Over the last several years I have delivered or taught more than 30 keynotes and workshops nationwide including topics on communication, fundraising, and leadership; but the topic requested most is far from the typical conference session.
Its gritty, vulnerable, and often uncomfortable.
Nevertheless, whether I’ve taught this to a group of underprivileged college freshman or middle-aged factory managers – the response is the same. This is a life-changing way of looking at leadership.
We start by digging into the first “c” of the Social Change Model for Leadership Development (SCMLD), called “consciousness of self.” We look at what a person consists of – their experiences, values, beliefs, natural abilities, and perspectives. We hone in on the notion of leading by strengths as articulated in Gallup’s “Strengths Based Leadership,” but give a nod to the importance of building skill and teams around weaknesses. We discuss filling your leadership toolbox with items representative of all the stages in the SCMLD, like citizenship and controversy with civility.
Yet, the part of the talk that strikes home for most people is when we look at author Bill George’s suggestion that great leaders must do “an inner work.” When writing True North, Bill found that great leaders take time to pick apart their own life story, grapple with their greatest crucibles, and put their struggles into context so they can move forward authentically. Only then can people trust them enough to follow.
This last part is the toughest, because it requires us to examine those things that hurt or challenged us most in life. As a college Vice President and successful business owner who was classified “at-risk” in middle school, I never could have gotten to where I am if I had ignored my problems.
In my 20’s, having endured abusive relationships and experienced multiple, severe traumas, I had serious trust and anger issues. The early years of my career included interpersonal conflicts that directly correlated with the turbulence I was feeling inside. I got some counseling, put myself through an anger-control program, and studied more self-help books than I care to admit. All of this allowed me to stabilize and the moment I did, my career began to take off.
Here’s the thing – what is happening in us comes out of us no matter where life takes us. It doesn’t magically disappear because we got a college degree, a new job title, or a bump in pay.
For me, I’ve learned to accept this is a life-long process. Even now, 16 years into my career, I still see pieces of the unhealthy me rising to the surface now and again, in totally surprising and unexpected ways.
Great leaders – as Bill George discovered when he interviewed dozens of them – never stop growing.
Great leaders commit to a life of “inner work.”
Too often, we think addressing our vulnerabilities and letting the walls come down is a sign of weakness, but quite the opposite is true. It is a process to be honored and encouraged.
Pamela Witter is a speaker, author, and professional fundraiser. She serves as VP for Development at Trocaire College and owns and operates a small business called Seed Planters. Her book Five Strategies to Increase Annual Fund Revenue will be released by Charity Channel Press in 2016. Visit her at www.BeASeedPlanter.com.
In corporate and office environments we often size people up based on professionalism and forget, a human being exists underneath that suit. We have human reactions.
Some of us are better at suppressing them. Others are able to internally assess and move through them quickly, maintaining mental stability and focus. Still others, at varying degrees of intensity, duration, or frequency, give way to their emotional reactions to work situations.
In 15 years as a professional, I have had all of these reactions and have witnessed colleagues – from front-line staff to executive leadership – cycle through them. On rare occasions, I met someone who appeared stoic, but this was often accompanied by a lower level of engagement and collaboration. A big wall existed between them and nearly everyone else, leaving little room for the kind of connection, vulnerability and conversation that leads to great innovation.
I am an emotional person by nature, and a sensitive person. Many in my family have argued I am too sensitive at times. Others have said it is a gift and I can often feel other people’s feelings and bring awareness and healing to difficult situations. Either way, it presents challenges and opportunities in my life as a VP.
One opportunity is the ability to quickly assess and change approaches and communication styles based on others’ needs, in order to reach the desired outcome. A challenge is having a difficult time letting go in the inevitable moments when someone simply doesn’t like me.
Wherever you fall on the spectrum, Dr. Marcia Reynolds, Psy.D., suggests you recognize your reaction. She questions, “Do you feel fear in your chest, betrayal in your heart, anger in your shoulders, gut or head, or humiliation in the pit of your stomach?” She reminds us, “Your brain works very hard to keep you safe, so it will judge a situation as threatening if there is any possibility of social harm. This is not a logical process.”
Let’s say you’ve worked through your emotions, asked yourself if the person really meant to harm or criticize you, and you have determined they did. Reynolds says, it’s time to decide how much that really matters. In some cases, a situation becomes hostile. HR gets involved or you must decide, do I stay or do I go. Every day interactions rarely rise to that level. Instead, we must deal with difficulty.
