As I talk with women from diverse backgrounds and professions, the notion of “the weeds” seems to resonate universally.
The weeds are a highly emotional place, a vast and interconnected tangle of thoughts, memories, and experiences. Charged with emotion and fear, the weeds are highly sensitive. Once triggered, they ricochet us through patterns and responses, leaving us wounded and depleted as we struggle to regain our sense of balance and control.
Not surprisingly, growth doesn’t happen in the weeds. And yet that’s exactly where many of us find ourselves. Sent there by tragedy, crisis, relationships, and even complacency- almost any life or work event can serve as a trigger.
Over the years, I have developed an acute sensitivity to the weeds. I experience them as creeping vines, wrapping around our ankles or torsos. I can often sense their shadow as they approach- thoughts of self-doubt or defensiveness, a tightening in the throat or stomach. And in others, they manifest as a darkness, draining both energy and light.
From a cognitive standpoint, the weeds represent the lowest levels of our thinking. Laden with details and context, they keep us trapped in our emotions with little room for reflection or insight. But if we are able to leave the weeds behind, we can travel higher in our systems, entering a universe of concepts and ideas. Unlike the closely knitted tangles of emotions, these constructs are expansive and dynamic, able to be nested, stacked, and rearranged as we build and reconfigure our understanding of ourselves, our work and our worlds.
The cognitive differences between the weeds and higher thinking cannot be exaggerated. It’s like comparing the most innovative playground to the rings of Hell. But escaping from the weeds is neither easy nor intuitive. By definition, it involves getting away from danger but also finding something safer. In simple terms, breaking free from the emotionality of the weeds is only part of the solution. We must at the same time embrace the benefits of higher thinking, pulling ourselves upward through textured goals, commitments, and thought patterns. Imagine yourself on a climbing wall, searching for constructs to grab onto as you lift your feet higher.
The good news is that it’s all within our reach, and interest in this new frontier seems to be building. With every month, I’m being asked to speak about these and strategies with increasing frequency and enthusiasm. From companies wanting to provide their associates with tools to reach and dream higher, to women looking for opportunities for advancement, and organizations focused on community impacts, we seem to be collectively yearning for growth and expansion. Perhaps this is an area that is ready to be developed and cultivated. Perhaps the time has finally come for cognitive redesign.
As someone who has studied and thought about these ideas for over thirty years, I am excited and eager to share my strategies and insights. But I am also mindful of the paradigm shift that this approach represents. I’m curious to hear my readers’ thoughts and feedback. Does this notion of the weeds resonate with you? And are we really ready to embrace a more generative approach to growth and advancement?
In my eternal quest for powerful frames, I find myself fixated on the notion of courage.
As a concept, courage is loaded in all the right ways. It implies a sense of purpose and strength, and the notion of fighting for something important and meaningful.
This summer my three daughters were all assigned Malala as required reading. I found this to be remarkable since their ages vary dramatically- 15, 11, and 9. But when I read the book to my youngest, I was so grateful that Malala’s story was being shared so broadly. And as we moved through the chapters and incidents leading up to Malala’s shooting, my daughter’s eyes were suddenly opened to injustices and inequities of a scale she struggled to understand. And she was moved to wonder aloud how she would handle such threats, how we as a family and society would respond to such gross injustice.
I yearn for more stories of courage, for my daughters, for myself, for the women around me. More than inspiration, they offer perspective, hope, a tingling sense of being acutely alive, in tune with some higher purpose or sense of clarity. But they also offer a mirror, for reflecting on our own choices, character and strength.
When I travel to Tanzania I marvel at the women, the Sisters running clinics, building schools, working to open opportunities and hope for those who live without. And just recently I joined American Women for International Understanding (AWIU), a group that hosts an International Women of Courage Celebration, honoring women such as Captain Niloofar Rahmani (pictured in this post), the first female fixed-wing Afghan Air Force pilot in the history of Afghanistan.
I will continue to learn from women around the world, seeking out their stories and opportunities to connect. But at the same time I’m ready to celebrate courage right here in our own communities. I am ready to honor the stories of girls and women who are pushing against fear and injustice to expand opportunities for themselves and others.
