The Real Courage of Leadership

Of all the things I’ve ever shared over at the Your Courageous Life Facebook page, there’s one thing that has struck the biggest chord, and it happened in the past few weeks: a quote that I posted from Facebook SEO Sheryl Sandberg:

“I want every little girl who’s told she’s bossy, to be told she has leadership skills, instead.”

As the shares for that particular post went into the ten-thousand rage, I was reminded of a pivotal experience that I had in fifth grade: We were put into small groups of five and each group was given a different configuration of Legos. These Legos came with lights that would snap onto the Legos. Our job? To decide what structure to build that would also make use of the lights.

By fifth grade, it had not escaped my attention that teachers usually grouped me with quiet people, the types who were slower to finish projects because they were looking around to see who would take charge. By contrast, I was opinionated, the kind of gal who could assess a project quickly and make a judgment about what needed to be done, next. By fifth grade, I’d already been labeled “bossy” and already carried some level of shame about that behavior.

To be fair? On some level, I hadn’t yet learned the social graces of being able to express myself in a way that didn’t steamroll over people in a way that was unkind. I never put people’s suggestions down or called them stupid, but I had a way of forcefully stating that we really should do it my way, and laying out five reasons why before someone else could protest.

But this experience changed that–because this time, Dana was also placed in my group.

Dana was also “bossy.” Dana was also someone who was opinionated. As the other three quiet kids in our group watched during the initial sessions of our group project, Dana and I sparred over every aspect of what should happen, came to agreements between ourselves, and then turned to the other three kids and said, “Do you agree?” like the little drill sergeants that we were. Afraid to make waves, they’d nod their heads yes and Dana and I would spar over the next aspect of the project.

I was oblivious, at first, the day that our teacher set all the groups to work and then came over specifically to our group. She turned to each group member and asked how we felt about each other in the group. They didn’t seem to be surprised to be asked such a strange question, which was my first clue that something was up.

Dana piped right up and laid it out there: I was bossy, she said, and the entire group didn’t like it. I don’t recall that the other three quiet kids had too many opinions about it, but when the teacher asked them directly if they agreed with Dana, they kind of shook their heads yes.

Smart enough at that point to have figured out that the group had had a discussion about me behind my back, and determined that I was the problem, I. Was. Mortified.

I didn’t know how anything had transpired. I didn’t know if the teacher had overheard me making a bossy remark at our last group meeting, or if Dana had approached the teacher. All I knew was that they walked in that day prepared for that discussion, and that I’d felt ambushed. Even worse, I was starting to cry in front of all of them, a double humiliation.

As I recall it, the teacher was empathetic to my tears. She let me excuse myself and go to the restroom. She asked that we all work together. And then, for the remaining week or so of the project, whenever it was time to get into small groups, I felt sick to my stomach.

How we Get Quiet


After that, I grew very, very quiet.

I was also horribly confused.

Dana was now issuing commands to the three quiet members of our group, as well as me. And girlfriend, I followed all of them. Every time one of our members started to put something in the wrong place and she said, “No! Not there!” in a commanding tone, I racked my brain trying to figure out why she could say that and the group didn’t mind, but if I said it, the group did mind.

Every time there was a group decision before us and she said, “We need to do _______,” I waited for the quieter members to nod yes before adding my yes, and I tried to figure out how what I had done was different than what she was doing, now.

I never figured it out. When the project ended, I was relieved beyond belief.

But in a way, the project didn’t “end.”

It didn’t “end” in the sense that I would spend the rest of my life in groups wondering what was different about me, than the other girls. I still watch in fascination as women in groups offer one another very direct feedback, sometimes even using the exact words that I’ve been criticized for using, and often find myself thinking, “If I said that, I suspect I’d be labeled a bitch. What’s the difference?”

Bossy vs. Opinionated.

