Lead by example
In December 2012, I submitted this piece as my final paper for a course at Harvard Business School on Authentic Leadership Development. I changed a handful of words before posting it here today. But it was important to me to leave the meaning of every sentence intact, and I did.
The purpose of my life is to lead by example. The way I conduct myself is the legacy I’ll leave. I will live with honesty, empathy, creativity, and courage.
Honesty is a central tenet of my life. So far, I have practiced it primarily in the negative: I am careful not to lie. But I miss many opportunities to tell the truth. I am known for my eloquent turns of phrase, which sometimes come across as euphemisms. I intend for the observations I make to strike a balance between truth and niceness, but in reality, I suspect they are received as artful indirection. I believe I could channel some of the energy and talent I spend on delicacy toward telling hard truths in ways that people will be able to hear. My intuition and powers of observation are two of my most important qualities; I do no favors by muffling them.
I also miss opportunities to be more honest with myself. This claim is borne out by feedback I received from an old friend: she mentioned that my forceful cheerfulness can actually be off-putting: not everything is getting better all the time. She finds it frustrating when I won’t admit this to her, but even more worrisome when she’s not sure I’m admitting it to myself. By acknowledging when life is hard and not straining to find a silver lining, the moments I choose to celebrate carry more weight. Admitting to ups and downs doesn’t make me a drag; it just makes me real, and real is what I want and need to be — especially with myself. Besides, I wear my heart on my sleeve, and I wouldn’t want to change that. Most people can sense when I mean what I say, so I might as well mean it. The more straightforwardly honest I am, the more implicit permission I give others to be honest with themselves — and with me.
Empathy comes to me naturally and intensely. In my life, I have experienced great loss. My sister Marianne died before I was born, my sister Laura four years after; my family left Mormonism when I was about thirteen (precipitating a loss of faith), and my brother Spencer died when I was twenty-four. These losses have strained me and set me apart. Because of them, I am more resilient day-to-day. Yet I am also more attuned to pain and disappointment experienced by others. This can be overwhelming for me to experience, but it can also be a force for good.
Empathy requires a commitment to listen and to be present: people do not open up when they feel rushed. Going forward, I will be more purposeful about the times I do choose to exercise empathy, by sitting with others for as long as it takes for them to recognize and reveal their feelings, and by listening intently all the while. I also want to be gentler with myself about the times when opening up to another’s sorrow would simply be too much. I can only be there for others if I first take care of myself. Through acute sensitivity to my own needs and the needs of others, I will set an example of care and self-care that I hope will be worth following.
Creativity has been a steadfast pillar of my life, and language has been my most important creative outlet. At the beginning of my first year at HBS, I wrote:
When I think about the times in my life when I’ve felt the most joy, I’ve realized that language is a common theme. I remember being a kid in the summertime and waking up first thing in the morning, picking up a library book from the floor beside my bed, and reading all morning — fighting the need to go to the bathroom or eat, or do anything, because I was so excited to find out what came next. At Middlebury in Vermont, I spent a summer immersed in Russian. As intense as it was, I could only feel delight when I got to sit in the cafeteria with friends, falling off our chairs with laughter, overjoyed at all the words we were learning and all there was yet to learn. Reading and writing bring daily wonder to my life; they are persistent, tireless sources of discovery.
Since starting at HBS, I’ve added computer programming to the mix; some of my happiest weekends this past year have been those spent immersed in reading and writing code. My love of language will serve as a touchstone in my life: a reliable way to find myself, if ever I start to feel burnt out or disenchanted. And by visibly pouring time into that love — through the side-projects I undertake and the way I tell my story — I hope to inspire others to pour time into their loves, too. But this will be hard for me to remember: creativity requires unstructured time to play. If creativity is a value of mine, I have to model that belief by giving myself the gift of unstructured time.
Beyond my own joyful experiences with creativity through language, enabling creative expression on a larger scale presents a riveting challenge and opportunity. The companies I feel most drawn to are those that make it possible for people to express their imaginations effectively: to build an audience, to develop their skills, to gain confidence; to let what they create become an integral part of their identity, online and off. I’ve often said that my ideal career would involve spending half my time creating and half my time enabling others to create. What I realized this past summer at Kickstarter was that, thanks to the internet, I may be able to scale enabling others to create beyond what I ever could have imagined. The next step in my career, then, may well be working to help a creative platform company reach more people and impact their lives in more meaningful ways. And if I am able to succeed at building my career creatively and with integrity, I hope to give others the courage to design their careers creatively and with integrity, too.
Courage takes practice. I define courage as taking risks that are worth it. A recurring theme in my Leadership Discussion Group was the importance of stepping outside of your comfort zone. Here is the true test of my willingness to lead by example: am I ready to make mistakes? A leader who never stretches herself sends the message that it is more important to remain safe than to take risks and grow. Yet I know the admiration I’ve had for leaders and mentors of mine who have shown vulnerability in trying something new. I also know the soaring confidence I found through an extracurricular improv class just before starting at HBS. I wasn’t great at improv, but I didn’t need to be: the stakes were low, and the classroom atmosphere was playful. It is so important to me to build environments where it is safe to try new things — and, in Mike Monteiro’s words, “make better mistakes tomorrow.”
