For no fewer than three years, my twitter bio has included the statement “I’m bad at writing recipes, great at cooking the food.” When I set out to define my leadership philosophy, I didn’t realize how true that statement would be.
I’ve been guiding and advising future leaders for many years, as a mentor and overall advocate, and my advice hasn’t changed much in that time. My concept of good leadership is informed by being a woman in a male-dominated field, a person of color in a primarily white-dominated world, and a general faith in the power of a good-hearted group of people.
World Mental Health Day is observed on 10 October every year, with the overall objective of raising awareness of mental health issues around the world and mobilizing efforts in support of mental health. The Day provides an opportunity for all stakeholders working on mental health issues to talk about their work, and what more needs to be done to make mental health care a reality for people worldwide.
World Health Organization
While I don’t specialize in mental health, I think everyone should consider themselves a stakeholder in their own mental health at the very least. For many of us, knowledge work is an active part of our weekly work routine. And even for those who don’t associate themselves with that, I encourage everyone to consider mental health as one of the many facets of health that we must all invest in (mental, physical, emotional, etc).
During my sabbatical this year, I spent a week exploring the state of my mental health and thinking of all the ways that I do and don’t care for myself enough. I ended up creating a mental health journal (as I affectionately call it) that is filled with space to clear my head, notes to myself for when I feel down, and things to track while we’re all experiencing the pandemic-specific slippage of time.
This little book is something that has come in handy almost every day since I created it. It helps me get out of my own way, and remember what “my way” is, regardless of whether I’m in the midst of an emerging crisis or floating through the unending emotional drain of a global pandemic.
I’m not much for flip throughs (I can’t imagine that anyone cares what I have to say that much), but I’ll share some of the primary components and can follow up with a flip through if folks would find that easier.
What’s In It
I used a Happy Planner notebook, in the mini size. I’ve been using their products for years because of the extensibility and quality, not to mention the disc bound system is very forgiving of errors and changed plans.
I have four sections: Goals, Track, Think, Know
This section is mostly as expected, with a laundry list of projects to do and habits to hone. It also has some pages with key questions for goal-setting (what would I do if money didn’t matter, what small changes could I make to improve my quality of life, what activities do I dread the most).
I also take time to write down why I have chosen some of my goals, because if I have learned one thing in life it’s that no plans survive contact with reality.
This section, in the time of COVID, is used to track the passage of time and to remind me of the things I do that don’t require being attached to a computer. Not because I can’t figure it out for myself, but because decision fatigue is a real thing. In those moments when you find yourself once again at the end of your crisis response reserves, it’s nice to flip open a page and see that your past self was looking out for you.
For me, this section includes visual layouts of:
things I’ve tracked so I can make changes
optimal routines for my work week
what makes me feel happy or sad
the books I’ve read
my hobby stretch goals
and when I last took time for myself
It also includes two weekly prompts for gratitude and big wins – moments that often go unremarked on right now.
This section is the best and the worst. It’s just blank pages that I’ve doodled some titles onto. The titles are all big, existential questions that I want to explore (so I can write about them here), or small and relentless fears that are hindering my progress through my everyday life. Because I am a happy planner, most of these pages have some supportive and semi-inspirational quotes to go along with them.
But mostly it’s just a non-judgemental place for me to clear my head and admit to what scares me.
And speaking of blind panic.
This section is my favorite. It has one sheet that logs important dates in my career (and a new page that charts my path) and the rest is just illustrations and doodles of things I have come to believe as a leader.
It has quotes that I say to my team leads all the time. It has my main recommendations about how to stay resilient. It has a tree of questions for when I’m worried. And page after page of guiding thoughts for when I feel the most at sea.
I add to these pages, and refer to them for self-guidance, almost daily. It is clear to me, now more than ever, that I know who I am and what my purpose in life is. It is my sincerest hope that what I reflect into the world matches.
What’s In You
I know that pen and paper isn’t for everyone, so I make the following recommendations lightly.
