We are all leaders. We all have the capacity to lead our own lives, to take charge fully of every action, every decision, even every thought. We get to shape our environment, pick and chose what we place around us in order to create the most energising space. Some of us are leaders in more broad circles; we lead our employees, our colleagues, our children.
When I was 22 I got a job as a fundraiser for the British Red Cross. I was over the moon to have the opportunity, and had a fantastic mentor who guided me into the role. The main fundraising event I lead was an abseil down a 195ft dam in the Yorkshire countryside. It was two days, eighty people, raising £11,000 for the charity. I was nervous and excited. On arrival on the first day, the scaffolding structure that had been erected the day before looked a little out of line. ‘That’s ok,’ I thought ‘the scaffolding company did the job last year, I’m sure they know what they’re doing.’ A couple of hours later and the abseiling team informed me the structure was in completely the wrong place, 40 of the abseilers who had travelled far and wide were waiting expectantly but, weren’t going anywhere.
It was a disaster.
As the scaffolders (living one hours drive away) headed over to try and rectify the problem, I was fighting fire in the form of (justifiably) frustrated adventurers ready to face their fears and hang off a rope 195ft from the ground. I was in tatters, I was in tears, I felt I’d failed everyone and by the end of the day, once the scaffolding was re-set and all but one abseiler got themselves through the challenge, I was utterly exhausted.
And I now wonder, looking back with nothing more than an interesting anecdote, who I was showing up as when I lead that event. What kind of a leader was I being when I was 22 years old? I was very much trying to ‘do the right thing’ to tell everyone the truth of what was happening, to apologise for my mistakes. I followed up and apologised at the end of the day to the one abseiler who couldn’t make it due to all the time changes. I showed vulnerability and my openness meant that the event did actually happen in the end, and it in fact brought many participants together as they helped to keep the event going in any way they could.
But now, as a slightly older and much wiser being, I wonder if I could have lead myself a little differently. I did my best to lead the event and look after everyone else around me, but I was left in tatters myself and couldn’t wait to get to the end of the whole experience. I didn’t feel accomplishment; in fact, the trauma of the event cemented my decision to leave the post at the end of the contract later that year.
What I know now, is that a true leader takes incredibly good care of themselves. If perhaps I’d have lead with a little more internal peace, love and forgiveness for myself I think I might have avoided that feeling of failure following the event. In retrospect I can see that the actions that led to the chaos were out of my control. What was in my control however, was the way I felt about it.
Leading well isn’t about ‘doing’ everything as others expect, it’s so much more than that. It’s about being authentic, real, and inspiring those around you by being compassionate and caring to yourself. Once you step into being a leader who loves, forgives and champions yourself, you automatically give others you are leading, permission to do the same.