I have figured out a few things about the real courage of leadership. One: there is a difference. I don’t know that there was a difference between myself and Dana all those years ago, but I can recognize that sometimes when I disagree with people, I really, really (really!) want to be right. I want my idea to dominate. It’s not that I’m mean. It’s that I get excited by what I believe in that moment is an answer or a solution, and my egoic arrogance gets in the way, too, and I really want recognition as someone who is smart and helpful in coming up with solutions.

While not healthy to get self-righteous and dominating, the motivations behind that behavior are actually very human. I choose to have compassion for them.

When it comes to group dynamics, however, that’s the tricky space–because no one, men or women, leader or supporter, likes feeling like someone else has to be right and someone else’s ideas must dominate.

Leadership is about inspiration, not domination.
(Click to tweet that:

I’ve also figured out, as well, that there’s a collective shame that many women have about the times when they’ve dared to speak up, to lean in, to take a risk, and then they’ve been shut down. In our society, we still confuse “bossy” with “opinionated.”

Sadly, most of my experiences of being labeled this way have not been dealt by “patriarchal men” who couldn’t handle a woman expressing an opinion. Most of my experiences have come at the hands of other women–groups of women, women who made collective decisions about me behind my back, without ever approaching me in-person with compassion and offering me an opportunity to explain myself or apologize for my behavior when I was wrong.

It’s not at the hands of those mean men, but from the mouths of women, that I’ve felt the fear that I should be quieter, less opinionated, or make sure that I “do it right” so that I can fit in.

Really, this is the new leadership that is needed. Speaking skills, or using more “I” statements and fewer qualifiers, or more inspirational magnets on the refrigerator to “dream big” are not what is needed for women to emerge as leaders.

What is needed is the courage for the very same women who share all of their tips and inspirational messages to, well…stop talking shit in groups, about other women. Stop social shaming. Stop casting one person as the odd woman out.

When a group determines that one woman is “bossy,” we need to stop labeling her and start talking to her.

If, after she’s been approached with the very same direct communication skills that leaders teach and there’s a very real and destructive hostility, then okay–sometimes, relationships aren’t a match. Sometimes, people’s behaviors are harmful to a group dynamic.

My point is this: true leadership encompasses room for people to receive feedback about their behavior, and be given an opportunity to change. Radio silence, shunning, gossip, put-downs, and the like are all acts of cowardice–the cowardice to not have the real conversation.

What that little girl wanted all those years ago was to have had an opportunity to have been heard. What she learned from that experience was that a decision had been made about who she was, that the majority ruled, and that what everyone wanted was for her to be submissive. Submissive was “nice.” Submissive was “you’ll be accepted in our group.”

I’m so grateful that something in my soul could never settle for submissive, and that there was a warrior within who, while she continues to sometimes let her ego get in the way, has also found the space to speak up, speak out, and lean in.


You are the miracle

‘There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.’ Albert Einstein —

It is a miracle that you are here.

We take this for granted, in our day-to-day lives. It gets so easy to get caught up in how many things are “going wrong.”

We forget that to exist–for you to exist, right here and right now–about a million different things had to “go right.”

For one thing, through a series of chance encounters, your parents had to meet, and of all the people they met in their lifetimes, they had to choose to have sex with one another–not someone else, but each other. That’s the only way that you, would be…you.

While we get the basics in middle- and high-school biology class (“Yes, I know, egg meets sperm, and nine months later there’s a baby”), we forget the details.

The miracle, however is in the details.

Details such as: Before the egg, your mother’s body had to be producing a luteinizing hormone that would prompt the ovaries to start producing a follicle, at which point there would (maybe) be an egg. It’s not that a woman’s body just pops off an egg every month, you know. An entire endocrine system is at work, and it works as a chain, with one part firing off another part. The chain has to actually coordinate, for ovulation to occur.

Then there’s timing: Let’s say the chain coordinates. Now, only if your parents were together on just the right day, would this result in a meeting of egg and sperm. Ovulation is actually a surprisingly short window.

The chance encounters that I’m calling the Miracle of Your Life do not end, there.

Only if your mother’s body was also producing enough of another hormone, progesterone, would this conjoined egg-sperm collaboration actually implant in the uterus–and only then is there a potential baby.