As we come together to contemplate women’s leadership, empowerment, and all the frames that attract those of us in search of growth, advancement and fulfillment, we need to expand our scope of what is possible and what should be celebrated and admired.
It is with this sense of contemplation that I will be speaking at the Woman Up Conference on September 27th http://womanupconferences.com/. I look forward to joining other Western New York women who are eager to be part of our city’s Renaissance, to lend our collective talents and energies toward something better and brighter.
And beyond the Conference, in the months and years ahead, I look forward to many more stories about women of courage. Stories about perseverance, vision, and righting wrongs. Stories about the amazing women who deserve to be recognized, supported, and emulated. Stories that will help inspire us to reach our potential, and to have those critical conversations with our daughters and the future women of the world.
I guess I have issues with organized fellowship of most kinds. I blame it on being raised by parents who are intellectually suspicious of group-think and all the trappings of conventional conformity. So when I was asked to help start a Lean In Circle it was my love for making things happen rather than my endorsement of the model that led to my initial enthusiasm.
Surprisingly, I bought the book and made it through the first couple of chapters before I had enough. It’s not exactly that I didn’t like it or agree with its basic premise. It just didn’t seem sufficiently profound or complex to warrant the numerous chapters, examples, and associated exercises. So when my colleague and I invited some women from across the University to come together for our first Lean In session, I was mildly curious but not especially optimistic about the potential impact.
What transpired over the subsequent six or more sessions is noteworthy not in its earth-shattering outcomes, but instead in the rarity of what we quickly created. Our circle was comprised of women from various sectors of the University, all with varying levels of expertise, job security, and organizational influence. Although we loosely followed the Lean In model for the first few sessions, we focused primarily on sharing experiences, challenges, and news all with the promise of confidentiality and unconditional support.
In hindsight it’s perhaps surprising how quickly the trust and intimacy developed, with the two hour sessions flying by. Although not everyone could make every session, we all admitted to looking forward to our time together, and benefiting in unexpected yet meaningful ways.
Personally, I appreciated the opportunity to learn about other units, getting an up-close view of the complexities and pressures that were different yet related to my own. I also enjoyed hearing from young professionals who were more idealistic and less jaded than I, with so much commitment and possibilities still ahead of them. But perhaps most beneficial for me was the expansion of my own professional network. Within the first few sessions I was able to contact my fellow members as trusted colleagues and friends, gleaning their experience and wisdom, enabling me to be more effective while gaining more satisfaction from my time at work.
When the year was coming to a close the question was posed as to whether we should continue with our circle. For me, the formalized meetings no longer seemed necessary since the members had now become my friends who I would naturally seek out for conversation, support, and collaboration. So it was suggested that perhaps we should scale up our efforts to support more women who could benefit from the type of experience and discussions that we had come to enjoy.
This was the most interesting part. What should have been an easy email inviting women from across the University to come together to explore peer mentoring and related support, instead felt somehow risky and dangerous. All of us who sent out personalized invitations reported experiencing the same trepidation upon reviewing our contact lists. Suddenly, we worried about reporting structures, interpersonal politics and dynamics, and unanticipated consequences that our efforts might invoke.
This sense of danger and foreboding stood in such stark contrast with the natural collegiality and comfort that we had quickly found within our own Lean In circle. On one hand what we had created was exactly the type of environment that filled a significant need within our own professional and personal lives. Without any formalized changes to our respective job descriptions, reporting structures, or compensation packages, we achieved significant gains in satisfaction and a renewed investment in opportunities for growth and expanded impact. These are exactly the type of outcomes that Sandberg emphasized with regard to advancing women toward positions of greater influence and power.
Clearly, all women deserve safe spaces in which they can explore challenges and frustrations, gain perspectives and advice, and experience the support that comes with being valued and appreciated. From my own experiences I know that work feels completely different when you are surrounded by friends who are always happy to collaborate, support, and assist you regardless of the circumstances or changing environment in which you find yourself. In this type of culture you need not expend all of your energy on being strategic and preserving your own sense of security in the face of ever-changing threats and dangers. Instead, you can enjoy your work, finding satisfaction in your contributions, while exploring new opportunities for growth and challenge.