She continues, resist trying to change others, “rise above the discord,” and mentally forgive people for not appreciating you or the impact they had on you. I would add, self-reflect often and grow through your own shortcomings. It’s not always everyone else’s fault.
Whatever the case, your mental energy is exhaustible. Reynolds calls it one of your “most precious resources.”
In order to continue doing great things, guard it like you would fine jewels, but also forgive yourself when you are what you are – a human being.
I may feel like a superhero sometimes when I’m firing on all cylinders, but God knows, you won’t find a Wonder Woman logo under my suit. Life reminds me often just how fallible I am and guess what, that’s okay.
Reynolds, M. (Sept. 7, 2012) What to do when someone doesn’t like you: Questions to ask yourself when you feel hurt. Psychology Today. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/wander-woman/201209/what-do-when-someone-doesn-t-you.
Although thought leadership has been around since the 60’s when for-profit consulting firms created communication pieces mirroring academic journals to increase clientele, it has earned renewed notoriety in recent years. And frankly, people have a love-hate relationship with the term.
Love because it’s relevant. Legitimate thought leadership done right enhances reputation, increases presence, positions you above competitors, generates leads and conversions, and optimizes impact in the chaotic world of everything-internet. (see “6 Ways Thought Leadership Will Take Your Marketing to New Levels,” John Hall, 7/8/13, Forbes.com)
Hate because it’s overused and misused. Joel Kurtzman coined the term in the 90’s. He said not only customers, but peers and industry experts will recognize the individual as a thought leader. That individual “deeply understands the business they are in, the needs of the customers, and the broader marketplace in which they operate." Yet, lots of people use the mechanism of thought leadership (sharing content, inviting you in through dialogue, positioning oneself as an expert) without delivering anything of substance.
Perfect example: Someone tweets a revolutionary headline about some new HR innovation and when you click on the blog there is no content, but rather an ambiguous “register for webinar X for $500” link. On the other hand, when someone tweets that same headline and then offers deep, valuable information, I become a forever-follower.
I pull my examples from fundraising because it’s my industry. Thought leaders I follow include Dan Allenby and his Annual Giving Network; Kent Stroman at The Asking Academy; Josh Birkholz who wrote the book on Fundraising Analytics; and Anne Freedman, International Presentation Coach. These people blow my mind every time I read their stuff. It’s informative and valuable. For that reason, I’ve contracted with some of them and I’ve connected with all of them.
So why might a community-based non-profit or small company consider this approach to sharing expertise with various constituencies? It can lead to:
I'll close with this awesome quote from Britton Manasco in her 4/5/12 article "Out of the Darkness: Thought Leaders Illuminate the Path Forward."
"Thought leadership is the presentation of relevant and compelling insights - enabling one's intended audience to comprehend key issues, make decisions, and embrace change. It concerns all leaders that hope to influence our understanding of past events, present conditions and future possibilities."
George Washington Carver was a successful botanist, chemist, inventor and educator. Success like that doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It’s not surprising Carver said, “How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and strong. Because someday in your life you will have been all of these.”
In the work world, we enter professional relationships with people from all generations – the GIs or Greatest Generation, the Boomers, the Gen Y and Xers, and the Millennials.
As we blend in the office and the boardroom, sometimes conflict arises. I’ve heard GI’s suggest the world is “doomed” because of new leadership. I’ve heard Boomers say, “Young people these days are so spoiled, I can’t wait for them to be in the real world and get smacked with reality!” I’ve heard more than one Millennial dismiss established leadership. I don’t know what people say about Xers because they probably wouldn’t say it in front of me!
Despite our disagreements, we’re not all that different. Each of us is both capable and flawed. How beautiful when we collaborate and find resonance in our other-aged peers. For example, in my late 20’s, I put my time in – long hours, inglorious work, marginal influence, mistakes and victories. So when I see Millennials making their way, I’m thrilled for them! I want to give them a leg up. I’m also embarking on the fourth decade of my life. I understand the slower, reflective approach of a wiser person and appreciate learning lessons in leadership from the Boomers guiding me. For that matter, to have an opportunity to sit with a GI and listen to their war stories, that is a blessing.
