Written by: Michelle Brytan
When we think of leaving a legacy, we are often drawn to thoughts of the tangible, such as homes, precious mementos valued because of the rich history, or money and investments in hopes of ensuring financial stability. While all those things are incredibly important, I believe that it is just as important to leave a legacy of you — a legacy that speaks to your life’s journey and how, in a world of trends and categories, you realized the importance of being different.
Whether at work or in social settings, we often find ourselves trying to fit in and align with the world around us, forgetting that we possess something far more powerful than the ability to fit in: an organic ability to be different, a superpower that no one else enjoys. Our ability to exploit our differences affords us the opportunity to elevate the world around us in a way that no one else can. The question we should all be asking ourselves is not why are we different but how can we use our differences to bring about the best outcome. We are distinctly different for a reason, and that is so extraordinarily amazing.
I often smile when I enter a room full of executives and no one looks like me — or, better yet, everyone is trying to be like the other — I like to say a room full of testosterone-based thinking (TBT). I think to myself, with a supermodel-like smile, “Wow, there is absolutely no one else in the room like me; yep, they need me.” I have something that no one else has. I am a superhero in my own right, and the success of many elements around me depends on my ability to leverage my differences. It’s not my intent to be better than those around me but to be the best me I can possibly be and uplift those around me.
Most of my experiences in realizing that being different is my superpower occurred during conversations with my mom. She would say, “Michelle, when I want someone to just listen to me, I go to your sister. When I want results, a solution, I come to you.” Initially I was offended, but boy do I get it. Other opportunities to realize my superpower materialized during the course of my career; appreciating my superpower was more of an evolution. Our bios tell of our successes, and all the wonderful accomplishments that we have achieved during our careers, but not so much the journey.
I have more than 27 years of experience clearing the path from a seat along the wall to a seat at the table, leading in high-performing organizations. I routinely sit at the table as an influencer and decision-maker with top executives across industry and government. I have worked as an effective and successful chief of staff to several high-ranking military and government officials. I am an accomplished senior executive leader with over a decade of demonstrated success in predominantly male law enforcement organizations. Most importantly, I have personally experienced the challenges with not just working in but also functioning successfully in male-dominated organizations where the majority of my peers are twice retired. Sounds great, right?
But what’s missing is what’s most important: my story, my journey, which leads to my true legacy:
- a legacy that will help to shape the belief that, notwithstanding life’s many obstacles, there are endless possibilities in life.
- a legacy that demonstrates that it’s not the what but the how and the why.
- A legacy that demonstrates that it is less about my achievements and more about my journey and my ability to effect change, using all that I am to make a difference.
Reality is that I didn’t arrive at this place without some serious sacrifices, challenges, and sometimes pain. But if you think about it, that’s what growth is about. Even as infants, we experienced the pain of teething in order to develop the ability to transition from liquid and pureed foods to a place of indulgence of the finest foods with no remembrance of the teething process.
Like others, in my career I have made many sacrifices. For many years I believed that I needed to be like my male counterparts instead of trusting in my own capabilities. It felt less like climbing the corporate ladder and more like navigating through an obstacle course blindfolded while playing a game of chess.
Throughout my journey, I have sacrificed family and friends to better position myself at work and to not be perceived as the weakest link among my male colleagues. While it was OK for my peers to leave work to take care of family matters or to take their pets to the vet or to attend social functions, I personally did not feel that I had the same professional flexibilities afforded to most employees, particularly my male counterparts. I felt a sense of distress when I had to leave work or call out for family reasons, so more often than not I chose to stay at work and made other arrangements. Somehow, along this journey, I forgot that I am a mom who happened to be a senior executive in the federal government. I have made many sacrifices, the greatest being my ignoring and not believing and seeing the signs that my daughter was severely depressed and my family was in serious trouble. I still get emotional when I think of what the outcome could have been simply because I didn’t trust in my innate abilities, but instead tried to overcompensate by going above and beyond professionally to be like those around me.
Office politics taught me a great deal about myself. What’s the worst thing a woman executive could experience or be accused of in a predominately male organization? If you’re thinking what I’m thinking, you’re right. I learned that when you don’t trust in who you are, accusations and rumors can cripple your ability to be effective and to be your true self.
For many years I didn’t believe that I had what it takes to make a difference and was unaware that my leverage was dependent on my ability to deliberately accept and exploit my differences. I am the Difference Maker simply because there is no one else like me. There were many times throughout my journey that I would attend meetings, sitting along the wall and remain quiet, paralyzed with fear. I was so uncomfortable with my ability to measure up to those around me that I failed to speak up when my voice was needed. I felt that because my answers were different that they must be wrong.
Related: The Power of Giving Together
I had to rely on what I call the T.R.U.S.T. factor: my organic superpower of being distinctly different by design. I had to learn to …
T: Trust in who I am.
R: Be Resilient and Relentless in my pursuit of being the best me.
U: Understand and value my differences.
S: Stay connected to family and friends, whose own differences feed my soul and make me better.
T: Be Tenacious in all that I do.
My own experiences have led to my passion in helping women around the world to navigate through this obstacle course. I strive to deliver powerful keynotes that drive and inspire action and change. Helping women to see how distinctly and fascinatingly different they are in any environment and to define and understand their differences, exploit those differences, and be the Difference Maker. In doing so, I help women and men alike value their individual differences and the differences of those around them and leverage those differences to influence decisions and drive change. I am a DIFFERENCE MAKER, there is no one like me, and that, my friend, is my secret weapon, my superpower.
The legacy that I choose to leave is one of purpose, choice, and deliberate acceptance of and excitement over what makes me so distinctly different. I hope that my family and friends, when talking about my legacy, will talk about what made me different, like that of a superhero, in a way that inspires them to define their differences, exploit their differences, and be the Difference Maker.
Remember as you move forward in your pursuit of greatness — you already have it! Your legacy is in your journey and the execution of the greatness that you already possess.
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Michelle Bryan is the Federal Protective Service (FPS) Director for Resource Management. Since joining FPS in November 1995, Deputy Director Bryan has served in a number of positions at both the headquarters and field levels. In her current role, she is responsible for headquarters level – executive leadership and oversight across 3 zones and 12 regional offices throughout the United States. She has direct oversight for the design, operation, and evaluation of all FPS management functions.
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