While Lean In circles are obviously not the only way to cultivate such a culture, they are certainly worth exploring as we consider our own growth or the dynamics within the organizations and structures that we lead. While I maintain that the affordances of Lean In circles shouldn’t be viewed as particularly radical or complex, they are unfortunately not as ubiquitous as we might think or even hope. Accordingly, any discomfort or trepidation should be interpreted as symptomatic of an obvious and compelling need.
We have a lot riding on success.
In addition to improving the lives of individuals and their families, and fostering broader economic health, we see financial success as the primary vehicle for addressing systemic inequities. By helping disenfranchised groups gain access to opportunities and resources, we seek to elevate their standard of living while creating more space for prosperity and growth.
The Women’s Movement has been the most successful large-scale effort to move a defined population into the opportunity continuum. Since women have gained access to virtually every level of the workforce, to some degree, many are now focusing on enhancing positions of authority, leadership, and influence, in hopes of elevating conditions while contributing to the broader systems-level and societal change that we so urgently need. When framed within the deepening challenges facing women and children around the world, and the recent stagnation of women’s progress with regard to key success metrics, it’s not surprising that some women are espousing a specific form of feminism that urges us to dig (or lean) in and fight for our places within the vast power hierarchy.
More than ever, we are invited through books, workshops, coaches and conferences to develop the necessary skills, networks, and dispositions to fight the fight and stay the course. Personally, I have found Women’s Leadership messages and programs to be both inspiring and well intentioned, but ultimately no match for the complexity of the work that stands before us. Through navigating my own circuitous career, observing the self-destruction of many talented and competent women around me, and offering my assistance wherever possible, I have come to the realization that we are desperately in need of more powerful tools and supports than are currently offered.
If we are open, three daunting truths can frame and provide guidance for the next stage of our efforts. First, the complex nature of the professional, economic and political landscape and the subtle and nuanced ways that women are blocked from the full equity we seek, call for more sophisticated tools, strategies, and metrics for navigating and moving. Second, many of our existing systems, leaders, and jobs are fundamentally limited and do not afford the opportunities for connections, creativity, and growth that are most conducive to women’s impact. This reality necessitates the creation of new opportunities beyond what already exist. And third, the existing infrastructure fails to map individual success and talent to societal or systems-level gains, so the success of women (individually or collectively) will not result in, by design, the broader impacts that we need.
This final point alone should warrant immediate attention. Once we acknowledge that our current approaches to success- even if fully realized- would not bring about the scope and depth of change that frames our very Movement, then we need to revisit our notion of success and determine where it falls short. Clearly, we needn’t search far. Virtually all aspects of success, down to our working definition, are based on notions of competing for limited opportunities and access within an inherently competitive playing field. Accordingly, our support and intervention models unpack this definition through the cultivation of strategy, networks, and motivation all with the goal of getting more women in and through the hierarchy, and ultimately to the top.
In addition to being exhausting, this model of fighting and competing is insensitive to many of the more subtle nuances and complexities that obstruct women from positions of influence and the ability to make change. If we want women to not only gain a better life for themselves and their families but also to contribute to stronger communities and a better world, we need to arm them with more sophisticated frameworks, models, knowledge, and tools that will allow them to gain access but also to effectively stretch and reshape the spaces in which they work and live, creating more room for themselves and others to move, grow, and more fully contribute.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that we stop fighting for equitable compensation or opportunities. On the contrary, I am suggesting that we begin to fight and work for much more. This next phase of our evolution calls for more noble and ambitious goals that extend well beyond ourselves. If powerful and clear enough, these goals can serve as a shared vision, propelling us further while connecting us with one another along the way. We will need new paradigms for support and development, a deeper understanding of the complex contexts affecting ourselves and the world, and a comfort with process frameworks be they innovation, community development, or problem solving. We will need to provide our children and ourselves with new narratives and characters in literature and all the various media platforms, expanding the ideals to which we aspire and reference our own worth and progress.
Clearly there is a great deal of work to be done. But our investments will yield far reaching benefits well beyond what we can even know.
