This week at work a wonderful colleague is leaving our team for a terrific new opportunity. It’s the right choice, and he’s got a bright future ahead of him and it’s time to try new things. I’ll miss his quiet perseverance, all-knowing smirks and brilliant new ways of looking at problems.
I took him out for a quick congratulatory lunch and asked him if he had any advice for us as he stepped away. In keeping with his humble nature he turned the question into an observation that made me smile. He told me one of his favorite lessons that he learned from working with me was that everyone is winging it, and it’s okay to let people in on the secret. I had an inward sigh of relief in hearing that – I think I’ve been holding my breath for almost two years since taking on a leadership role at this new organization. My style of leadership is almost awkwardly transparent. I love to inspire, to generate ideas with people, to get excited with people, and to get everyone revved up… and then I hope to set them free. But the reality of our area of work, is that the challenges are many. From subjective data, barriers in accountability, and limited budgets, to the perception of marketing and branding as colours and fonts instead of a collection of perceptions that shape the face of your business – there are always questions that don’t have clear answers. So sometimes we get asked the tough questions, and in those moments I look around the room … and sometimes I have the answer. Sometimes I just make up the answer. And sometimes (often) I say – “Wow. great question. What do you think?” I wonder daily if this style is deflating, or uninspiring, or if I’m making people think our foundation is shaky (which it isn’t). I over-think the words I chose, the reactions in the room, the style of the workshop, the outcomes and the little comments that I didn’t hear. I know, because I’ve read it so many times now, that many leaders far far greater than myself feel the same fears, question themselves, and wonder when people are going to realize this whole thing is built on a gut feeling and a heck of a lot of passion (ie. to quote Sheryl Sandberg “when will they figure out I’m a fraud”). I understand now, more than ever, that there will always be people who want to poke holes, and ask questions that have no answers – but more importantly – that most people want, so badly, to believe in something bigger, to believe in good leadership – that they just do. They believe. I’m one of those people. I seek out inspirational leaders, and feed off their energy. It’s so rare that you get to see behind the cutain though, so rare that you get to understand that they are just like you and I – vulnerable, trying like all hell to get it right, and not really completely sure of where to go next. My colleague let me know that letting people in on that secret is okay. That is not to say that doing the research, and owning the concept, and having conviction are not important – those elements are key to being a good leader, in fact. But, as in this great article he sent me, in the end we’re all just winging it.
I don’t think this ends in the workplace. ‘Fake it til you make it’ is not just for show biz, or business at all … in fact I have done some of my more earnest ‘faking it’ as a mom. As I thought about this today, I had the good fortune of reading a post from one of my favorite creative bloggers on the west coast, Emily Jones, who told a story about her interactions with a new mom in preschool. The young mom had three babes, preschooler being the oldest, and she asked Emily (who has 4 kids, the youngest in preschool) when it gets easier. The answer was a beautifully written post summarized as “soon”. But hidden in there is the real answer that it always changes, just when you think you’ve got it, the world rocks you again – so whether it’s learning to eat ,or stumbling to walk, or drawing on walls, or riding a bike to the mail box, or driving the car away without you for the first time – it’s always new, and you always have to just wing it, follow your gut, and live and learn.
I think we all get this on some level. I just wish we were a little easier on each other. Myself included. When we have a minute to stop and breath we can see that the person standing at the front of the room is a human, trying his best. We can see that the screaming child on the playground belongs to the mom on the bench who is also consoling an infant and corralling a toddler. We can see that despite our best intentions, we all make mistakes, we all fumble. Why am I so quick then, to notice when one of my fellow ‘wingers’ took a wrong turn? This is my own lesson for today… I guess I’m just writing this to keep it real – tomorrow I’ll try to be a little easier on, and laugh a little longer with, all those fellow employees and parents of the world who are winging it. Because it’s nice to know we’re in it together.