From Cloud Ten to Ground Zero in Four Hours
About 16 years ago, someone, in their infinite wisdom, decided to put me in charge of telling people what to do in the workplace. I'm not sure if it was out of desperation, laziness, or if they really thought I had what it took to be someone's manager. The day I was promoted, I remember the drive to pick up my daughter from daycare. The twenty-something, overly confident, self assured and delusional new middle manager in me was on cloud ten, and had convinced myself that it had taken too long for the powers that be to recognize my potential.
I hit ground zero when I arrived at Asbury Day Care. Reality kicked in when I saw my daughter's daily report from the teacher. It was the third day in a row with no stars for good behavior. I felt like my precocious toddler had spent most of the third year of her life in some sort of state of time out, both at daycare and at home. If I couldn't control a 32 pound little girl who couldn't tie her own shoes, how could I inspire people to do their best work?
Well, long story short, I did it. And, I've done it ever since. And it's never been easy. But nothing worth anything ever really is.
A Family of "Firsts"
When we look at ourselves in the mirror, we often don't see the core of who we are. Mine is made up of a myriad of experiences; tough times, triumphs and life lessons. As luck would have it, I hit the birth lottery and was born into a long line of "firsts". Many of the elders in my family were the first to achieve something that we as a family never thought possible during times of deep rooted discrimination across the Deep South. Everything from education to desegregation, to jobs, you name it, we've been busting out ceilings for a long time on both sides of my family. As anyone could imagine, being from this "first" family was riddled with expectations and the ongoing pressure to succeed.
It was my family that modeled the drive and the hard work ethic from birth that it took to achieve more than they ever dreamed of. But, it was the leaders that supported my career who taught me to temper my drive with compassion; those leaders that listened and trusted my judgement; who stuck out their necks and took a chance on me, and who celebrated my successes, and allowed me to shine who taught me true servant leadership.
The Woman in the Mirror
It wasn't until last Friday that I realized what has made me a pretty good leader over the years. I've had mentors who believed in me like I was their daughter, and taught me so much about lifeby how they lived their own. It wasn't just all the Good to Greats, and Lee Iacocca, and the 7 Habits and Dr. King speeches, and icons that have taught us so much. It's way more than that.
When I think of those I serve as their leader, I know there is something in them that I see in myself, which is what I look for with every interaction, whether good, or sometimes gritty.
Just recently I had the chance to build my own team from the ground up. Without knowing it at the time I made some pretty interesting choices that went beyond just their ability to do the job. There is a characteristic of each of them that I can somehow see in myself. Open-heartedness, willingness to learn, focus, drive, tenacity, energy, humor, optimism, realism, integrity and loyalty. All of these traits are a gift for any leader to work with everyday.
The Car Dance that Almost Went Sideways
This brings me back to Friday’s epiphany. I was driving back from a meeting with one of my team members when a dance song that we both liked suddenly came on the radio and we cranked up the volume and started jammin' less than a mile away from the office. It was Friday afternoon after all. In a matter of minutes, everything changed because of a traffic problem and we could have been hurt. Well, more than just hurt.. We drove away unscathed. Ironically, the song that came on the radio was called "Can't Feel My Face." I felt like we were in the middle of a Seinfeld episode. We took some deep breaths, giggled nervously and drove back to the office hysterically laughing. We made a pact we'd never reveal the ridiculous details behind the incident. No one would ever believe us anyway, we said.
As I looked at my reflection in the mirror on Friday night, it had been a long day. I remember thinking afterward that there was a minute while we were in the car when my team member could have jumped out of the car to safety, but she didn't. She chose to stay in the car, with her eyes covered. I was suddenly moved by team member's loyalty. I saw a reflection of her, in me.
This was a reflection of selflessness, which is what real leadership is all about.