One of my favorite poems from the book Salt by Nayirah Wheed is
you do not have to be a fire
every mountain blocking you
you could be water
and soft river your way to freedom
this poem illustrates the lessons that have surprised me about leadership throughout the last year. Three specific discoveries stand out: leadership does not require a boisterous personality but a disciplined ego. When all is said and done, there is no 'right way' to lead to be in touch with your instincts and do not allow the unrealistic expectations of anyone's idea of what a leader should be or do, fully embodying our personal beliefs and vocations is the first step towards leadership.
As a young person, I spent a great deal of time on stage, since elementary school I was a thespian. I learned the process of taking on a character, performing rehearsed lines and enjoyed the applause affirming a job well done. While I loved the practice of theater, what I liked most was the masks it allowed me to wear. The loud boisterous characters I played were just that, characters. Whether my audience loved or hated my performance the sentiments never penetrated the masks of acting. We see many characters played in leadership and we make assumptions about the roles we should take on should we dare consider ourselves such. Confidence, charisma, articulation, humor, inspiration are all descriptors we use for effective leaders. So we see otherwise mild-mannered, introspective, dynamic leaders push themselves past their genuine identity to perform in a way that leadership is expected to be. As these masks fade or the patina of these performances begin to show, we call a person returning to self a failure of leadership. Often in this work, I had to make a decision about how I would respond to the pressures of our culture's expectations of leadership. I began this work in awe of so many fellows who had come before me and the amazing work they had done, I could see that potential within myself but I didn't quite know how to bring it out. I would try different approaches to feel more like a leader in my own right, 'maybe my clothes? Should I dress in a way that credit union leaders dress?' No, that did not feel right. 'Should I change my hair or learn the industry lingo so I fit in more?' No, that felt insincere. After so many attempts to find the most comfortable mask, I decided to stop focusing on how to perform like a leader and start listening to my instincts, dressing in ways that reflect my culture and community, speaking in ways that don't reinforce code switching but bringing uncommon language into new spaces. I created my own industry terms that large credit unions now use in their marketing. I found a way to take performance out of living my vocation, I stopped considering applause as affirmations of my work but sought the seen and felt impacts in my own family, organization, and community. I became more concerned about the energy I bring to my work and not what the work might bring to my ego. I learned to recognize maskless leaders like me and built on those friendships as supportive, not extractive. I learned how to be a person who makes others feel safe enough to take their masks down even if for a moment and stand as a reminder that leadership can be an act of radical liberation if we give ourselves permission to consider our authentic selves enough.