll hit “publish” on this post and head off to dinner completely unimpaired by the outcome. And, I’ll remind the people I love that there is one great thing about rivalries.

It will always be there next year.

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 will an amount of 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.