Leadership

The Best Parts of Being a Leader

Today I’m taking a break from critique. Let’s talk about all the awesome things about being a leader.

Anyone can do it.

Note that when I say “anyone”, I don’t mean “everyone”. There are some people, including some with immense amounts of power, who are about as far from leadership as you can possibly get.

But the fantastic thing is that power doesn’t make a leader. There is no entry barrier to leadership.

When I worked in personnel, I used to do job coaching for volunteers who were interested in getting hired with my organization. I would look over their resumes and make suggestions on improvement. Without fail, time after time, they would put their current volunteer experience under the category “Other”. And time after time, I would gently explain that the work they were doing for our agency was truly “Work Experience”, and belonged in that category. Just because they didn’t get paid for their work didn’t make it any less valid.

Leadership is the same thing. Whether it’s managing a household, speaking up in a community meeting, raising money for a charity, or chairing a committee at work, it is all leadership, and it is all valid.

Leadership is about behavior, not an inherent trait. If you want to be one, you can be one.

Leaders love to learn.

One of the key attributes of a leader is an ability to take in new information and revise your perspective.

Learning isn’t always easy, or enjoyable, especially when it comes to understanding things like the systems of bias and oppression. But there is something truly magical about waking up to the fact that your life is just one small piece of a giant picture. That piece is important, sure, but you can’t define the entire picture through your single piece.

Leaders know this. They know they need other perspectives, other voices. They know that echo chambers and groupthink are dangerous. They admit that they were wrong. And that is a powerful thing.

This is why I see leadership in someone like Elizabeth Warren, who changed party affiliation after seeing the real life impacts of conservatism on low income people, but I struggle to see it in someone like Joe Biden, who claims to have changed and yet doesn’t consistently back it up with his behavior.

Leaders don’t just talk about changing, they actually change. And they do it through learning.

Leaders get to give.

One reason that I tend to be adamant about the difference between power and leadership is that a great deal of power is acquired on the backs of others. If you are rich and powerful, you did not get there through selflessness. Our culture is just not set up that way.

But for those of us who care about a more equitable world, leadership is a venue in which to give back.

There wasn’t a great deal I liked about being an Office Manager, as it was a very demanding job with inadequate compensation. But some of my best memories about being that role are about the days I was able to help someone. The times I was able to advocate for people. For when I was able to sit in a meeting and argue that my staff deserved better. I couldn’t always get them what they deserved or needed, but I was darn well going to keep asking for it.

And the leaders I admired most were the ones who reached out to others. I remember interviewing for a job I really wanted, and not getting it. But the manager offered me personal feedback, and we had a fantastic long phone call where she gave me amazing advice. One of my supervisors used to take me out to lunch, to talk about my goals. She encouraged me to apply for my first promotion. Another manager brought me a card and flowers for taking extra time to help her with a tricky process. I am so fortunate that I have known so many amazing leaders, who encouraged and supported me through everything. They changed my life.

The managers on power trips? Not so much. Although to be fair, I did learn a lot from them. And like I said, leaders like learning.

Leaders get to provide opportunities.

I was fortunate in that I supervised entry level positions with my agency. This meant I got to see applications from people from all different kinds of background and experiences. I was able to ask questions about the things that mattered to me. I didn’t have to care about their knowledge of agency policies or procedures. I didn’t have to care about their experience with specific computer programs. I cared that they would be good employees.

I still remember one hire, who was literally shaking when she came in for the interview. She was so nervous, and kept apologizing. But when we asked her about why she wanted to work there, she had such a clear understanding of the difficulties of working for a social service agency, and such a profound determination for why she wanted to work there despite the challenges. Hiring her was a no brainer.

It was always strange to me that where I worked, there were a fair number of managers who disliked their staff moving on to new positions. They were open about this. Some of them would even put up roadblocks or actively discourage their staff from finding developmental opportunities.

I never understood this perspective. I genuinely loved it when my staff got promoted. I loved giving references or writing referrals for them to get into educational programs. I loved sending them to trainings or finding them chances to job shadow other workers.

Sure, it was inconvenient to have to adjust work duties, or rehire when someone moved on. But so many of the inconveniences of my job were due to poor management from above, lack of resources, or unreasonable workloads. This was an inconvenience I had the power to choose, and it made someone else’s life better. Why on earth would I not support it?

