‘Go back?’ he thought. ‘No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!’ So up he got, and trotted along with his little sword held in front of him and one hand feeling the wall, and his heart all of a patter and a pitter.”J. R. R. Tolkien, The Hobbit: There and Back Again; a book of myths.
When I was a little girl people would say, what do you want to be when you grow up? My answer was never, “I wanna be a leader!” It certainly was not the unimaginable word soup that is my career to a little girl, “I want to be a higher ed consultant, after being in the industry for 26 years because it should change. So, I am going to start an educational reform movement that is considered rogue but necessary. I will do a lot of public speaking and writing.” Definitively, that was not my answer.
In fact, to be called a female leader in 2020 means you have inevitably, invariably, almost certainly have had to push through exclusion, discrimination, verbal violence, and potential physical violence and have had to find something deep within yourself to overcome it. Unabashedly, this book is about female leaders for young women leaders. Thus, while I normally would talk about how the human experience transcends the female experience, it, for this purpose, does not. And, if you are in the arena where you are considered a female leader in 2020, some shit has gone down on the way to you rising up.
No little girl wakes up and says, “I want to be a leader, Momma!” Please, let me imagine myself in positions where the scorched earth policy of corporate management will lead me down paths where my very essence was questioned. Undoubtedly, if you are considered a woman leader in 2020 some shit has gone down because just as sure as the sun will always rise, people along the way, in some places, will not bolster or support your success. Instead, their actions or lack of action will tear down your ambition, your courage, your strength by making you doubt your ideas and your voice, if not
trying to snuff you out entirely. When I was a little girl, I never shouted from the rooftops, “I wanna be a leader!” The lone-wolf female leader is as powerful an archetype as is the victim beaten down by life who can no longer go on and needs rescue. Despite it being almost 2021, these enlivened archetypes affect us on sub- and unconscious levels. What if there were a different way of perceiving how to understand the narrative of what happens to women on the path to leadership? What is certain is that along the way you will be asked to wear lots of masks and cultivate your persona to appear penultimately feminine, smart, but not too smart; bold, but not too bold; independent but not singularly determined; a mix of Jessica Rabbit in a suit with a little sexy librarian sprinkled in, but do not be too effective or speak up if an idea is stolen from you or someone is speaking over you.
Some things that happen on the path to being a leader will chip away at your soul, but that is the apparent path, so be steeled and resolute in fashioning a mask that one cannot see and that is easy enough of a persona to step into like a skin suit every day of the week.
Masks have had a moment in 2020. They are an emblem of survival
and perseverance. Interestingly, the
first spiritual psychologist in the
west, Dr. Carl Jung (1875-1961), spoke of masks, personas,
beauty, and the discovery of the personal, cultural, and collective shadow well over a century ago; Jung spoke of the hero’s journey being nonlinear and unexpected, at once part of the collective and, also, uniquely personal. As is true to the convention of a resilience narrative, of a hero’s journey, one will be looking for bits of what happened on the way to leadership that I overcame to be the shining example of female self-actualized leader that I am supposed to be. What if, though, we were not the story, not made up of the story, but, instead, looked at the more compelling question, not what happened, but instead, to acknowledge, I know what happened, AND how do you get out of bed every day in spite of it? In the poem, Wild Geese, Mary Oliver (1986) asserts the importance of owning the shadow, of exploring the larger macro and smaller heart-shaped-micro importance of the interpersonal and collective discovery of Self. Unapologetically, she provides advice to you, young female leader — that there is a place for you here:
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, The world offers itself to your imagination,
Calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place in the family of things. (lines, 14-18)
It is in both the light of discovery and in the shadows of betrayal that answers the question, what is the story, or what happened on the path to being considered a female leader in the close of 2020? It is not a pinnacle event, not one singular point in time; it is universal and particular in that it is simply human. It is every– and nobody’s story.
There is a great misconception about leadership and life. Academia and its peripheral institutions have fashionably offered certificates, degrees, workshops, and courses that have monetized and created a “degree” for an inborn personality trait that is made up of a mix of charisma, intelligence, personality, and grit. From the perspective of being a specialty higher education consultant after 26 years teaching and 14 years total in higher education leadership, specifically a near-decade as the first female CEO of an innovative educational institution, having led it through a grueling accreditation process and, more importantly, a process of institutional discovery to become more mission-aligned and serve student’s Whole selves. It is in this role, as CEO, that, as an adult, I began hearing the phrase, “You are a leader.” Look at how you lead. You led well. You did a good job leading. The truth is that I followed my own instincts and passions staying true to my true North while teaching and moved up through the ranks through administration over the course of my 26-year-career. Eventually, hard work gets recognized, and each level of management succeeded the one before to then reach the apex as a CEO. Then, in June 2019, at the decade mark, I decided to expand my reach as an educator, to consult with other organizations, and to speak publicly about a human- centered movement back to the heart for society, in general, but in the classroom, most particularly. That is the straight and simple answer as to how the path to leadership was made. There is a more complicated answer though, worthy of exploration.
