Note: My word for the year is “fearless”. Throughout the year, I’m going to write periodic posts about my attempts to live a little more fearlessly. The introductory post and video can be seen here.
I fingered the silk patchwork jacket. My heart did a little pitter-patter in my chest. I wanted it. Badly. I’d often pictured myself wearing just such a garment. Colourful, eclectic, bohemian, artistic, bold, sassy – it said so many things about the wearer that I wanted to be able to say about myself.
I took a deep breath and checked the price. It was on sale. Less than half price. Almost what I could justify spending. Almost. But not quite. Still a little too much for our cash-strapped budget. Besides, did I really deserve something that extravagant? I left it on the rack and wandered the rest of the store, looking for something a little more affordable.
My feet kept taking me back to the clothing rack, however. Finally, after trying on rings, fingering scarves, and draping inexpensive bags over my shoulder, I took the jacket off the hanger. I had to at least try it on.
When I gazed at myself in the mirror, I knew I couldn’t leave the store without owning this jacket. In a few hours, I would fly home, and this would be my only chance. I needed to take it home. It spoke to me. It made me feel at least a little like the fearless and artistic woman I dreamed of being. “Don’t bother putting it in the bag,” I said to the cashier, “I’ll wear it. I have an important meeting to go to and I need a little boost.” And then I nearly skipped out of the store.
A few days later, packing for another trip – this time a little closer to home – I put the colourful jacket into my suitcase. It was a little dressy for the staff retreat I’d be attending, but I didn’t care. I needed the boost of colour and boldness.
I didn’t wear it for the first two days. Neither of those days called for bold, bohemian, or sassy. Neither of those days challenged my perception of myself quite as much as the third day – the day when everyone else would go home and leave me alone to lead my team through some difficult and possibly painful discussions. It was the day that would surely put my desire for fearlessness to the test.
In the morning, I went for breakfast in my new jacket. “That’s quite the jacket. Looks a little like Joseph,” said one of my staff members. “Yup,” I said, “it’s my coat of many colours.” “You remember what happened to Joseph, don’t you?” he chuckled. “Yes, he grew to be a bold and powerful leader,” I said, straightening my shoulders a little. “Yeah, but long before that, he got thrown in a pit. Let’s just say he had some road bumps along the way.”
Road bumps. Yes, that seemed appropriate. This was the day for road bumps. Possibly even the day that I’d get thrown in the pit.
Later that morning, as we prepared for the hard work of the day ahead, I glanced around the room. The tension was tangible – you could read it in the way people sat. None of us really wanted to be there. None of us trusted the other people in the room enough to believe that this day could have positive results. Though nobody was openly hostile, after years of treating each other with some measure of distrust and mild disdain, mixed in with a little unhealthy passive aggressiveness, we weren’t bringing our best efforts to the table anymore. To call us a “team” was generous – we were more like a dysfunctional “group” working on the same things but not really pulling together. I couldn’t help but wonder how much of that I had responsibility for, as their leader. There were definitely other factors – like remote staff spread across the country, unique and sometimes challenging personalities, gender biases, age biases, etc. – but in the wee hours of the morning, when I carried the weight of self-doubt, I wondered what I could have done differently these five years to turn this around.
When the facilitator passed the figurative baton to me, I swallowed a gulp of air, and wrapped the jacket a little tighter around my chest. “I’m not sure where to start,” I said, “but I’ve been doing a little thinking, and I need to tell you about that. I’ve been thinking we have a bunch of great people on the team, but I’ve also been thinking we’re really suffering, and we’re not doing nearly enough to support each other. We’re sabotaging each other, we’re not trusting each other, and we’re not taking risks together. We have to do something about it.”
For the next half hour, I took a bold and vulnerable step and laid my cards on the table. I told them about my personal doubt about being an effective leader. I told them of the many times somebody had come to me to tell me of the hurt they were suffering because of another member of the team. I told them of the times we’d fallen far short of our potential because we weren’t working together. I told them if we didn’t change, we would cease to be relevant.
When I ended, the room was silent. I looked around at the faces to see what they would feed back to me. Would there be hostility? Hurt? Withdrawal? I had no idea what to anticipate.
After a few brief comments, the facilitator encouraged us to take a coffee break. I longed to run back to the shelter of my room. Instead I sipped tea and tried to make small talk while avoiding people’s eyes.
When we returned to the meeting room, there was almost an audible collective sigh as people settled into their chairs a little more comfortably than before. One by one, they began to open up. “I’m glad you said the things you did. It’s hard to hear, but we need to hear it to move on.” “I’d like to acknowledge that I have been hurt and I know that I have hurt others, but I want to try harder.” “I wish we could work on a greater level of trust and respect.” “I could do better work if I knew my team-mates were behind me.”
Throughout the day, there continued to be a gradual softening in people’s posture and their words. There were gentle but difficult truths offered up. There were risks taken. There was respect offered. There was accountability and positive challenge. All of these things had been lacking in our meetings up until that point. So many times we’d sat with the elephant in the room, all of us afraid to speak of it.
At the end of the day, I returned to my room weary but full. Full of the goodness I’d seen in people I’d stopped caring for and stopped trusting. Full of the respect I’d been given when I put myself out there in a raw and honest way. Full of the new light I’d begun to see in people’s eyes.
As I removed my colourful jacket, I wondered, “is this how Joseph felt when he was rescued from the pit and began a journey that would see him rise to more powerful leadership than he could have imagined?”