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From tumbler to humbler leader

From tumbler to humbler leader

Guest Post by Kathryn Robinson. Through her company Lumen Strategies, Kathryn mentors aspiring leaders at all stages who seek to build their effective leadership capacity and build and grow diverse and engaged teams.

In my long ago youth, I was on a city wide tumble team, called the Tiny Talented Tumblers. We were awesome. We were fearless gumbies, ready to try out the next twisty stunt on floor mats, the balance beam, or parallel bars. We were, of course, a band of youngsters with unstoppable energy, immense flexibility, and totally without fear because our under formed lizard brain was still not grasping the concept of potential consequences that could result from stunts gone wrong.

Fast forward and let me paint another picture for you.

I was an emerging leader. I was taking on more responsibility, my teams were getting larger, and the number of deadlines and expectations were rising. I thought of myself as self-aware as I readily acknowledged that I’d reached this place in my career through a mix of my determination, my expertise and that element of luck that lands you at the right place at the right time.  

Sounds like things were going ok, right? Not exactly. I was increasingly overwhelmed and exhausted. I was losing all semblance of work and life and health balance. Increasingly my inner fears drove me to bad behavior patterns to which I was totally unaware. In retrospect, I know that as my underlying fear of failure grew, my openness and flexibility, formerly strengths that had served me well, were shutting down. I was digging in deeper, amping up my determination. Doubling down on applying my “expertise.”

What I was missing was that leadership demanded a new ‘expertise.’ I had it within me, but I was too afraid to let it be my ally. I was becoming more rigid. The Tiny Talented Tumbler metaphorically was lost. Energy was running out. I was significantly less flexible in how I led my team to get our mission accomplished. I was overwhelmed with imagining all of the worst possible consequences of failing. All the while, I had built and continued to build an amazing team. I felt great about the fact that I was attracting a talented and diverse team - experience, expertise, gender, culture, and style diversity. And ironically, while building that awesome team, I was leaning more heavily on my own expertise, experience, and determination as the only guide to how things could and should get done. I was increasingly inflexible in how we would get from point A to point B and achieve our goals. I had hired a group of rock stars and was barely letting them improvise on Twinkle Twinkle Little Star without micromanaging the performance.

I had forgotten the wonder of being open, and flexible. Luckily for me, I had a wise and wonderful boss at the time who pulled me aside and congratulated me on the amazing team I was attracting and building. But then she followed that with a direct but gentle wake up call. She helped me see that my being inflexible was going to be the demise of my health and well being and even worse, I was on a path to losing that amazing team. I needed to be clear about our end game and goals, but step aside and be flexible with regard to how things got accomplished. I had to let go of those worries that they may take longer, or that they might not execute as I would. I needed to recognize that I was not protecting them from failing, but I was trying to protect against my own potential to fail. I was becoming tentative in applying a strength I brought to the leadership role - my openness and flexibility.  

Tiny Tumblers - bring it on. I was not physically that 6 year old anymore, but I got it. I knew flexibility was key to my path back to energy and success!

Do you have a story that uses a metaphor from the exuberance of early youth that you either maintained in different context or lost for a bit like I did? I’d love to hear about it!