Stop to think about that–again, because we forget what we learn in Bio 101. A whole series of things had to be going exactly right, and had to happen on just the right day, for you to have a shot at living…this life. Your life. The life that has somehow brought you to this page.

Later, only if your mother’s body fired off a series of other hormones, and only if the right nutrients could get to you, and only if that egg was viable, would you survive the initial 12 weeks, the first trimester, where you would be developing your heart, kidneys, brain, and other major organs.

Once you were born, your lungs had to work. Your heart had to work. Your immune system had to kick in (and maintain the delicate balance of knowing what to fight, and what not to fight, as so many people with auto-immune disorders are discovering–never take your immune system for granted).

Once you were in the world, you had to have enough physical nourishment to survive. You had to survive falls, bumps, scrapes. Possibly, some of those injuries were at the hands of caretakers. If you’re reading this right now, you survived that. You had to survive physical and emotional trauma. If you’re reading this right now, you survived that. It’s a miracle.

For the miracle that is you to be reading these words, your brain must be doing the millions of intricate acrobatics that it is currently doing, for the processing of letters and their sounds and the decoding of meaning.

For the miracle that is you to be reading these words, your body must be taking in nutrients from the food you eat and giving you energy. The heart must be pumping. You must be able to breathe. You must have access to clean water.

For the miracle that is you to be reading these words, you must be one of the people who has not died from a car accident, from a random fall, from violence, from a sudden and unexpected failure of one of the vital organs.

We are only talking about your simple yet extraordinary existence in the world. When you start thinking about all the chance encounters and coordinated efforts that also brought into the world, and into your life, all of the people you love most and hold dear, the miracle grows wider.

You are living the Miracle of You. Your life is the miracle. There’s nothing you need to do to deserve it, to be better, or to prove yourself worthy. The miracle of all of it, in fact, has already tried to show itself to you–tries to, every single day.

It’s up to us to see it. To stop, and breathe, and let the breath be a miracle. To feel gratitude for the millions of processes happening right now that are “going right,” instead of focusing on those things that are “going wrong.”

Right here, right now. That’s what you’ve got. That’s a miracle. Let it be enough.

Click to tweet: “Your life is the miracle.”

the courage to embrace delight

It was the perfect, delightful Saturday. We drove through wine country back roads ten minutes from our house, the hills rolling and bleached gold in the late August heat. Twenty minutes later, we arrived at Point Reyes Station, California.

We took a stroll through town. We argued (briefly) about when to have lunch. Then we shrugged it off and chose a place. Afterwards, we walked a trail at a nearby park. Then we headed back towards Petaluma, our home, but not without a stop at a local cheese shop where we sat alongside a small pond.

That’s just “what happened.”
What’s more is that we were delighted.
(There is more to this story.)

People often talk about experiencing a lack of fulfillment. Jobs, television, paying bills, flossing, getting laundry done, running errands, getting the kids to and from school–whether because it’s overwhelming or because it’s mundane, it can wear on the soul. Add into that a minor family crisis, an illness, or an unexpected bill, and life can suddenly seem very, very hard.

In the midst of these experiences, we reclaim happiness not by having all of our problems disappear, but by reconnecting with delight.

That day, Point Reyes Station was alive. The farmer’s market was in full swing. Small children were pointing out details to parents, making the ordinary, extraordinary (one small girl walked past a restaurant and suddenly began shouting, “Food! Food! Food!” and doing a funny dance for her parents). Dogs on leashes waited patiently for their owners to exit a cafe, a bakery, a gardening store, and they wagged their tails and looked up at us, hopeful that we might pet them or release them, as we passed by. Outside of every cafe, birds waited patiently and then swooped in to pick up any crumbs that might fall off of someone’s scone. The air smelled absolutely magical–coastal air, clean air, air sweetened by the nearby trees.

All of this–free–and whether or not we enjoyed it depended utterly on whether or not we’d a.) notice, and b.) choose to embrace the delight of it.

