This article originally appeared in my newsletter. A number of people responded favourably and some wanted to link to it, so I thought I’d post it here as well.

Ten years ago, I was in the most difficult and discouraging job of my career. I was the communications manager of a major, high security federal laboratory that was involved in every major health scare from SARS to West Nile Virus to Mad Cow Disease (and many things in between).

I was miserable. Not only was it extremely busy and stressful (during the height of SARS, my one staff person and I were fielding hundreds of media calls a week from all over the world and were often working seven days a week), but it was not at all aligned with my interests or passions. Though I pride myself on being an expert communicator, putting science mumbo-jumbo into laypersons’ language is not my idea of a good time.

The worst part, though, was that I felt completely disillusioned with the leadership path.

I felt like I’d taken a detour that led me straight into the fire swamp, and the “Rodents of Unusual Size” were closing in on me (a Princess Bride reference, in case you’re confused).

Only a few years earlier, I’d taken on my first leadership role (in another government department) and had completely fallen in love with the experience. I had keen and gifted young staff who were passionate and exciting to work with, and I had a boss who modeled Sophia leadership and was my greatest champion and mentor.

At the lab, though, everything was different. I still had a passionate and highly-skilled staff member on my team, but our contribution to the organization was not valued, we were short-staffed and couldn’t get proper funding, we were forever in conflict with the powers-that-be in our head office, and we felt marginalized and demoralized.

One of the biggest downfalls that I saw at the lab (and that I’ve witnessed in other similar environments) was the fact that they promoted good scientists to leadership roles (to reward them for their contribution to science) and forgot to consider whether or not they would make good leaders. At most management meetings, I was the only person who didn’t have “Dr.” attached to my name, and I was the only person whose eyes were consistently above the table instead of under it where the Blackberries were “hidden”.

I wouldn’t say that good scientists can’t be good leaders, but by and large, the skills that make a person a good scientist are not the skills that make a person a good leader. A scientist has to be good at working independently in a laboratory, focusing for long hours on tiny details, being a micro-manager, and putting scientific breakthroughs ahead of personal relationships. None of these are what I would consider strong leadership traits (especially when it comes to Sophia leadership).

In a place where leadership was secondary to science, I saw a lot of bad leadership. I also saw a lot of bad leadership at the political and bureaucratic levels in Ottawa. (Since we were so high profile, and the health scares our scientists were working on were in the media nearly every day, politicians & high level bureaucrats kept their noses firmly planted in our business.)

It was all very far from my intuitive sense of what leadership should be. And yet I felt like my hands were tied. Though I challenged some of the practices, and tried hard to build a more effective internal communications strategy, mostly I had very little influence and not enough experience to convince people that there was a better way.

I spent a lot of time crying during that period in my life. I had two small children at the time (and gave birth to my third while I was working there) and every day I would ask myself why I had to leave them to spend my days in misery in a place where I didn’t belong. As I described in a recent blog post about trees that need to die to create compost for other young trees to grow, I was firmly stuck in the rot.

And then one day, a tiny seed got planted in the middle of that rot.

Surfing the internet, I came across a Margaret Wheatley book called Turning to One Another, about “hosting conversations as the means to restore hope to the future.” Say what? Conversations can help us restore the future? Sharing our stories will help shift things? A highly educated author believed what I knew intuitively to be true?

I was intrigued and the idea wouldn’t let me go. Before long, I’d found the book in the library and devoured it like a starving man released from concentration camp. It was brilliant, but depressingly far away from my current leadership experience.

I started looking into everything Meg Wheatley was putting out into the world, and became particularly fascinated by an organization she’d co-founded called Berkana Institute (whose byline is “Whatever the problem, community is the answer”). Following a trail of breadcrumbs, I also found the work of Christina Baldwin (and her partner Ann Linnea), and was equally intrigued. Christina teaches about how gathering in circles and sharing stories can help transform the world. (I love all of Christina’s books, but especially recommend The Circle Way: A Leader in Every Chair.)

It was like someone had lit a candle for me in a dark place.

Suddenly I saw true leadership illuminated in a whole new way. I started reading everything I could by Meg, Christina, and other thought leaders in their circles. It was transformative for me, and even though nothing much shifted in my workplace, I started to hold out hope for another way. At the time, a little dream popped into my head… some day I would study with Meg and Christina and maybe even work with them. It seemed impossible at the time, but I couldn’t help dreaming it.

