One of the more interesting aspects of the Bush Fellowship application is the clash between achievement and growth. On the one hand, you have to be accomplished as a leader to be selected. On the other hand, you need to be in a position open to growth to be considered.
For some, being an accomplished leader is the opposite of needing growth. As a leader, you may not want to project a need for continued learning, misconstrued by others as an indication of weakness or failure. Some view being a leader through the lens of being at the END of a journey. You’ve been identified as being successful. What else is there to learn?
I feel that the true beginning of my Fellowship was when I recognized that my journey as a leader was only at the beginning and not the end. In other words, my selection into the Bush Fellowship recognized my achievement AND forced me to acknowledge my weaknesses.
To me, this dichotomy is the beauty of the fellowship.
I remember applying to the Fellowship, detailing my successes and how I was going to achieve more by building on what I already knew. Yes, there were classes I wanted to take but those were more technical skills I felt would complement my existing leadership abilities. Yes, there would be more degrees, but they were mere recognition of further achievements.
It was only through the application process, in speaking with Anita and others, that I begin to question if I were wrong… What if technical skills were not the issue? What if the issue preventing me from being a stronger leader were myself?
Instead of looking for checkboxes of achievement (this course, this certificate, this degree), I started to explore what was indeed holding me back. Did I lack the personal skills to lead? In truth, I have never truly given myself permission to be vulnerable and reflect on weaknesses. How can I identify these them and look for ways to grow?
To start, my executive coach was the perfect mirror. Although I am only at the start of my leadership path with my coach, I am already starting to look at myself differently. My behaviors, motivations, and responses in leadership are beginning to become more apparent to me. I am beginning to comprehend myself as a leader in ways I’ve never thought of before.
Before the Bush Fellowship, my life was a series of checkboxes. Get into an Ivy League university. Check. Graduate with a “useful” degree. Check. Work in management consulting or investment baking like the rest of my class. Check. Go to medical school. Check. Finish training in residency and fellowship in critical care. Check. Get an MBA. Check. Become a clinical leader. Check. Be a successful researcher and publish. Check. Become an administrative leader. Check. Become recognized in the field through medical society leadership. Check. Check. Check.
Only months in as a fellow did I start to step away from the structure of checkboxes with which I was familiar and comfortable.
For instance, at the beginning of my Bush Fellowship, I started a course at the Kennedy School of Government, intent on completing a “certificate” to indicate that I accomplished something tangible. Six months into the Fellowship, I am starting to be more comfortable with the idea that what I need may NOT be more checkboxes but, instead, exposure to specific ideas and concepts that do NOT pull together in a traditional way. Instead of looking for more courses to complete my “certificate” at the Kennedy School, I started looking for experiences that I am frightened of, experiences that indicate a weakness in myself.
Everything I had thought I needed to be a strong leader was starting to be set aside.
I recognize now what it means for the Bush Fellowship to give me space to step away and start anew. The Fellowship offered protection to reflect and be vulnerable. The Fellowship gave me permission to not pursue the next checkbox. The Fellowship gave me resources to try new things and not be afraid of failing.
Although starting anew has meant that I no longer am looking for checkboxes, the void left behind from not going for checkboxes is filled instead with apprehension. What do I do now?
I hope to have more (better) answers in the months to come. What I know now is that I still have a lot to learn. I need to understand myself better before I can lead others. I need to care for myself better and ensure that I am in the right space to become the leader I aspire to be.
Fear and excitement fill me every day on this journey. It is not easy expressing weakness, especially when my application for the Fellowship a mere year ago emphasizes achievement. The last six months as a Bush Fellow have been eye-opening and I look forward to the next eighteen months to come!