I think that some of what we will lose the most in future retellings of this time period is how fiercely human this reality made many of us. We will lose our handwritten notes, we will lose how we tried to improve our circumstances, and we will lose how we tried to help each other.
I will always write here, on this site, as I have for a decade. But I think there’s something to be said for the slow, tactile experience of creating something physical that can help you now and can capture who you were for the future.
I’m from rural Arkansas and all my life my family has had a garden. The gardens varied in size and purpose, but tending to plants is something I saw my parents do all my life. So when COVID-19 knocked us on our heels and confined us to our homes, it made sense that I should use my extended time at home trying to keep greenery alive.
I started with a single tomato; a vine-y, indeterminate hybrid called Early Girl. I soon got brave and added four basil plants (this is too many basil plants) and after a friendly chat with a neighbor received a gift of five assorted seedlings.
I didn’t know what to do at this point. Or more accurately, I didn’t know that there was more to do than putting them in the ground and watering them occasionally. My parents always made it look easy, though I have decided that my dad must be in constant communion with the gods of nature.
It is not easy. I am not good at it. I am an objectively terrible gardener.
So, predictably, I used my sabbatical to learn absolutely everything I could about gardening. Equally predictably, the lessons I learned reminded me of leadership lessons that I’ve struggled to learn along the way.
Plant today what you need tomorrow. Planning out a garden, it turns out, required a lot of time and knowledge. You have to know what plants are friends or enemies (because gardens are just zoos for plants), and if you want to use seeds or seedlings. You have to guess how much one plant will produce, and you have to guess how much support they will need in the future (because you have to do that early before it gets out of hand).
Give them space to grow, or create space later. I did not quite believe the information about how to space the plants. The basil got lined up in a tight, orderly row, and later I had to transplant them. Transplanting a plant is cutting it out of the ground, moving it, and hoping that it looks sad because the view is worse, not because it’s contemplating death. Even after that, I didn’t account for the wild tomato which then strangled one of the basils. Because… gardens are just zoos for plants.
Track what matters and do something with it. I set up a tidy gardening journal for myself, and I’m tracking all sorts of nonsense that I definitely don’t need and won’t use. Like… the planting depth of seeds, even though I started with seedlings. And the preferred pH of the soil even though I’m not testing it. But also some useful things like, the type of food each one needs, and when I last pruned them. How much water they need versus what I actually gave them (and I made changes appropriately).
Prune purposely and decisively. I learned so much about pruning tomatoes, friends. With indeterminate tomatoes you have to prune the vines or they will leave their enclosure and take over your lawn (gardens are zoos). But for many of my plants, I learned that you have to prune the old parts to keep the plants healthy. And, sometimes you have to prune the healthy parts so the plant will focus on producing vegetables.
Let them settle into any changes. It was really scary when I moved plants and watched them wilt, knowing I had to wait for them to regain their balance. I thought I had killed every plant in my yard at least once, including those that I was intentionally pruning. And despite my truly terrible plant husbandry, they had a drive to thrive and have come through the other side happy and healthy.
Plant today what you need tomorrow. Your work, no matter what you do, will take time. If you know what your goals are, you can start the process now and patiently guide it to where it needs to go.
Give them space to grow, or create space later. In order to flourish, you need to allow room to move into. Or, prepare a move once they’ve outgrown the space you planned.
Track what matters and do something with it. I used to say “if you don’t track it, you can’t change it” but I think it’s true the other way around, too. If you’re not going to change it, consider why you’re keeping track of it. Know what allows your team to reach their full potential, and monitor how well you help them do it.
Prune purposely and decisively. Whether it’s unassigning ill-suited tasks, or putting a stop to toxic behaviors, avoiding your own pain by doing something halfway can set the entire organism up for failure.
Let them settle into any changes. One thing about leadership that never gets easier for me is trusting that what I am observing is what is actually happening. And when I make changes, the cultivation period after that is excruciating. Patience in the face of slow growth that I can’t always see, tests my faith in myself.