So much of successful management and leadership have to do with “being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and strong.” How we do that will dictate our ability to succeed in life and business. Each of us has something to learn and something to teach. Together, we comprise a complete perspective.
In the words of the great Maya Angelou, “We can learn to see each other and see ourselves in each other and recognize that human beings are more alike than we are unalike.”
Since graduating from college fifteen years ago, I have enjoyed unexpected success.
As a leader and fundraiser, my teams and I smashed through success rates in donor retention, total and annual revenue, and participation in giving.
We closed out capital campaigns and giving challenges. We increased one annual fund sustainably by more than 30 percent.
Personally, I’ve earned seven prestigious awards, served as a speaker at more than 30 conferences nation-wide, and published two books with a third on the way.
I served as a volunteer or board member in nearly a dozen different roles, launched two small businesses, was made an Executive Director before 35, and Vice President before 40.
I’m not bragging. In fact, I feel silly sharing that, but it matters because statistically, it should not have happened. In fact, the only reason that stuff matters is because it paints a picture of overcoming odds.
I was classified at-risk in middle school. My family fell below the poverty line. I faced several emotionally-debilitating challenges in my youth. I only went to college because I had a very persistent guidance counselor who steered me toward the Higher Education Opportunity Program. Once in, people went above and beyond to ensure I graduated.
I’ve seen the statistics play out. Many of my early peers are still stuck in poverty or grappling with addiction. Some have died or landed in jail. Education is certainly the great equalizer but what we do with that education matters. How we live out our leadership through our professional lives determines how far we can go.
The secret to success:
So how does one go from at-risk to successful professional? (Personally, I credit faith first and foremost, but what else?) There are a multitude of ingredients but the two most important words are this: humility and collaboration. I believe these two behaviors underline every win I ever experienced.
When we are born onto this earth we know nothing in terms of learned information – not a single word. This earth is a foreign place. I’ll never forget bumping into my brother-in-law Tim at the store. His infant son Gage sat in the car seat in the cart. The entire time Tim and I talked Gage stared intently at my lips. I could see his brain working as he watched us form words. He was learning language right before my very eyes.
Somewhere along the line, we risk devaluing the learning process. Every effort should begin as Gage did – watching, learning, assessing, absorbing. At the root of learning is humility. I know some things but not everything. From a place of humility, I open myself up to the information around me. I see and hear things differently. I value differing opinions. I am receptive to input which allows me to grow and expand my understanding. Just like Gage had to learn before he could speak, as professionals we must learn before we can act.
Collaboration – my second favorite word. Studies show that companies with diverse leadership teams and boards are more successful and experience higher revenues. Diversity of perspectives and skill sets leads to a more well-rounded operation. I can only accomplish so much on my own. As we draw others in, we expand our capability. We also bring new and important information to bear on the challenges we face. Other staff members, departments, community members, age groups, cultures – all of these can lead to better solutions than those created in a vacuum.
What it all means:
Fifteen years ago, I was an insecure, broken person with absolutely no thought about my future except that I liked to write. Today, my life has purpose, meaning, and impact. I am so grateful for the path laid out in front of me and those who led the way, and I believe beyond a shadow of a doubt that leading from a place of humility and inviting other voices in to the process opens possibilities beyond our imagination. In fact, I dare say some of our world’s biggest challenges can be overcome using the formula of humility and collaboration.
In his text The Orbital Perspective: Lessons in Seeing the Big Picture from a Journey of 71 Million Miles, astronaut Ron Garan said, “A partner’s different perspective is valuable, but the very fact that it is different means that it will require work, humility, time, and resources to incorporate that perspective. At times, this will require checking one’s pride at the door.”
Collaboration and humility are hard work but when enacted, change lives and communities.
Pamela Say is a published author, fundraiser, and life-long student of leadership. Browse Pam's blog entries for possible conference session or keynote topics. Pam customizes training opportunities for her clients.
Read Pamela's internationally published articles at Orato.World:
Father's death leads son to advocate for firefighter cancer awareness
Father offers forgiveness to five-year-old son's killer
Kenyan journalist forcibly outed, launches Bold Network Africa
Hope Virgo fought for her life, campaigns for eating disorder support
Paxton Smith reflects on graduation speech swap, starting collge, and book deal
From racism to one race: the Jane Elliott story