We cannot wish someone a leader nor can the leader appoint him– or herself as such. It is a piece of our identity in which someone else states claim, “You are a leader.” A true leader is not one who thinks of leadership while leading. These traits—those are of a leader– are inborn. Additionally, the environment also has a say on whether the traits that make up an emerging leader are polished, refined, and shiny, or snuffed out through—whether real or perceived– neglect, abandonment, and trauma. The sea change that has made leadership an industry assumes that we are in control of whether we have these inborn traits, and that, further, we have control over all aspects our life’s trajectory and story. For the most part, we are not in control of what happens to us in life. At the same time, we are not our tragedies, and we are certainly not the sole author of our triumphs. We are in control of how we respond. The reality is that people who are considered resilient do not have a monopoly on saving themselves or being spared from life’s unpredictable disappointments and tragedies. The one trait that determines if we become our story or can transcend it is, grit. It is the one trait that is part of being a leader that people often do not talk about in the leadership industry because it is the ONE thing there is no way of capturing into a contrived academic lesson. You either have grit or you do not. Grit is the secret attribute that is the roaring underdog of leadership. Deconstructing leadership, as an umbrella term, reveals a combination of myth/archetype, narrative, perseverance, and grit.
Being a female leader in 2020 is to own your grit, your shadow, your truth. To look underneath the polished veneer of a successful female leader is to mine events like a scuba diver searching for treasure. It is at once to own that you have a place in history, in the books of myths and legends, but to understand that it is an ever-evolving, living, breathing document. It is the narrative, the testimony, of self-discovery which is the literal fight for reclaiming the Self, after having emerged from the beautiful, mysterious wreck of Adrienne’s Rich’s (1973) great metaphor and poem, Diving Into the Wreck. The story, your story, is a devastatingly beautiful relic within an intricate wreck from which we are supposed to emerge in a linear hero’s journey. In a conventional story, one with conventional people, there would be an arc of personal and universal self-discovery.
In the closing sixty days of the painfully-human-2020, the path to leadership is more challenging to define, as we are ironically forced to lose the unconscious masks and personas, and, instead, place a literal mask on our face to live. To be an actualized and activated woman not willing to don the mask of outdated and outmoded archetypes is to acknowledge that while there is nothing new under the sun, the kaleidoscope of self, of soul, of the collective is the every-person challenge of this time. There is power in this time – it has changed, well, everything. It would be a crisis of leadership to fail to acknowledge the sheer power of watching an accomplished Black woman, ethnically diverse with a foot in many worlds, who undoubtedly has had to wear many masks to get where she is and amassed many stories, assert her agency in one simple phrase that every woman from whatever and every size, shape, slice of life can relate, “Excuse me, Mr. Vice-President, I am speaking.” Every beating human heart on the planet who has skirted the margins of history, of the book of myths, has been talked over before. Courage is where the power of leadership lies. As women leaders, this moment requires a level of transparency to fully embrace what it looks like to be at the odd, uniquely quirky, and sometimes messy half-mark of life. In that 2020 moment of seeing clearly, Kamala Harris coalesced what it is to have grit. That is, the female leader’s experience is one of having had to live through pain, discrimination, betrayal, and exclusion, as well as unprecedented support and opportunity, to remain a contender in the leadership arena; it is a mark of personal and collective struggle: “Mr. Vice President, I am speaking.” That pioneering courage is the path to leadership. It is the path of truth and that thing that you cannot teach, convey, or pretend: grit.
To be sure, the answer to that question, “What happened,” is important, sacred, and pedestrian. The more compelling answer is that despite all that did happen, how did you get up the next day, week, month, and year, to do it again, anyway? How did you not shrink back into self, and, instead, boldly reclaim your life from your story: “It doesn’t interest me. If the story you are telling me is true. I want to know if you can disappoint another to be true to yourself. If you can bear the accusation of betrayal and not betray your own soul. If you can be faithless and therefore trustworthy. I want to know if you can live. I want to know if you can see Beauty even when it is not pretty. Every day. And if you can Source your own life from its presence” (my emphasis; Oriah Mountain Dreamer, 1999, lines 41- 55). Source your own life from its presence, despite what has happenedin it. That is grit.
Thus, the question remains worthy of exploration and of this sacred time when we have to wear masks in order to save our lives: Jung’s prophetic moment. Unmasking the leader is to discover that her story is that everything happened that sometimes happens to every woman and young girl, and nothing happened at all that was extraordinarily, singularly mine.
