Daring to lead

I’m reading a leadership book by Brené Brown, Dare to Lead. It’s the book we’re discussing at work in a book club I’ve started.

The sub-title for the book, to give you an idea of it, is:

  • Brave Work
  • Tough Conversations
  • Whole Hearts

It’s about daring to step into discomfort and lead wholeheartedly in work.

And it’s brilliant.

I read it a while ago when it first came out but reading it again and making notes to guide what I want to get out of the conversation with other leaders at work has been really helpful.

Here are my thoughts from what I’ve learnt so far:

What gets in the way of daring leadership

I’ve nodded a resounding ‘yes’ when reading what gets in the way of developing potential in others and in the work we do:

  1. Avoiding tough conversations – choosing comfort instead
  2. Not addressing fears and feelings
  3. Lack of empathy
  4. Fear of failure and perfectionism, which stunts creativity and risk
  5. Getting stuck and defined by failure, setbacks and disappointment
  6. Too much shame and blame, not enough accountability and learning
  7. Moving to fix stuff instead of staying with the problem to really learn about it

Whose opinion matters

Through what I’ve read to date, I’ve considered whose opinion of me matters in my work and have been reminded of how often I’ve been swayed by naysayers who sit back and criticise whilst avoiding involvement in imperfect, messy work that has the risk of failure. I feel lucky to have people in my organisation who I respect and trust – who will stand alongside me and give me honest feedback to help me on my path.

What quotes have resonated with me?

I’ve loved so much of what I’ve read – the book is now littered with underlines and highlights. Some of the words I’ve especially loved are below:

“Vulnerability isn’t winning or losing. It’s having the courage to show up when you can’t control the outcome.”

“Great leaders make tough ‘people decisions’ and are tender in implementing them, giving people a way out with dignity.” 

I’ve wondered whether the processes organisations have in place to ensure a consistent approach to how people are treated takes away the humanity in things such as the management of poor performance or how redundancies take place.

“If you believe people are doing their best, you sometimes can no longer know how to lead them. The strategies of pushing and grinding the same issues must give way to the difficult tasks of teaching the team, reassessing their skills gaps, reassigning them or letting them go.”

Shame

A whole chapter of the book is dedicated to how shame manifests at work.

Many of the areas where shame manifests – not getting a promotion, being demoted, public belittling by a superior at work – aren’t experiences I’ve had. But I did spot one source of shame that I think is particularly rife at the moment and that I’ve had experience of during this period of pandemic:

“Shame is seeing things change so quickly and not knowing how and where I can contribute. The fear of being irrelevant can be a huge shame trigger.” 

I’ve been thinking where this shame shows up in me – a lot of self-talk about not being a ‘good enough’ leader or not knowing how to contribute in a meaningful way to make things better – and I’m sure this is showing up in others right now.

So if you feel this way, you’re not alone. And you don’t have to hustle for worthiness, trying to be more than you are. Yes, strive for being helpful, but your innate worthiness as a human being isn’t solely down to you being the most helpful or saving the world through covid-19.

Values

One part of the book that I’m struggling with a bit is around values.

I’ve had my share of working with values over the years – at most, I’ve seen them as something used as a measurement (i.e. you get to go on this leadership development programme because you’ve shown that you are accountable and you challenge the status quo!) and at worst they are words used that get put on marketing packs and are miles away from the experience of people working within the organisation.

If I’m honest, I don’t like them.

But this isn’t what I’m struggling with – the book is in agreement with my dislike for these measurements and Brené says that only 10% of companies she’s worked with have measurable values that are used to train employees and hold them accountable. And without this, they’re really just empty words that serve no purpose and can actually do more harm than good.

I like, instead, the concept of getting clear about individual values – what are important values that can guide us as individuals in becoming brave leaders.

In the book, there’s a list of values (I got this sheet from the Dare to Lead Resource Hub in case you’d like to use it) and you’re guided to select the two values that are the most important to you. 

Not the values you’ve been taught you should have or the values that others have taught, but the ones that define you and who you are at your best.

Mine are faithfulness – to myself, the parts of myself that I value, the issues I hold as important, to those I love – and growth – ever deepening my knowledge and experiences, like a tree reaching high and taking root low.

It’s taken me so long to find these words – it was so hard to do, because for years my natural inclination was to self-protect and so I took decisions based on what I thought others would want of me. And I channeled my growth into what I thought I should become, not what made my heart sing.

But these feel right, they feel like my words.