But here’s the thing…
I know I said I was bad at gardening, and… there are days when I feel that I’m bad at leading. But my garden is actually thriving. I rehabilitated a cucumber plant and some roses. I harvested 8lbs of tomatoes every other day at the height of their growth period. I have tiny little peppers clinging to life on a pepper bush.
The plants are not picture perfect. They are not staying in their containers, but they are well-fed, supported as much as they are willing to be, and happily making more vegetables than I can shake a stick at.
And shouldn’t that be true for those we lead, too? That perfection shouldn’t be measured on what we wish someone could do, but rather one what they were built to do.
Over the course of my career, especially as I was learning to lead, I made a lot of mistakes. Most turned out fine in the end, but basically all of them required me to go and find an adult. And as I became more proficient as a leader, there were two truths that used to shock me a lot:
I am the adult now. If I need help, I have to find adultier adults.
At some point my mentors were also shocked to find that they were the adults.
All of my leadership skills were earned not learned, and I am here to debunk this myth for you: leaders don’t always know the answers and they aren’t always fearless. My mentors—the people who have taught me how to do this—what they had that I didn’t have was a network of advisors, and a few excellent tactics to work through inaction.
A Few Excellent Tactics
I use these tactics routinely, not as a way to hack my productivity, but as a way to ground myself in where my autonomy lies. As an added bonus, they can also help you address specific, short-term fears in a way that I have found to be truly empowering.
For When You’re Afraid Use the 10-10-10 Rule. This can help you to identify if the thing you’re afraid of is a short-term problem. You pretend you made the decision right now, and ask yourself how you would feel 10 minutes from now, 10 weeks/months from now, and 10 months/years from now. If you’re afraid to contradict someone (10 minutes), and you know that the change will be complex (10 weeks), but you’re certain that the long-term benefits balance it all out (10 months), then you know that you can stand the discomfort of the decision.
Next Level: Check for the area of effect – are you using single use potions or spells that help all surrounding allies. If challenging a path forward will inconvenience two people, but save multiple hours of work for seven, that might be a fair trade.
For When You’re Overwhelmed Use the Eisenhower Matrix. This can help you identify where your time is best spent. For every task that is on your plate you determine if it’s urgent or not, and whether it’s important or not. Where each tasks lands in those quadrants will tell you how you should handle them. If it’s Urgent + Important, then you should focus on completing the tasks. It’s it’s Not Urgent + Important, then you can plan for a time to do that. So on and so forth.
Next Level: The practice of identifying the differences between urgent/emergent/routine tasks can help us to find more autonomy in the decisions we make. This decision matrix can help define what you can affect change on, you can have a more proactive pattern of approaching your work (also known as circles of concern and influence).
For When There Are No Good Options Use the Maximin Strategy. This can help you identify how to minimize the potential negative impact. When faced with nothing but bad choices, you think through who is impacted and how. Thinking through how big the negative impacts can be, can give you some way of ranking options that originally all felt less than optimal. At the very least, it will quickly clarify which options are not possible.
Next Level: If you can state clearly why you decided against any option, then it can help identify why you would say yes. It’s so often the case that there are many possible “yes”es and far fewer “no”s. Discovering one will help reveal the others.
It happens. Your advisors might have some insights, but they aren’t perfect either. If you don’t know how to proceed, but you must choose something, then remember these things.
Limit information gathering to what’s immediately relevant.
A mistake is only as dire as the outcome that follows it.
And when you do make a mistake, think of it as a lesson learned.
It’s often said that if all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail. It is meant to suggest that people are always seeking confirmation for the things they already believe. And it turns out that I really believe in the use and application of good communication.
Communication is something all living creatures do whether through written word, spoken language, sign language, or any other means. No matter how you manage to share information with others, the best leaders I’ve had are aware of a few universal basics.
The Basics of Ethical Communication*
One of the skills I share with any leader I mentor, is the need for ethics in our everyday communication. The National Communication Association has adopted a credo for ethical communication. Their credo states that “ethical communication enhances human worth and dignity by fostering truthfulness, fairness, responsibility, personal integrity, and respect for self and other.”