My first epiphany came several years ago when I realized that I could maximize my impact by helping others fulfill their potential. For much of my life I had carried a sense of heaviness, searching for ways to satisfy my mission and civic responsibility. Although I found pleasure in developing community programs and collaborations, I knew that my efforts were inherently limited and that knowledge left me frustrated and sad. So when I finally discovered that I could amplify and leverage my own talents by helping others navigate their journeys toward success, I was both relieved and anxious to offer my support to the greatest scale.
My eagerness resulted in an open door policy. I tried to help anyone who came my way, offering my connections, strategies, and even a temporary home for students in need of support or guidance. As I came to recognize the importance of professional development, I worked to synthesize my experiences into processes and frameworks, offering workshops, articles, and even a TEDx talk, all in an effort to help others become unstuck and actualize their talents toward the greater good.
Although well intentioned, my logic behind this approach was fundamentally flawed. I was working from a false assumption that because all individuals possess talents, which I know to be true, they represent equally good investments in terms of my time and resources. I now know that this is not the case- my second epiphany- and that in reality, individuals vary considerably with regard to their respective return on investment potential.
To be clear, I still believe that everyone has something to contribute and that we cannot see or appreciate the long-term impacts of our individual actions and relationships. But when it comes to making meaningful and timely change within our most challenged communities and neighborhoods, certain individuals are clearly more poised to be agents of change. These are individuals who are intimately close to the problems and potential solutions, have a sense of mission and urgency, and are already adding value, yearning to do more and better through their own success and leadership.
I now understand that these are the people I am most interested in supporting. And I believe, at least I think, that they definitely need support. Being from challenged and impoverished communities, their own success is not assured. Instead, navigating the education system and the various obstacles that block and limit opportunities can consume their energies and resources. But layering the additional intricacies of understanding and impacting the systems and structures affecting their communities calls for knowledge, competencies, and connections that can take a lifetime to develop.
But imagine the rewards if we fast-track the rising stars within our most challenged communities, nurturing and supporting them with all the riches we already bestow on those deemed worthy through traditional leadership and mentoring programs. In what exciting and unexpected ways will our communities grow, and what will we look and feel like as a healthy, vibrant culture that not only embraces diversity but seeds and nurtures it from within?
I can’t wait to find out.
Have you ever been asked to share your networks or turn over your professional relationships? Does the mere mention cause you to feel defensive, evasive or even angry? Perhaps the world can be divided into those who understand the importance and fragility of relationships and those who are focused only on leveraging them.
The chasm between these two groups can feel both vast and threatening, especially for those of us who view relationships as the very foundation of our success. We do all that we can to sustain and nurture them, even in situations that are well beyond our control.
But when we are directed to give up our relationships, by leaders who fail to appreciate their value, it can feel like a direct blow to our own contributions and worth.
When faced with these situations, perhaps when ending a position or preparing for leave, we might be tempted to find comfort in the innevitable outcome. For we know that relationships are strong and immutable only when built on a foundation of respect and understanding, allowing us to reap their benefits even in the face of changing contexts and expectations. But without the history and attention to nourish them, their outputs will be short-lived, quickly withering and eventually drying up altogether.
So mercurial in nature, relationships can make or break one’s success depending on their willingness and ability to tend to their associated needs. Understanding the history, context, and varying perspectives involved in relationships is critical for a leader to build the necessary support and capacity, regardless of specific mission or strategic plan.
By distancing themselves from relationships- or dismissing them altogether- leaders can easily succumb to the dangers of hubris, falsely believing that their success is all but guaranteed. Rather than building on the efforts of those before them they inadvertently step on toes, ruffle feathers, and devalue those whom they need most. These mistakes can prove quite costly, setting them up for failure and collateral damage along the way.
As keepers of relationships we must resist taking any comfort in our leaders’ inevitable failure, since we stand to benefit more from their ultimate success. When our institutions and organizations thrive and meet their strategic goals our communities and our own families stand to benefit in important ways.
Clearly, we all deserve to be valued for our relationships and the work that goes into cultivating and sustaining them. But ultimately, we have the power to transition our connections in a manner that transcends our specific roles and emotional needs.
Being able to frame our own work and contributions within broader institutional constructs- not just during times of transition, but also in times of weakened leadership- will help to ensure our own success and stability. This higher notion of stewardship will in turn benefit our organizations and the relationships that are formed, setting an example for those with whom we work…. and even those we work for.