Leadership can seem like a nebulous topic, something that you either have or do not have as an innate skill, and despite the myriad volumes of books available, many of them provide little by way of what to do when faced with a challenge. The following is a reflection on my own journey as a leader, what experiences have led to me where I am, and my potential for impact and growth.
I grew up in a small town in Reno, NV. My father was on disability, and my mother worked in a casino in a cash cage to make ends meet. Neither of them went to college, and neither of them held any titles in their employment history. Yet, when their friends needed guidance, they sought the advice of my parents. I remember them sitting down to pots of coffee with friends, laughing and then crying, sorting out the details and making a plan for moving forward. This is my earliest exposure to what it means to be a leader.
As I grew older, I found myself rising to meet the needs of others, just as I had modeled for me. I was also strong academically and excelling at music. When I graduated high school as salutatorian and prepared to move into my dorm room for college, my mother told me how proud she was. I was the first woman in my family to go to college, and no matter where I ended up, I was paving the way for those who came after me. My first tangible leadership lesson was this: lead by example.
During my first attempt at college, I did just that. I attended class, volunteered with the local school system as a tutor, and even got a job as a waitress. I held myself to high standards, and I found that those around me rose to them, as well. I wanted to be the kind of person who brought the best out in others. When I found myself pregnant in my third year of college and lost my scholarship, I was humiliated. I moved back home, but I chose not to tell anyone I was pregnant. I had been keeping things to myself that I worried would tarnish my name, and it wasn’t until I was almost eight months along that I informed my family. Once again, my mother was there with my second leadership lesson: lead with integrity and honesty.
After my first son was born, I put myself through school to finish my Associate’s Degree in Medical Laboratory Technology. Not quite the four-year degree I hoped to obtain, I was still the first woman to go to school and acquire a degree. My second and third child came eighteen months apart from one another, and my youngest son changed the course of my life forever. My Timmy was nonverbal until he was six, and the challenges of raising a son on the spectrum were just our way of life. I remember getting compliments on how strong I was and what a patient mom I was, but for me, there was no choice but to be the strong and patient so my son could have a safe environment in which to learn and grow. We developed our own methods of communicating, and as he learned how to interact with the world without my help, I went back to school to finish my Bachelor’s Degree in Medical Technology. My lesson from Timmy has always been that leading others often involves creating safe space for them to fail. As I embraced this, I even learned to create space for myself to fail, as well.
Now that I am completing a Master’s Degree, the first one in my family for anyone, I look back on those formative lessons and can clearly see how much these experiences changed who I am and how I operate in relationships with others. I would add perseverance and compassion to my list of leadership traits through my careers. Working in pediatrics and eventually being ordained as a minister taught me the value of meeting others with compassion, which means to suffer with, and sticking to the work until we reach our goals. These are the lessons that arise when I hear, “leader.”
When I grow up, I aspire to be a big picture leader. Daniel Goleman (2014) defines big picture leaders as a “rare souls who operate on behalf of society itself rather than a specific political group or business” (p. 59). Though my journey started out about me as an individual, I can do a lot of good in the world for others. My experiences in medicine, in working with children with autism, and in my newest role as a Board Member for PFLAG Boulder County, opportunities abound for me to make a difference in far larger circles than the one drawn around my own little family. I identify as a great leader currently and do my part to address systems that are no longer serving our needs, whether in my department at work, in my role in the community, or in the community at large. Only together can we speak truth to power, and my lessons in leadership have prepared me to create space for others to lend their voices to the fray. We are stronger when everyone has a chance to be heard.
I have read many books on leadership theory, and I do not espouse to any one in particular. The first book that had a major effect on the way I interact with people was not a leadership book, but rather a psychology/self-help book entitled, The Five Love Languages. In his book, Gary Chapman (1995) discusses the different ways we give and receive love in one of five love languages: quality time, acts of service, gifts, words of affirmation, and physical touch (p. 10). Learning to name and express my own needs as well as to decipher the needs of others provided me with a unique foundation as a young adult to start building relationships with a genuine desire for all participants to love and feel loved in return. From this place of mutual respect and vulnerability, we find greater opportunities for growth and accomplishing goals.
Fast forward though years of ethics and pastoral study brings me to Tom Rath and Barry Conchie’s work. In their book, Strengths Based Leadership, I saw the importance of knowing not only how we feel, but also what skill sets we bring to the table as individuals to strengthen us as a team. Focusing on strengths rather than weaknesses builds self-confidence, which reaps a “cumulative advantage that continues to grow over a lifetime” (Rath & Conchie, 2008, p. 16). When we couple the focus on strengths with the best means of communicating this, we build teams that are more effective together than the individuals are alone.
I then came upon Simon Sinek’s golden circle: most folks know what we do and how we do it, but what truly inspires people is telling them WHY (Sinek, 2009, p. 37). Up until this point, I fell into the trap of thinking that being a good leader meant providing sound business policies and procedures and a clean, comfortable work environment. What was lacking was motivation. What was lacking was a way to inspire my team. When I first saw the TED Talk Mr. Sinek gave on the golden circle, I was inspired, and I wanted to bring that to my team. This work greatly improved my ability to communicate with my team and achieve results or implement change at a much faster rate. The simple act of explaining why improved relationships and provided opportunities for folks to thrive by stepping into the work with the knowledge of how they fit into the project before it even began. This was truly a gift to learn.