I hope you take the time to read it, but if you haven’t decided if it’s for you or not, I’ll give you the highlights below.
Be truthful and begin with understanding, then engage in civil discourse. Don’t intentionally deceive anyone, and before you disagree with someone else’s point of view, make sure you’ve made the effort to understand what they mean. If you disagree, discuss your differences in a way that doesn’t negate the inherent value of the person you’re speaking with.
Speak bravely in the pursuit of fairness and justice, and be clear about where you stand. If you see a way that a solution could be more equitable, speak up about it. When you have a point of view, respectfully make it clear so that others know so that we can all strive to know each other better.
Be aware that all communication has an effect, and strive to make that effect positive (but admit when it’s harmful). Anyone who calls communication a soft skill hasn’t experienced having to work through the difficult process of communicating harmful things with care. We have all caused people to feel and act a certain way with what we’ve expressed to them, and knowing that we have that kind of impact from the start can help us make better choices.
Share information around significant choices, while being respectful of privacy and confidentiality. As leaders, we should always try to inform those who are most impacted by something first. It can be a lengthy process depending on the size of your organization, and certainly takes effort to get used to. But it is a necessary part of creating psychological safety in your organization as well a fundamental responsibility you accept when you agree to lead.
tl;dr for the tl;dr
And if even that was too long, it boils down to this: Communicate with care (for your words and your people) and embrace your responsibility (for the processes and the outcomes).
*It’s important to note, as always, that no one gets these things perfect every time. It’s not about perfection over all else, it’s about being mindful and committing to trying your hardest.
In 2010, Brené Brown delivered a TED talk that changed the way I understood leadership. She talked about the importance of sharing our failures, and the power of vulnerability in leadership. It’s an exceptional talk, and worth a listen if you’ve never given yourself the time.
Three of the most remarkable concepts she shared are about shame and fear of disconnection; vulnerability and courageous imperfection; and certainty in the absence of vulnerability.
So let me give you the tiniest rundown, in case you didn’t watch her talk.
Fear of Disconnection: Brown’s research found that the heart of shame (and hiding parts of who you are) is a fear of disconnection. You don’t want to be left out of a group, so you don’t mention the things that might make that happen. The less you talk about those things, the more you are sure they will cause people to leave you, and the more shameful you feel about them.
Courageous Imperfection: Her research also found that people who did not struggle with a fear of disconnection didn’t have an abundance of perfect alignment with people around them. They mostly just felt that, imperfect though they were, they were still worthy of being included. They didn’t feel comfortable or uncomfortable in the embrace of their own vulnerabilities, they had the courage to move forward anyway.
Absence of Vulnerability: The final life-changing concept she shared was that those who refuse to embrace imperfection strive to make everything certain. They have one way, one version of what’s right, and everyone else is just wrong and dumb. And as my mentor once said “As long as you know you’re right, you will never be able to grow.”
Being vulnerable can make us terribly sad, but it can also open us up to the possibility of being terribly happy. Because once you know that we’re all a little bit imperfect, it’s easier to let yourself be imperfect, too.
Imperfection in Leadership
Being imperfect in leadership* is one of those things that you never quite finish learning. It’s hard to commit to being able to say “I don’t know, but let’s find out” when you see people looking to you for guidance. And, to bring it completely out of hypotheticals, it’s terrifying to be an imperfect leader as a woman because some people are just waiting for you to be wrong.
In my experience, it’s best when approached as a balance. A large part of my leadership philosophy hinges on the idea that being wrong doesn’t mean you are bad, it means you are trying something new. Being wrong is the sore muscle of personal and professional growth.
For anyone who is new to this concept, it feels unsettling. And I think that’s good. If you want to try to do this anyway, I have a few pointers for you!