The meal? When you savor your food, it does not disappoint: heirloom tomato soup with basil and a bit of chili oil; a stewed lamb dish paired with polenta and spinach; a Lagunitas IPA for him and a glass of Sauvignon Blanc, for me. Then we shared a salted caramel pudding, for dessert. We laughed and joked with our waiter.

We made toasts when our drinks arrived–as we do at most meals, even when all we have is water. We weren’t having an anniversary. It was no one’s birthday. “To living well,” I said, and we clinked our glasses. With every bite, we chewed slowly, trying to identify the ingredients and trading forkfuls from each other’s plates.

“That kind of meal takes money,” someone could (rightly) say. “I can’t do that.”

But I could have been just as happy as any number of people who were outside, enjoying a latte from local favorite Cowgirl Creamery, or a deli sandwich, all of which would have cost less than $10. It wasn’t about the money. It was about savoring the food.

When we took a walk after eating, my husband stopped to take photographs. The grass and weeds were tall on either side of the trail, expelling some kind of white, cottony fluff. We found a stream and dipped our feet in the cool water, holding one another up on the gravel bed. We walked more, and talked about cross-fit and yoga and resistance and family and what was happening with our careers.

As we were walking, at one point I said, “Walk like this!” and spread my arms out wide. We were in direct sun, but the coastal wind was cooling and when you walked with your arms outstretched, it felt like flying. He followed. At another point, he said, “Wait. Just be completely still.” Immediately, I stopped. We stood in silence, listening.

I didn’t need to ask “why” he had wanted me to stop. He didn’t need to ask me “why” I had gleefully suggested that we walk with our arms outstretched. We understand one another in that way.

The sunshine, the air, the birds that floated above us, the people walking their dogs along the path–all of it, free. All of it, right there for one’s enjoyment.

Embracing Delight

I used to hear people talk of an abundant world, a world where more was working for us than against us, and a world where happiness was a choice, and I’d think:

All well and good for them, but they have no idea what *my* life is like.
They have it easier than I do.
They have more money.
They have more time.

Now, I understand that it’s never about what anyone “has.” It’s about who they choose to be.

There’s delight, everywhere. A tomato costs a dollar at the store. Salt it a bit, perhaps spritz it with a bit of lemon juice. Pack it in tupperware. Grab a wine glass and some sparkling water (another dollar or two). Go to a nearby park (free) and people watch (free), and pour yourself the sparkling water in this wine glass, and take off your shoes, and put your toes in the grass.

Tilt your face up to the sun. Take a bite of that tomato and savor it on your tongue. Feel your throat constrict and relax as you swallow. Toast yourself.

Do it even if you’re plagued by bills.
Do it even if you’re worried.
Do it even if you’re nursing a broken heart.
Do it even if everything around you is falling apart (in fact, that’s the best time to do it).

It’s going to sound stupid on some level, right?–The salted tomato and sparkling water in a wine glass–but it’s something. It’s celebration. It’s embracing delight.

Beyond doing

It doesn’t really matter what you do: Forts under the dining room table with your kids, reading scary stories by flashlight and really going full-on with the monster voices; two back-to-back yoga classes because you’ve always wondered how it would feel to be utterly wrung out with stretching; buying fruits and vegetables from your local Safeway to prepare a new recipe for dinner.

Whatever you choose, go one level beyond “just doing it,” and embrace the delight. That’s going from “doing” to “being.”

Notice how your children squeal with excitement, and how today they are young enough to have that peculiar “little kid slightly sweaty smell” and how they are not yet too cool to hang out with mom. Notice how your yoga instructor delivers lines with such care, and how the incense in the studio smells, and grin openly and enthusiastically in every pose that you can do really well, because you feel like a badass. Notice the colors of everything when you buy those vegetables, and how cucumbers, celery, and basil have such interesting textures.

It’s courageous because it opens your heart, particularly if you’re doing it when life is rough.

Embrace delight. Hold the details of a world that has so much to offer you, close to your heart.

Click to tweet: Have the courage to embrace delight.