What the book then guides you to do is to define three or four behaviours that define these values and some slippery behaviours we’re tempted to do even though they go against our values. So here is my starter for 10:

Behaviour 1: Faithfulness

Three behaviours that support this value:

  1. Choose courage – putting myself out there – over comfort
  2. Lean into conflict and stay curious
  3. It don’t make it my job to make others more comfortable or be liked by everyone

Three slippery behaviours I find myself doing:

  1. Taking decision out of shame – thinking that I’m not enough (and trying to make up for it) or am too much (so trying to not show myself as I truly am)
  2. Choosing a shallow belonging – “you agree with me, I accept you” over the possibility of a deeper belonging “I see you and accept you for all you are”
  3. Unkind self-talk

Behaviour 2: Growth

Three behaviours that support this value:

  1. Healthy striving – wanting to explore up, down and out over following a set path
  2. Knowing this is my journey to take at my own pace – honouring my individual path instead of comparing it to others
  3. Lean into my growing edge

Three slippery behaviours I find myself doing:

  1. Fear of not belonging closes of avenues of exploration or deviant views I might hold
  2. Wanting to ‘be right’ instead of ‘get it right’ means I don’t ask beginners questions or stay curious
  3. Avoiding the discomfort of not knowing or not having an answer

It’s been really interesting to consider my values and to think more about what they might mean for me.

By being really clear about what they look like, I feel better equipped to live by them.

It was useful to hear Brené’s thoughts about how it feels to be living into her values – it’s less of an exciting flash of brilliance of living an epic life totally aligned to the values, but more like “quiet moments when I feel strong and solid.” 

I can relate to that.


So there are my thoughts of what I’ve currently read – I’ve really enjoyed and got a lot out of it and I hope you’ve learnt a thing or two from what I’ve shared.

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The other side

I’ve had a difficult time over the past three months. It’s been the most challenging time that I’ve experienced in motherhood and I’ve felt my sanity balance on a knife edge at times.

But it’s also been a time of immense growth and I’m appreciative of what it has taught me.

How my struggles have stretched and shaped me.

And as I’m coming out the other side, I’d like to reflect upon what I’ve learnt and am still learning.

I must come first

I always thought the analogy about putting your own oxygen mask on before putting anyone else’s on was trite. But I’ve realised that I’m good for no one when I’m on my knees with exhaustion.

So I’ve started to prioritise my needs.

I’ve made plans to get away to have some time of solitude every month and Thursday evenings are for me to have time alone. I’ve so far tried an African drumming circle, gone for drinks with friends, had dinner with my parents, spent the evening working late to do some things that I don’t usually get the chance to do in my working day.

Being free to do things as an adult, not a mum or carer, has been life changing. It’s brought me so much joy and has refreshed me for the week ahead. I don’t know how I coped without this time before.

Now that I’m over the worst, it’s hard to keep finding the discipline of time alone.

Since I’m not at crisis point, time to myself can seem less important than getting on with life. Making sure I’m pulling my weight at home. Being there for Jenson.

But then I remember that for 18 months, I gave more than my fair share to this family.

So it’s not about an even 50:50 split, but about communication and asking for what I need so that I can thrive as a mother, wife and woman.

Asking for help

I’ve asked my husband over the past months to step up with the caring of our son – we now share the bedtime routine and co-sleeping so the other can enjoy a night of disruption-free sleep.

And with me no longer taking the caring role with everything, I’ve let my husband care for me more and I’ve felt closer to him than I have in a long time.

I was so busy caring and coping before that I’d lost what it was to be a wife.

What it was to be vulnerable and gentle and soft. Cared for, desired and with desire

It’s not been easy.

We’ve had more disagreements than we have had in a long time.

I’ve pushed him and pulled him into me.

I’ve been more vocal about my needs and have confronted him when I’ve felt hurt or ignored or misunderstood.

Instead of burying my feelings deep inside me, I’ve spoken up.

But it’s been good.

Because instead of feeling complacency – a foreboding of the death of a relationship – I’ve felt fire.

And that has kindled us in a way that I haven’t experienced in a long time.

I’m not an island

I’ve also asked other people to step up and help in our lives.

Friends have rallied around to babysit Jenson and give us some precious time alone.

When Gregg’s parents or my own parents have come to visit or had us to stay, I’ve asked them to look after Jenson so I could rest and find moments of solitude. I’ve taken time for myself without worrying that I was being ‘rude’ or ‘inhospitable’.

Because I recognise that this time alone is what I need and their love for Jenson means that time with him isn’t a chore.

I remember writing on this blog, at the start of Jenson’s life, how important it would be for me to ask for help. How I longed for Jenson to know that he doesn’t need to be strong, independent, self-contained. 

And I find myself reflecting back now and seeing that my desire has come true – I’m living how I want him to.

In community.

Asking for help.

Accepting the support of other people even though I can’t always give back in turn.

New season

I’m finding myself in a new season in life.

Connecting with the beauty of nature and the spirituality of the world.

Not through any religious beliefs, but through an awakening to the ancient wisdom of the planet and the inherent spirituality I feel as a human being.

I know that what I’m saying is quite vague, and that’s because I can’t quite articulate it myself.