I also studied Paul Schmitz’s Everyone Leads: Building Leadership from the Community Up. His work is a combination of strengths based leadership and community problem solving that directly involves taking asset inventory from the community members and empowering them to find their own solutions (Schmitz, 2012, p. 138). When we replace “community” with “department,” this work becomes directly relevant to problem solving with the team. This method has made a profound impact on the way we work together as a team, and I would not have been able to implement this without the previous study, which gave me the “why” behind this leadership style.
All of these have paved the way for my preferred leadership style: Mindful Leadership. Mindful Leadership is another simple change in the way we interact with people. When asking busy leaders, movers, and shakers what they would say is the one thing missing from their leadership training, ability to execute goals, and work-life balance, they all answered with one simple concept: space (Marturano, 2014, p. 10). Blending mindfulness practices with leadership presence affords a leader the ability to cultivate focus, clarity, creativity, and compassion in the service of others (Marturano, 2014, p. 11). In studying this leadership style, I finally found the place where compassion fits into leading others.
Janice Marturano (2014) describes what she calls the “purposeful pause” (p. 55). This is recognizing a moment when our attention is not where it should be, stopping for a moment to provide space for this to pass, and bringing out attention back to the present. Staring into space, a quickening of our breath, breath holding, palms sweating, or dozing off, may mark these moments. When we pause to intentionally be present with our bodies and minds, we create the space for what lurks beneath these reactions to surface. Once they are in the forefront, we can address them and ensure we move forward with the best planning in our endeavors.
This mindfulness works in interpersonal dynamics, as well. For example, I have an employee who made several mistakes in a short period of time. When I brought it up to her in a coaching session, she apologized and was ready to go back to work. I noticed her nonverbal communication, she looked at the floor then around the room before answering, as though looking for something else, and I knew there was more. I took advantage of the opportunity to create space for her, and she revealed to me that a man at her gym had died while she was there, dropping over not far from her after what turned out to be an aneurysm. She was having a hard time focusing. Without taking this moment to acknowledge the difficulty of this situation, we would not have been able to address the underlying issue and would have ended up in a disciplinary action process.
Incorporating these styles into my own blended expression of leadership has been effective. I have received feedback from my staff as well as from my peers that I am someone who is approachable and a good listener. I have worked through the tendency of this style to allow others to the advantage of me, and this is my current focus for personal growth. I believe a leader must be one who gives others a reason to follow, and if I fall prey to someone’s ability to manipulate my compassionate nature, I will not inspire those who come after me.
The greatest strength of this combination of styles lies in the ability to work well in a diverse or global environment. Each of us comes to the table with our own strengths and areas for improvement, with our own knowledge and experiences. By creating an environment where those differences are seen as an asset rather than requiring assimilation invokes trust in the team. Here at Kaiser Permanente (KP), we strive to operate as One Laboratory in line with KP’s One KP initiative. We have 32 medical office laboratories (MOLs) that feed into one regional reference lab (RRL). The lab has a long-standing history of the typical us and them mentality, which is difficult to change. I started at KP as a MOL supervisor. After my first year, I was promoted to the manager of the Core Laboratory at RRL. It was not until I changed roles that I understood the vastness of the divide between the two worlds.
As an MOL supervisor, integrating into the culture at RRL was difficult at best. I was grateful for my skills at nonverbal communication I gained in having children on the autism spectrum. I knew the trust was low, so I led discussion with the why’s behind any changes we implemented. I took time to allow them to voice their concerns. I spent time complimenting their strengths as I noticed them and asking for assistance in projects based on their skills as well as areas where I saw opportunities for folks to learn something new. Over time, I have been so proud of our ability to come together as a team. We have a long way to go, but I am confident that we will travel together successfully. My peers and management team above me have noticed the change spreading to the way the RRL staff interacts with the MOL staff, as well.
Taking up the mantle of leadership is often not a conscious decision. Most of us find ourselves taking the lead in a situation without any real knowledge of how we ended up in a position of trust and authority. The study of leadership styles, as Simon Sinek prepared me to understand, is the understanding of the why. We all know what we do and how we do it. Discovering the why provides a wealth of understanding that spreads to those around us. As John C. Maxwell said, "Leadership is not about titles, positions, or flow charts. It is about one life influencing another." When we lead by example with integrity, honesty, perseverance, and compassion, when we take the time to allow others to shine and share their perspectives, we create a space where everyone has the ability to grow and succeed, building a foundation for a team who is only limited by their own imagination.
Chapman, G. (1995). The five love languages: The secret to love that lasts. Chicago, IL: Northfield Publishing.
Goleman, D. (2014). Leading for the long future. Leading Organizations: Perspecitves for a New Era. (3rd Ed). Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications. p. 56-65.
Marturano, J. (2014). Finding the space to lead: A practical guide to mindful leadership. New York, NY: Bloomsbury Press.
Rath, T. & Conchie, B. (2008) Strengths based leadership: Great leaders, teams, and why people follow. New York, NY: Gallup Press.
Schmitz, P. (2012). Everyone leads: Building leadership from the community up. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Sinek, S. (2009). Start with why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action. New York, NY: Penguin Books.