The courage to try new things is important, but for me, the courage to face what is broken is just as critical. I fear confrontation, and I especially fear the prospect of people withdrawing their love or affection for me. I never want to be the “bad guy.” But, as we learned this semester, difficult conversations don’t have to be destructive. By listening intently and asking thoughtful questions, it is possible to work toward mutual understanding. In facing my fears and approaching looming conversations peacefully, I become more credible in my insistence that others try to do the same. And on a personal level, I get to live in a world less rife with fear. Once I have proven to myself that difficult conversations don’t have to herald the end of the world, perhaps I will be able to moderate some of the tension I carry with me as I go about the world.
A number of potential pitfalls lie ahead of me: my reluctance to learn through feedback, my problems with other women, the contingent quality of true enthusiasm, and my willingness to make myself small.
Learning is an integral part of my identity, yet I practice it only narrowly. Earlier this semester, I wrote:
I know that the most effective learning involves seeking continual feedback and always striving for ways to do and be better, and the feedback part is very difficult for me… it’s as though I’m unwilling to go through the phase of muscles (mental and physical) breaking down before they have a chance to grow back stronger.
I’ve begun to whittle away at that resistance by seeking out feedback on low-stakes projects from people I trust, thus normalizing the experience. But it will take constant vigilance and greater confidence to internalize that critical feedback isn’t the end of the world, and in fact, presents a tremendous opportunity for growth.
This semester, I came to understand the problem I have with other women better than ever before. As I wrote at one point, “in order to reach my leadership potential, I need to work toward healing my stance toward other women.” I think my habit of feeling threatened by and jealous of other women has at least three contributing factors. The first is my thwarted relationship with my two sisters who died in infancy, the second is the suppression of my competitive instinct, and the third is my lack of self-confidence.
I certainly can’t undo my sisters’ deaths, and I’ll address low self-confidence later on. But I think my suppressed competitive instinct is more of a factor than I often acknowledge. In my midterm paper, I wrote: “A sense of difference has permeated my life…[the project of my life has been] to fit in — to avoid making others uncomfortable at almost any cost — while still, quietly, being the best.” I noted, in particular: “I never took to sports in part because raw, physical competitive energy on the soccer field or the volleyball court felt foreign and dangerous. I wanted to be so unimpeachably, precociously good at things that there was no competition.” Thinking back on my most toxic falling-out with another woman, it was sparked by our competition in rowing crew. And when I think about the domains where I feel the most acute threats now, they are either romantic (fueled more by a lack of self-confidence, I believe) or career-related. It is in my career that I suspect the desire to be without peer will cause me the greatest trouble — particularly because allies are so much more valuable than enemies. There is room enough for everyone, and I should welcome all the peers I can get. I will distinguish myself over the long run, and perhaps even seek out women along the way that I feel able to look up to.
As for enthusiasm: it is a quality with which I identify deeply. I feel known for my ready smile and dependable excitement. Yet there have been times in my life when this expectation has turned dark; when a lack of true enthusiasm, combined with the social or personal expectation that I express it, merged to manifest the kind of forced cheerfulness that my old friend identified. As I wrote once in an open letter about what I’d learned lately: “enthusiasm is powered by emotion.” I should never put myself in a position where enthusiasm is an obligation, since its false expression only serves to damage and discredit my ability to express it truly. This indicates to me that I should avoid positions in marketing or sales (except, perhaps, when the product or service is of my own invention — and maybe even then) and limit the arenas in which I establish a reputation for reliable enthusiasm. While I am happy for others to draw energy from my enthusiasm (in fact, to see that happen is one of my great joys in life), I also need to remember that it takesenergy to generate enthusiasm. As in so many things, I need to be gentle with myself when, for whatever reason, I simply can’t muster the enthusiasm I’ve come to expect of myself. As long as I don’t push myself past the brink, I can trust that it will return, as it has so many times in the past.
My willingness to make myself small is of great concern to me. I link this to a lack of self-confidence, but it goes beyond that. In my Leadership Discussion Group’s final session, several people expressed a hope that I would “do big things,” as they know I can. I know I am capable of great things, as well; it’s the scale on which I dream and the scale on which I’m able to execute. But I fear that I won’t always be able to muster the bravado to be big in the world at the moment it’s required. Here, I’m remembering Eleanor Roosevelt’s words: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” I’ve often discussed with my partner, Erik, how interesting it is that I assume a personal baseline of insufficiency whereas he assumes a baseline of greatness. In each of our cases, there are deviations — there are days he feels less excellent, and there are days I feel more excellent. But our resting states are radically different. I wonder if my disposition is, by this point, simply too deeply embedded; I don’t know what “action steps” there are toward greater self-confidence. External validation will help temporarily, but doesn’t get at the root cause. I predict that continued psychotherapy will have some durable effect, and perhaps meditation of some sort would, as well. But I think the best defense is an offense: I need to find projects I can comfortably tackle or rituals I can reliably practice that remind me that I’m okay the way I am; that allow me to self-validate without waiting for others to reach out and do so.
I want to close with three reminders to myself.
The first reminder is one that Sahil first showed me: in large part, I am already seen as I wish to be seen. That work is done, if I want it to be. I have already invested deep time in letting myself be known and understood, and as a result, people know me as I am. The real work, then, is: what will I do with that understanding?
The second reminder is one our group collectively came to in one of our first meetings: as committed as we are to being there for others, we usually neglect to ask for help when we need it. I will commit to asking for help when I need it.
The third is that, as I’ve started saying this semester: I love a good plot twist. I will let myself be surprised by life, in all its mischief and grace.