Meet people where they are. No one ever changed their perspective by spending time with only people who are exactly like them. If you are a leader, you may find that you’re coming out ahead in power imbalances, so do what you can to seek out others.
Share the foundations first. When offering plans for next steps, always come prepared to share how you got there. Letting others know that you have done some thinking, gives them the courage to ask you to think about other things as well.
Don’t rush the unknown. No one likes being unsure of what to do next, but when we rush through uncertainty it can lead us to solutions that are limited in their effect on the problem. Get comfortable with growth mindsets and fearless exploration.
Listen twice as much as you speak. One of the characteristics that all my favorite leaders have in common is their thirst for information. They ask questions from everyone, they comment last, and they do their best to disagree constructively.
Never Stop Learning
And for myself, I always remember that there was a time when I knew nothing — knew nothing about WordPress, or leadership, or cooking, or life — and that if I had been surrounded by conversations that stifled my curiosity I would never have become the person I am today.
I want everyone to have the chance to be their best self, and when we commit to the shared human experience of learning we can change ourselves (and others) in immeasurable ways.
* In case you’ve never heard my definition of leadership, it is pretty broad. I don’t think it’s about titles or hierarchy, I think it’s about anyone who has engaged in mentorship, anyone who is someone’s role model, and anyone whose duty of care reaches beyond themselves.
I walk past a middle school at lunch every day. Most days we all just carry on with our own work (mine: dog walking, theirs: game playing), but today was different.
As I walked by the school yard, one of the kids kicked a ball over the fence and across the street. She asked if I would throw it back over, apologizing a lot as she did. It’s no real burden for me, so I retrieved it and threw it back over.
Another student asked if I could help retrieve a second ball, and then a third (there wasn’t a fourth). Again, not a problem, so I returned those balls as well. And then he said this:
“You’re so generous! Thank you! If I could pay you $100 I would, but I don’t have any money. Your dog is beautiful and healthy. Have a good day!”
Now, I can’t be sure of what drove him to have that little interaction with me. But I would like to imagine it’s a mixture of these things:
Having a very high valuation of time.
Having a very low valuation of a dollar.
Having an innate sense for the existence of reciprocity.
Which then led him to decide that, knowing that he needed to pay for the use of my expensive time, a compliment to my dog was worth $100.
Diversity doesn’t come without tension. The key is to know how to make it into jazz and not discordant noise.
Stereotypes are shortcuts our brains use to make fast decisions (especially when there is too much information or potential unknowns). We tend to infer a lot about others based on our past experiences, whether it’s accurate to do so or not. As the world becomes more connected and our interactions more immediate, we interact with people unlike us every day without even realizing it.
Our brains, being the prediction machines that they are, take these stereotypes and form an idea of how interactions will go.
Illustration: Design vs Development
As a quick example let’s look at the work-centric, cross-cultural environment between Design and Development.
A stereotypical concept of a Designer might be that they are:
unencumbered by deadlines
value form over function
A stereotypical concept of a Developer might be that they are:
unencumbered by manners
value function over form
Objections over these questionable stereotypes aside, these two groups objectively look like completely different cultures. Each have their own language or jargon that sets them apart. The etiquette of how to interact with their work is different. Humor among these two groups can be impossibly nuanced, but it ties them together.
These things act as communication barriers and can hinder a process called the Negotiation of Meaning.
Take 6 has been one of my favorite musical groups my entire life. I used to listen to their debut album on cassette tape. I recently had the good luck to see a live concert of theirs and I have never had more fun! This…
The concept of empathy is one that has become popular as a leadership ideal. We expect empathy from CEOs, ask designers to join empathy challenges, and tell people to put themselves in someone else’s shoes. Empathy is, at its simplest, knowing what someone else is going through. It’s often identified as a counterpart to sympathy and is seen as an important quality of modern leadership.
But setting empathy as a gold standard in leadership has its downfalls . Empathetic leadership relies on personal experiences with situations that are atypical for you and assumes similar tolerance levels for discomfort. More importantly though, it assumes that experiencing something is the same as understanding.