All I know is that I feel connected to something bigger than myself.

And with that, I’ve felt a love for myself and a self-compassion that I’ve never felt before.

I’m finding myself able to say ‘no’ to invitations that aren’t right for me.

I’m looking at my body in a way that I’ve rarely been able to in the past – with true love and acceptance for all that I am, complete with stomach rolls, a slight double chin, my wrinkles and grey hairs.

It’s all me and all worthy of love.

Over the past month, I’ve danced with joy.

I’ve cried with sorrow.

I’ve started to reconnect to the wild Amy who has been tamed by society but is bursting to break out.

And this feels like just the beginning.

Taboo

I feel like I’ve broken one of the biggest taboos in the world – speaking about how motherhood isn’t always pretty.

How I have regrets for the child-free life I left behind.

How I know that I could have been happy without a child, even though I love Jenson with all my heart.

We do women a massive disservice in silencing the truth about the brutalities of motherhood.

It’s exhausting.

It’s relentless.

It’s the best and the worst experience.

And yet we only speak about the beauty, and at most, laugh about the witching hour before bed or whisper to our friends in secret ‘I’m not happy’. 

And I’m so proud of myself for having spoken up and started to challenge the taboo.

I’m so proud that I’ve been loud in saying how hard it is.

And I hope that others have felt permission to be truthful and honest, even if only to themselves or to me.


And so while this time has been one of the trickiest in my life, it has brought more growth than I could ever have imagined.

And I’m looking forward to seeing where this next season in life will take me.

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Being real

I was looking forward to my coaching session this morning to explore how I can be more myself in the workplace. I’m aware that so often I pitch myself as ‘happy Amy’, ‘helpful Amy’, ‘glass-half-full Amy’ when that’s not what is truly going on for me. And while I don’t want to leave myself unfiltered at work to berate the lack of sleep I have, how I feel frustrated by X, Y & Z or be unconsciously careless about what I do share, I’m questioning the lack of realness in the workplace and am feeling uncomfortable with how little I show up authentically in order to feel safe.

This thinking started since I’ve been running a training session for managers in the workplace. It’s the one thing at work that I’ve actively disliked doing, because I feel like I’m constantly questioning myself about whether I’m enough, what people think, how I can get people to like what we’re teaching. Being like this, whilst pretending that everything is ok, keeps me safe, but it’s arduous and I’m not myself as I teach it. I’m an overstretched, overwhelmed, overcompensating version of myself and as a result, for the two weeks that this course runs every month I am exhausted to my bones. It’s been a struggle because I’ve not let myself be truly myself.

It’s not just me going through this too. I think people don’t feel able to show up fully in the workplace. For example, I was really saddened by a colleague of mine saying she wouldn’t sing in the work choir because the group is going to do a Christmas carolling session at each of our work hubs and it wouldn’t be professional to do this around colleague who she might be taking through a disciplinary or performance management process as an HR professional. I understand the tension but surely she’s allowed to be herself whilst also having a serious role to play at work?

I found myself sense-checking a blog post I wrote for work in which I shared that I’ve struggled with eating disorders and suffer to this day with anxiety. It felt uncomfortable to share this on a public blog read by a number of my work colleagues because I associate any mental ill health in myself (and others , if I’m honest) as weakness. This perception of weakness makes it hard to feel comfortable being real at work and, in the same way, it also feels weak to be vulnerable at work; to show anything of myself which isn’t 100% positive or professional.

So what have I done in the past? I’ve shied away from being vulnerable and in doing so have sacrificed showing up as my true self. And while I didn’t talk with my coach about how I’m going to make changes to be more vulnerable at work, one thing came out for sure – I’m no longer comfortable living behind a mask.

It no longer feels right.

Staying safe at the cost of my authenticity and vulnerability feels too restrictive, almost like I’m in clothes that are too tight for me. I want to take them off…but I also know that I can’t strip myself of these clothes in one go. Change this deep doesn’t work like that.

Instead I’ll need to summon the courage (along with a bucketload of patience for myself) to take off these ‘clothes’ bit-by-bit, experience-by-experience. I’ll need to remove being seen as bulletproof, always right, constantly competent, unable to be bruised and step into conversations that talk more about people than processes, more about hearts than heads, more about feelings than facts. I’ll need to be enquiring; to question assumptions about how we’re unable to be our full selves at work.

I’ll also need to hold this desired way of being with humour and grace. Knowing that I’ll fall down more times that I’d like to admit. Knowing that there’s no fixed end point to this way of being – there’s just more experiences of sharing fully of myself.

I feel excited about the potential of bringing my full self, being vulnerable and authentic, to the workplace. And while I feel like I end more posts than I’d like with the words ‘I can’t wait to see where this takes me’ they are true. I can’t wait to see where things go from here!

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