Unmasking the self, the personas of industry, professionalism, and convention, is to ascend and cultivate resilience, to save yourself: “First having read the book of myths, and loaded the camera, and checked the edge of the knife-blade, I put on the body armor of black rubber” (Rich, 1973, lines 1-5). The female leaders’ great metaphor, the ladder, is always there to descend to the depths of wisdom and ascend to transcend the noise in the every day. The ladder to save you, to climb up and out, or in this case, down to uncover and discard, is right there innocently watching: “There is a ladder. The ladder is always there hanging innocently close to the side of the schooner. We know what it is for, we who have used it. Otherwise, it is a piece of maritime floss some sundry equipment” (lines 13—21). The ladder will always be there when you write your own rules and find your own mission statement. A warning to the female explorer: once you are there, do not forget, get complacent, and forget what you are there for: “And now: it is easy to forget what I came for among so many who have always lived here, swaying their crenellated fans between the reefs and besides you breathe differently down here” (lines 13-21). It is in the excavating of the soul, whether as a woman or as the collective androgynous, integrated, nonbinary gently feeling Self in which Rich ends her treatise on the hero’s journey. It is the every-story, at once every human and female story which requires a vulnerable courager to shake up the relics, the book of myths, the archetypes that no longer serve an evolved soul recognizing its humanness:
I came to explore the wreck. The words are purposes. The words are maps. I came to see the damage that was done and the treasures that prevail. I stroke the beam of my lamp slowly along the flank of something more permanent than fish or weed. The thing I came for: the wreck and not the story of the wreck the thing itself and not the myth. (my emphasis; lines 57-63 ).
In donning the mask to save the self, the question of, what happened, is the story of everything and nothing. At once, it is a story of the existential despair of this mortal coil, and it is also a story of magick, mystery and beauty: “ ‘This is the place. And I am here,’” (lines 71-72), at once mermaid and merman … “We circle silently about the wreck we dive into the hold. I am she: I am he”(lines 74- 77). The path to leadership is its own greatest challenge, “We are the half-destroyed instruments that once held to a course the water-eaten log the fouled compass” (lines 83-86). It is in that spirit of the higher quest for meaning, of shedding false versions of the Self, that we, female leaders, find waiting a more powerful truth: “We are, I am, you are by cowardice or courage the one[s] who find our way back to this scene carrying a knife, a camera a book of myths in which our names do not appear”(lines 87-94). To be a female leader is to acknowledge that while our names may never appear in the book of history, we will carry this time anyway, in spite of it; that is, grit.
Dear Young Female Leader, therein lies my advice: Say what you mean and want when you want, and then try to be silent again. It won’t work. To be fully human is to realize that one is always on one side of history. But, that is still not the important story of now. The least compelling answer, personally, in what happened on my particular path to leadership is also ironic and revelatory in its timeliness. Logic would have it that the necessary follow up question to my very nonlinear answer would then be to reveal what is/was the biggest obstacle on the path to leadership? Unequivocally, it is being a single working mother in the field of education and having taught and led in some form or another within the ranks of the surprisingly vicious, cut-throat industry – from the C-Suite of higher education from admin to professor to CEO to CxO suite strategic consultant and writer. Early on, I wish that I had known before I least expected it that to be true to Self is sometimes to betray another. And, at the same time, it is also time to recognize the aggressions of institutions on us, whether healthcare, institutional, governmental, educational, financial, and interpersonal. If literature and new media is to be believed, to be a leader is to be true, courageous, and vulnerable to the calling. In its most traditional convention, the story of the female leader is the narrative outsider, skirting the book of myths, skating alongside its margins.
At the roaring end of 2020, grit is the story of female leadership. Our time now mimics Rich’s Self- metaphor of being at once uniquely human, extraordinary, and not particular to self or gender but, instead, to be loyal to the beating of your heart, regardless of whether you will ever be included in the historic myths. We, who know, know that there is another book; all that is written is written there. In this book, the intersection of history, culture, class, race, and gender is not the only option. In this narrative, exploring the wreck is what keeps us nimbly able to navigate it. Our grit, as female leaders, is to do what needs to be done in the day and to find beauty and fierce accomplishment in the apex historical moment of progress when an unapologetic professional Black female leader on prime-time American television can say, “Mr. Vice President, I am speaking.”
In 2020, if we have lived through it, we have lived and possibly died by its vagaries. The hero’s journey is not an arc, a bell curve, a linear line of heightened conflict and then the relief of integration. It is a nonlinear unfolding of events that are both and at once larger than the Self. At the closing of 2020, I am humbled by the answer to the question and at the idea that there is an answer at all; even more so, that the answer has been there all along. Young girls and women, my wish for you: let’s envision the best of the best of the best for you. You, living your best life beyond what you think is imaginable; let’s envision that beyond place and go beyond there together.