And let’s face it, I had the opportunities I had because other people felt the same way about me.

Leaders never quit.

I don’t think I need to go into much detail on how exhausting things are right now. Not because things are divisive, because I think things have always been divisive. But as more of us fight against oppression, there’s a huge level of pushback from those who are terrified that the future might not be all about them.

And I have no idea what the next few years will hold. It’s scary, and overwhelming.

But I also know that every time I go online, I see amazing, incredible people speaking up for what is right. I see more and more people from marginalized communities running for office, and fighting the status quo. I see young people with capability and confidence refusing to inherit problems created by older generations. I see people willing to admit when they’ve been wrong, and trying to do better. I see compassion and empathy and understanding.

There will always be those who can’t tolerate change, who respond to what they don’t understand with hatred and abuse. They sit in a darkness of their own creation and rage at the world.

I prefer to look to the bright spots, the leaders. No matter how wide the darkness spreads, it can’t eclipse their light.

Withholding Empathy

Generally, I try to be an open-minded person. But I’m also finding that the older and more experienced I get, the less patience I have for people in positions of power and influence who are unwilling to examine their own privilege and extend empathy to those who are in different circumstances.

Because we’ve come to a point in our society where you cannot plead ignorance. You can embrace ignorance, and try to stay within a small framework of ideas. But the information is out there. There is so much powerful work being done by people of color, LGBTQ people, immigrants, and others, in all mediums. There are so many resources to help you engage with new ideas, examine your own privilege, and make choices that embrace empathy and compassion for marginalized people.

And of course you can choose not to engage. But it is a choice. There are millions of people sharing their stories. It’s purely up to you if you’re not listening.

"What is this "Google" of which you speak?"

I was originally planning to not really get into the presidential race on this blog, because 1) I think it’s pretty clear where I stand politically, and 2) there’s so much coverage everywhere else, I don’t want to contribute to the fatigue.

But I gotta talk about this. Because we have someone in a very important position who keeps saying things so forehead-slappingly stupid, I can’t ignore it. Now this actual quote happened back in January of 2018, but I only saw it recently. It’s recirculating, for good reason.

Presidential hopeful Joe Biden said the following while promoting his book last year, “The younger generation now tells me how tough things are. Give me a break. No, no, I have no empathy for it. Give me a break. Because here’s the deal guys, we decided we were gonna change the world. And we did. We did. We finished the civil rights movement in the first stage. The women’s movement came to be. So my message is, get involved. There’s no place to hide.”

Ok, first, to the defenders – yes, we all get that he’s talking about civic engagement being a positive thing. That people shouldn’t just talk about problems, but should get involved. And yes, we all agree with that.

And if he had just said, “Wow, things are hard, but we’ve been fighting for rights for decades, and we need to keep fighting now”, there would be no issue.

But that’s not what he said.

"You can't make rent this month? Clearly you're not trying hard enough to save."

Privilege is a concept that is often misunderstood. So often people see privilege as being lucky or having special benefits. But that’s just part of it. At its very core, privilege is the idea that something is not a problem, because it’s not a problem for you personally.

I was lucky enough to get out of college debt free. If I then turned around and told students struggling with debt that it’s their own fault and they should have made different choices – that’s privilege.

I’m a white woman. If a black co-worker came to me and told me she was experiencing harassing behavior from our colleagues, and I shrugged and said, “I haven’t seen anything like that.” – that’s privilege.

I’m a cis woman. If a trans woman talked about being discriminated against by her physician, and I told her, “Just find a new doctor.” – that’s privilege.

Biden saying the “younger generation” shouldn’t have any complaint over things being tough? So much privilege. (I’m not going to even touch on the “finished the civil rights movement” claptrap, because that’s way too big for this post, but needless to say – privilege to the nth degree).

Words matter. Words matter a lot. And yes, we can all say the wrong thing from time to time. But just listen to Biden speak. Listen to him say “give me a break” repeatedly. He is sending a very clear message. His derision is visible. He doesn’t care to hear their voices. He doesn’t care to examine his privilege. He doesn’t care to do the work.

And that is an absolute failure of leadership.

"Oh, wow. I had no idea everything you'd been through. I'm so sorry."

Out of all the things that bother me with this particular statement, the very worst is Biden’s claim that, “I have no empathy for it”.

