At 30-years old, I hit a metaphorical wall. I was exhausted and burned-out. A social entrepreneur, I had poured my whole self into the venture I began at 24-years old and it seemed there was nothing left of me, for me. I had a hard time getting to sleep. I cried a lot. I was broke.
I looked for role models, for other feminists who had dedicated their lives to changing the world by leading organizations to see how they did it. I saw just two choices. Either I could keep going, personal sacrifices be dammed, and find myself an old, bitter lady fighting the same battles year after year, with increasing exasperation and exhaustion. Or, I could quit and find something less taxing and also, less meaningful. I thought this was a false choice. I wanted a third-way, a path where I could be a leader with a joyful heart and a full life.
I set out to make that path. You might say, I leaned in to the challenge.
I got a coach. The first thing Belma González helped me to do was to think about taking a serious break. Then she helped me ask for one from my organization’s board of directors. I was granted a three-month paid sabbatical. While that break served many goals, including my own wellbeing and improving the capacity of the organization, the biggest leadership lesson of all was in The Ask.
Asking for a sabbatical was the first time in my professional life that I made a big, bold, no compromises-kind-of -ask for me. At the time it was the riskiest thing I’d ever done. It was more scary than the first time I soloed an airplane at age 16 or when I moved to Alaska from the sunny beaches of Southern California on my own at 18-years. The board’s decision was out of my control. I have never been so nervous and so liberated at the same time.
Over the course of several months, before, during and after my sabbatical, I changed. I saw how The Ask made me better: a more effective leader, activist and entrepreneur. I was ready to do more asking, more leading, more leaning in. I became more conscious about my decisions – what I was saying yes to and what I was saying no – especially about how I invested my time. I started saying no to meeting-up with peers to commiserate over how tired and overwhelmed we were. I stopped going to meetings that didn’t interest me. I stopped complaining and gossiping. I asked my colleagues not to tell me the next time they heard a nasty rumor spread about me, or my organization. I said no to being stuck.
I said yes to moving forward. I found mentors who had overcome challenges. I studied the habits of successful people. I worked with coaches from CompassPoint Nonprofit Services, including Michelle Gislason and Rich Snowdon, who helped me identify my strengths. I surrounded myself with others who were motivated and ambitious too. I did what all successful people tell you to do: I dropped what was holding me back and stepped forward.
The result? My life got a lot harder and the decisions more complex. I faced more risks, more ambiguity, and more obstacles. But following the status quo was no longer an option, because I was out to change the standards.
As my organization grew and benefitted from my revitalized leadership I could offer others opportunities for leadership. I watched over and over as passionate, smart and talented young women stopped themselves from stepping into the unknowns of leadership. When I tried to talk about the phenomena, I was told the problem was mine, not theirs. My standards were too high. My ambition too strong. I should expect less.
It reminded me of the advice I got as a teenage girl looking for love: “you shouldn’t act so smart” I was told. It was bad advice then and it’s bad advice now. Even worse, these messages didn’t come from men. They came from feminists. The message was that in order for others to be more, I had to be less. I reject that false choice too.
I started paying attention to Sheryl Sandberg long before her TED talk because I pay attention to people who succeed, especially those who break a barrier, be it gender or race. I regularly read “Corner Office” – the conversation on management and leadership – in the business section of the New York Times. I have no real interest in fashion or music, but I soak up every article about the ways designers and artists bring their uncompromised visions to the world. The band U2 is my leadership idol for their ability to stay together, adapt and grow with the times.
On the advice of my coaches, I read Seth Godin and other business guys, like Jim Collins and Marcus Buckingham, who taught me what no feminist leader ever did: I have immeasurable strengths and talents. I shouldn’t worry about being liked, or right. I should surround myself with people who believe in me and share my passion. It’s my duty to create what is most in my heart and deliver my creative vision to the world as my gift. For the life of me, I can’t understand why these are not the dominant themes of the feminist message on women’s leadership.
When I watched Sheryl’s TED talk, I heard her put a name to what I had seen. If she had seen women stop themselves at Facebook – at the place it seems everyone wants to work – just as in my own organization, there was something unspoken happening. I am also a woman, working in a field dominated by women and my venture is a nonprofit organization. I wasn’t fighting to make my way in a field of men. There were barely any men around.
In the conversations that have followed the launch of her book, she was accused of not representing the average working mother. That’s true. She doesn’t. “Lean in” is a book for leaders – the public kind, leaders operating on a big stage with responsibilities for the wellbeing of people, organizations, economies and nation-states – and as everyone knows, leadership has serious costs. No family leave policy or flexible work schedule in the world will take them away. That’s why so many people – women and men – don’t put themselves out there. Leadership is vulnerable. It’s risky and hard.
But, there is nothing in the history of women’s lives throughout the world to tell us that we are not up for the challenge. We are. But what’s missing from this new conversation on women’s leadership is discussion on the inevitable rewards. No, I’m not referring to the monetary ones, or even the representation-type rewards, where it’s assumed having more women in positions of power will benefit all women. We don’t know that’s true. Women aren’t just one group – we come from many communities and we hold different values and beliefs about women and work. The rewards of leadership are far deeper, and they can be immensely more personal.
It’s hard to put into words the satisfaction I gain from having a purpose. I am motivated by the need to have an impact, to change the world, and I know I do. I can connect words I have spoken and actions I have taken with real life results that have made people’s lives better. I am deeply grateful for the opportunities I have to turn ideas into action.
I have found comfort in the ambiguity and challenges of leadership and I have developed the confidence and resilience that leaders achieve only with time and experience. I have a lot left in me these days – for work, leadership and life. I sleep well. I laugh just as much as I cry. I make a good living.
When I see young people passionate about changing the world yet afraid of the costs of leading, I want to share the good news about what’s possible on the other side – the rewards that come with the risks. I want to encourage them to leave the commiserating and complaining behind and embrace the scary-exhilaration of leadership. I don’t want them to worry too much about all the times they will undoubtedly fall short, get told “no” and fail. They must keep going, learning, adapting, finding their passion and their purpose. I hope they develop the skills, experience and wisdom the world so desperately needs and can only receive from them. They will be challenged beyond belief. It will not be easy. But, it can be meaningful and rewarding – for the leader, her family and the world.
What hurts my heart is that somehow this message may not be enough. I fear this good news won’t be heard unless I somehow convince them that I’m just as happy in my personal life as I am satisfied in my public one. Do I need to prove that I am not a slave to the cause and that I have perfect balance in order for my experience to be worthy of their notice?
It’s been 7-years since I hit that wall. I am the same person but a remarkably better leader. I continue down the third path of leadership – the one where I never quit but I also don’t make the sacrifices that will leave me bitter. My organization has become a source of fuel and fire to me, not a vacuum sucking me dry. I enjoy my work, my team and what we create together. I watch women lean in every day. They inspire me. Everyday I get clearer about what I’m saying no to and what I say yes to and sometimes, my needs change. I am capable of adjusting to new realities. I have learned to let go of what I can’t control. That doesn’t mean I haven’t fallen hard. You bet I have. But, as a leader, staying down is never an option.
I have the will to lead. I bet you do too.