I’m lucky. I know it. My work allows me to get to know some extraordinary people. What always seems to surprise me is, more often than not, they don’t recognize how extraordinary they really are.
Take Jessica for instance (all names have been changed to protect the extraordinary). I will always remember Jessica. She showed up in one of my programs a few years ago, a powerful, dynamic woman with an intense drive to achieve. A lot of emerging leaders share her hunger for achievement, but there was something special about this beautiful woman that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. She seemed to have a flame that burned so brightly within her, but was reticent to let it breath. Almost like she was afraid it would burn out of control and consume those around her.
The more often I do what I do, the more I see this struggle as a human struggle, something we all battle from time to time with varying degrees of success. It’s the internal battle we fight to release the power of who we really are out into the world. Holding it in feels safer. The fragile who-we-really-are can’t be judged or hurt. We protect that part of ourselves. Holding it in can also feel heroic for some people. If we protect others from who-we-really-are, then they’ll be safe. So of course, keeping who-we-really-are locked up inside seems sensible. We’re safe. They’re safe. It’s all good.
Except, it’s not (all good that is). It comes at a cost.
When you think about the best leaders throughout history, they’re not folks who played it safe. They likely had/have internal struggles, insecurities, fears, doubts, just like the rest of us human creatures. Yet they risked being themselves anyway. And that’s what made them special. Sure, they accomplished important things, and did cool stuff, but none of that could come to pass had they kept themselves from fully showing up in the world. Had Bill Gates worried about offending people because he is so driven, Microsoft would have never been born. Had Gandhi worried about being too opinionated, nothing would have changed in India. If Oprah Winfrey had not listened to her instincts and had only done what the networks were dictating (in a media that was dominated by sensationalism), she would have never been able to create an empire that is focused on making a positive impact on people’s lives (and oh, make lots and lots of money in the process). These leaders succeeded because of being themselves.
But it’s tough! And sometimes painful. I’ve been working really hard at consistently showing up as my quirky, energetic, passionate self in my work. The more I do, the better I feel, the more fun I have, and the more effective I am. Yet who I am doesn’t work for some people, and that’s hard to take. The natural tendency is to start pulling back. To be less of who I am. But by reining ourselves in, so nobody will judge us harshly, we only succeed in staying off the radar.
Which means, we’re off the radar.
Nobody follows someone who is off the radar.
You can’t get important stuff done if nobody follows.
Being off the radar makes it impossible to lead.
By reining ourselves in, so nobody will judge us, we only succeed in staying off the radar. Nobody follows someone who is off the radar.
As I spent more time with Jessica, I discovered amazing things. I learned that her mother had played a powerful role in the history of our country. I learned that Jessica had gone on to college at 16! I learned that working to be her best and driving toward the pinnacle of achievement is part of the fabric of her life and is what makes her the extraordinary woman that she is today. What an inspiration!
I also learned that she’s been holding herself back. Her fear of imposing high expectations was keeping that fire locked inside. Instead of sharing her incredible story – a story that has the power to inspire and motivate others – she was closing a big part of herself off to those around her, and it was having an impact. It was having an impact on how others experienced her, on her ability to truly lead, and most importantly, on how she experienced herself.
And that’s what makes my job so cool. At the beginning of the day, I see a group of extraordinary people. At the end of the day, they see that in themselves.
They see themselves as the extraordinary leaders they are.
Your real self is what makes you extraordinary.
As Jessica stood on the stage at the end of the day, she spoke with eloquence and passion, her strength fueled by a fire that had been lit from within. She had finally given herself permission to be who she is and it showed.
Off the radar no more!