Withholding empathy is a powerful tool. And I’m not going to say it should never be utilized. It’s a choice all of us have to make for ourselves, in who we believe deserves our empathy and who doesn’t. But it’s a hammer, not a scalpel. And it needs to be wielded responsibly.

Using it against an entire generation? Is downright bigoted.

Biden looked at his audience, primarily made up of people like him. People with many kinds of privilege. And he decided to go with the narrative of the lazy, useless young person. That these kids today just don’t understand. That someone speaking to things being tough is clearly just not trying hard enough.

Nevermind that earnings have not kept up with the cost of living. Nevermind that predatory debt has skyrocketed. Nevermind that one health problem can clean out your savings. Nevermind that you can do everything right and still be discriminated against for your color, or your sexuality, or your gender identity, or your size, or health status.

No, no, it must be that everything is the fault of the people who are struggling.

This kind of attitude is everywhere. But it doesn’t belong in our leaders.

Imagine what it could have been if Biden had made the choice to lead with empathy. If he had made the choice to talk about what life could look like if we stood up for each other, instead of encouraging older generations to feel superior. If he had acknowledged his own privilege, and talked about how much he’s learning. If he had validated the pain of those who are just so very tired of fighting systems they didn’t create, and then being told that everything they’re experiencing is their own fault.

Imagine if he had said, “I’ve talked to young people telling me how tough things are. And you know what? They’re right! Things are tough! They may be different struggles than what some of us are familiar with, but we know what it’s like to go through tough times. We can stand up for what’s right, and help them. We’ve made change happen before, and we can do it again.”

Just imagine.

Leading in the Gray

A few years ago, in one of my leadership programs, we had invited representatives from several different ERGs (Employee Resource Groups) to come and talk to the class. For those of you who are not familiar, ERGs are employee-driven and voluntary groups that provide support to members of various marginalized communities. It was a good opportunity to bring in diverse perspectives on leadership, as well as to familiarize our participants with resources that could help with their development.

One of our speakers was the founder of the Black employee ERG. Another speaker was a leader from the LGBTQ resource group.

Both men shared their perspectives on the organization and the levels of support they’d received while forming their groups. One man shared that when working on the development of his ERG, he’d received very personal mentoring and support from a high level manager. He’d felt incredibly valued by this manager, and was extremely appreciative of his experience.

The second man then proceed to share that he’d also had an experience with a high level manager when forming his group, but it was an extremely negative one. He’d felt that this manager had been dismissive and disrespectful, and he was clearly still emotionally impacted by his interaction.

They didn’t know this at the time, but both of them were both speaking about the same manager.

So often when we talk about good or bad leadership, we hear the extreme examples. Humans love to categorize things. We want to be able to place someone in either the “good” or “bad” category. We want it to be black and white.

But in reality, most of us are not going to be at one extreme or the other. We exist in the gray.

When I was a manager, I was proud that I would always take the time to listen to my staff. I was quick to respond, and would always seek out an answer even if I didn’t know it myself. I genuinely cared about them, and would support them when they sought development or applied for promotions.

But the truth is also that at times I was overwhelmed, and didn’t give them the individual attention they deserved. I kept moving performance appraisals to the bottom of my to-do list, because with all of the demands on my time, it was just easier to not worry about them. At times, I prioritized the current organizational emergency (of which there was always at least one, usually more) over the care of my staff.

Some of them would tell you I was a great manager. Some would not. Neither view would be wrong.

So many articles on leadership like to talk in absolutes. And I’m sure I’m also guilty of this. “Just do A, and you will get response B!”. Just be authentic. Just be compassionate. Just be supportive. Just be direct.

And there is a lot of great advice out there. But from time to time, I think it’s also important to remember that it’s not just a team that you’re leading. It’s a collection of individuals. And each of them has a unique perspective on you.

If you google “how to communicate as a leader” most of the top articles will give the advice to be a direct speaker. They may frame it as being concise or to-the-point, but the end result is the same. “Leaders should be direct”.

Except that’s not true. The truth is you should be direct with employees who respond well to direct communication. If they don’t like direct communication, then you need to be more indirect.

I taught classes on feedback, and I can’t tell you how many employees insisted they liked direct communication. Until we asked them about receiving “constructive” feedback that might be challenging. And which point, about ninety percent of them changed their preferences.

So it’s not even just about individual preference. It’s individual + situational. Who am I talking to, and in what context.