A couple of years after that, I left the job at the lab and spent the next six and a half years in a non-profit organization that was much more suited to my passions and skills. It wasn’t always easy, but I had an amazing time leading a national team and traveling across Canada and around the world. My leadership skills and philosophies continued to be stretched and challenged. During that time, I started feeling a familiar tug leading me to the next stage in my leadership journey… it was time to teach and write about some of the things I’d learned.

Fast forward to 2010. As many of you know, 2010 was a big transitional year for me. I left my non-profit job to launch Sophia Leadership. But before I did that, I spent a week in Halifax at ALIA(Authentic Leadership in Action) Summer Institute. I was drawn there largely because I’d read about it on Meg Wheatley’s website. While there, I was delighted to be part of a 5 session leadership intensive that was led by Meg (and Jim Gimian and Jerry Granelli). It was a dream come true. The whole experience was one of the most profound and transformational experiences of my life.

Four months later, after leaving my job, another dream came true. I got to spend four daysstudying story and circle with Christina Baldwin (pictured on left), and again my life was changed. When I told Christina that she’d lit a candle in a dark place for me ten years earlier, tears sprang to her eyes.

Ten years after first encountering them, ten years after that seed had been planted in the messy rot of my unhappiness, and in the very year that I was launching my own leadership & creativity business, I got to study with both of the women who’d planted that seed. And then the seed began to grow and now I am self-employed as a leadership mentor and teacher myself. Even now I can barely believe my good fortune that all of this has come to pass.

As I reflect on those ten years and all that transpired in that time, I recognize a few important lessons that we can all learn from.

  • Follow the thread. If something excites you, and makes you feel alive and energized even in the middle of despair, follow it. Though there were years in the middle of those ten years that I thought very little about Meg or Christina or the things I learned from them, I never let go of the thread and I never gave up the dream that I would some day study with them.
  • Never stop learning. Read lots of books, go to as many workshops as you can afford, and invest in your learning in every way you can. Even when you’re in the middle of a dark place and it feels like you will always be there, read books that challenge you and talk to people who inspire you to follow that thread.
  • Be patient. Ten years is a lot of time to wait for a dream to come true and for a new door to open, but those ten years were not wasted. I learned an awful lot of leadership lessons in those ten years that helped prepare me to serve other emerging leaders, and I don’t regret any of it.
  • Sit with the rot (a.k.a. persevere through the fire swamp). Oh, this is a tough one. When you’re in the middle of transition, and it feels like there is nothing but despair in your life, it’s hard to believe that some day dreams will come true again. They will. You need to believe it and you need to let the things that have died turn to compost so that new seeds can grow. I hated that job at the lab, but I learned a lot from it and I’m a better leadership mentor now than I could have been without that experience.

Next week I’m traveling to Columbus, Ohio for my second experience of ALIA. It wasn’t easy to pull this off, given the fact that I’m in my first year of business and not making a lot of money yet. But this is my tribe, my replenishing well, and my summer camp, so between air miles and an offer to do some promotional work for ALIA in exchange for registration, I’m making it work. I couldn’t be more excited. I know that I will grow once again and I will come home inspired with even more ideas and energy.

One of the things that tickles me about this trip to ALIA is that this time I’m doing a leadership intensive with Deborah Frieze, who spent several years running Berkana Institute, the incredible organization that inspired me ten years ago. I’ve recently read Walk Out Walk On (about communities that walk out of broken systems and dream something new into being) which Deborah wrote with Meg Wheatley, and it excited me about this work all over again. Once again, I can’t believe my good fortune.

I have little doubt that every single experience in these past ten years has helped shape me and shape the services and wisdom I now offer the world. It hasn’t been easy to hang onto that thread or to trust my blurry vision, but it has been worth every minute of it.

Wherever you are on your journey, whether you’re stuck in the rot and feeling hopeless, or on a winding path that doesn’t seem to be taking you where you think you should be going, I hope that you will be inspired by my story to stick with that thread, follow your inspiration and passion, and keep the faith.

Like Meg and Christina did for me ten years ago, I will continue to put my stories and wisdom out into the world in the hopes that they might light a candle for someone else. I encourage you to do the same.

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