At this point, I know it’s tempting to throw up your hands and argue that being this aware is impossible. And you’d be right. Or you would be, if you were in this alone.

So often we portray leaders as being these isolated figures, off alone on the top of the mountain. But leadership is a relationship with others. You’re not in it alone. Your people can teach you so much, if you’re just willing to engage and listen.

And that’s the best part about being in the gray. If it’s always black or white, just one way or another, you’re stuck. There’s no place to grow or change. But being in the gray is an amazing thing. It means that you have room to move.

Being in the gray means that you sit down with each member of your staff, and talk about what works for them and what doesn’t. And that’s where you set the standard that if someone gives you feedback that you need to change your approach, or that you have a blind spot, you listen and adjust your behavior accordingly.

You can learn that what you’re doing is amazing for someone and works great for them. You can learn that you’ve been unsupportive or ignorant to someone’s needs, and you can change. You may even learn that you have some trust-building to do before you ever really hear the truth.

Being in the gray is accepting you will never be the perfect leader. Just a leader. And that’s enough.

The Myth of the Nonpolitical Workplace

Shortly after the election of November 2016, the director of the organization I worked for sent out an agency wide email. I don’t remember how long the email was, but I do remember the core message – “don’t discuss politics at work”.

This is a stance we see frequently in the workplace, particularly in government agencies. It’s a stance that reinforces the concept that it is possible to be nonpolitical in the office.

This concept is a myth.

It’s a comfortable myth. Well, it’s a comfortable myth if you are a part of the dominant culture. By that I mean, if you are white, male, cisgendered, straight, and able-bodied.

Because not allowing anyone to talk at work about what had just happened in our country? Sent a very clear political message to a large number of people.

I went to a diversity training a few days after the election.  It was a voluntary training, so everyone there was invested in ideas of equity and inclusion, and eager to have conversation.  There was a wide range of races & ethnicities represented, as well as a number of individuals from the LGBTQ community.

The trainer, being a highly experienced individual, knew we couldn’t do the work unless we addressed the elephant in the room. So he allowed space for people to talk about the election.

I don’t know if I can adequately express what it felt like to be in that room. It was a safe space, and that meant that people spoke their truth. And their truth was fear. Intense, heart-breaking fear. Fear of what the future held, fear of losing family members, of continuing to be treated as less than, of increased violence or disenfranchisement.

But what particularly stood out to me was a woman who spoke of going to work the day after the election. She was devastated. She knew she wasn’t supposed to talk about it. “No talking about politics”. So she stayed at her desk all day, with her hoodie over her head, to make sure her co-workers couldn’t see her crying.

I belonged to a diversity discussion group at work as well. One day, we met shortly after the news came out about two separate police shootings of young black men. One of my colleagues, himself a black man, had to force himself to leave the house in the morning. And as he shared his heartbreak with us, he said something that has stayed with me. “I had to go to work and pretend nothing had happened,” he said. He knew talking about it it would make his staff uncomfortable. He knew they would call it unprofessional. He knew they would call it political.

I taught conflict navigation classes at work, and during the class we would show a video related to having difficult conversations. The video highlighted that silence did not mean safety. That if you didn’t say anything, you were still making a choice that would impact your relationship and ability to work together. We never had a single person question this concept.

So why do so many people think that silence equals safety when it comes to politics?

It’s the exact same concept. By not speaking, you are saying volumes.

In recent years, any time a casting announcement goes out about people of color or women being in lead roles in a big movie franchise, there is a very predictable response from a large number of people.

“Ugh,” people will say in the comments. “Why do they have to make it political?”

It’s such a common and exhausting refrain. They are calling people of color and women political. And implying that the default – white male – is not.

And that’s why being nonpolitical isn’t possible. Because the dominant culture has decided that if someone who is marginalized speaks up, or even just exists in a space that has not previously been acknowledged as theirs, they are being political. If you are political by existing, than they sure as heck are political by not wanting you to exist.

Does this mean I think we need to be debating government policy at work? Of course not. There’s a good reason we can’t hang flyers for a particular party or politician in our cubicles, or walk around gathering signatures during work time.

But we live in a time when politicians are literally trying to deny or erase the existence of some of our communities. And pretending that politics doesn’t infuse every aspect of our lives is both naive and damaging. There comes a point where a line does have to be drawn. You can choose to make space and advance those who are marginalized. You can choose to support communities that are being oppressed. You can choose to be a part of an organization that prioritizes what is right over what feels comfortable.

But if you believe in silence, just know, you are reinforcing a state where dominant voices are the only ones heard. Disengaging supports the status quo. It’s a choice. And it has an impact.

There’s no such thing as nonpolitical. Not right now.

Gatekeeping Leadership

Here we go...

The organization I worked for before quitting had a Leadership Model. And the theme of this model was “Lead from Any Chair”. The idea was that anyone at any level in the organization was capable of being a leader. It’s a fantastic theme, encouraging those in any type of position to take active roles in improving their organization.

If only it had been true in practice.

We’ve all heard the expression “if you’re going to talk the talk, you need to walk the walk”. What I found interesting in my ten years at this same organization, was that management continuously got better at talking the talk – and yet the walk never changed.

Managers became very good at talking about respecting staff and valuing diversity. And yet their actions still led to employees feeling ignored, invalidated, and defeated.

Shortly after I left my job, I had two very similar conversations with two different co-workers. Both of them are women who care deeply about their jobs, and took a leap of faith in making themselves vulnerable and going to management to talk about a concerning problem within their respective units. And both of them, in different cities, in different departments, got the exact same response.

“No one else has said anything,” replied both managers. And that was the end of both conversations.

Some may say this is just a coincidence. But I don’t think it is.

Almost there...

It can feel very empowering the first time an organization admits that it has a diversity problem. When there’s been a history of denial and gaslighting, it can feel as though someone just flipped on the lights in a dark room. Finally! We’re finally being honest!

But the heartbreaking thing is that it soon becomes clear, in so many cases, that admitting there is an issue is just one more way to punt the ball further down the field. So if questions arise, management can point to their Diversity Committee, or their Inclusion Officer, and say, “See? We’re working on it! We promise!”

And many of those in management may genuinely believe that they are doing good in this regard. But I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again. Good intentions mean nothing without action.

In my former training department, there are two different leadership programs. One, the one I co-ran, is open to employees of any classification, from office support to management. The other is only open to employees of high level salary ranges. So high, in fact, that some managers do not qualify, because they don’t make enough.

And in this “lead from any chair” organization, I’ll let you guess which program is the one that gets the highest budget and most attention. I’ll let you guess which one opens the most doors.

I’ll also let you guess which program has the higher number of participants of color.

Now there will be people who will attempt justify all this. They’ll talk about succession planning and budgets. They’ll have pat answers for everything. But I don’t care. Because you can’t justify the impact. You can’t justify who gets left out and who gets let in.

*Sigh*

I could go on with more examples, but I think everyone has plenty of examples of this in their own workplace. And we know that talking alone doesn’t break down barriers.

So what does?

To those who have power in their organization, here’s what I think:

You need to listen. When someone comes to tell you something, even if it bothers you or makes you feel defensive, you should never dismiss it. Because if you haven’t heard it from anyone else, it doesn’t mean it’s not a problem. It just means that people may not feel safe enough to tell you it’s a problem. This goes double for a man being approached by a female subordinate or a white person being approached by an employee of color. They are reaching through a big power differential to try and talk to you.

You need to accept that inequity is institutional, and you can’t just trust things to balance themselves out. Because they won’t. Acknowledging that you haven’t been taking action and need to do more is not an admission of personal failing. It’s something to be proud of. It’s a sign of leadership.

And you need to act. Stop just saying you care about problems. Show, don’t tell. Whether it’s hiring or putting together a workgroup or finding a panel of speakers for a presentation, you need to be actively looking to find and promote diversity. (Good grief, don’t be one of those people who puts together an all male panel on women’s empowerment). 

For those who don’t have power in their organization, this can be a lot harder. Just finding someone to listen can be an uphill battle. Seeing the mediocre being promoted can feel incredibly defeating. And I wish I had an easy answer.

But I will say that your voice matters. In fact, it more than matters, it’s critical to making things better.

I loved training leaders in my program. I loved that we had receptionists and janitors in conversation with caseworkers and managers. I loved all the voices that came into the room. I loved that when we asked people to share their passions, they made themselves vulnerable and spoke their truths, and often touched their co-workers’ hearts in unexpected ways.

It’s not always easy to see the impact you’re making in the moment. But it’s there.

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