“To be a leader, don’t get led on or led in the wrong direction” Rakim
“I will send swarms of flies on you, your officials, and your people, and into your houses…” Exodus 8
Speaking truth to power is an important quality and sign of leadership. We view people who are willing to criticize the status quo or the powers that be as brave, frank, and possibly heroic. Are we as open to honest critics within our institutions, organizations, and groups? Do we accept constructive criticism or negative feedback ? Do we allow people to speak their truth without permanently shutting the door on them? I would argue that the outspoken are great as ideal heroes but often ostracized as real people.
During a weekly principals’ meeting, I learned that one of my colleagues, also a new mentor, had made the decision to take a job elsewhere. This person was given an opportunity to address the group. What the person offered was not a simple farewell. Though some of the opinions and observations shared were not new to me, they had not been shared in a formal setting with our supervisors. This person has been openly critical of decisions and actions in the past. However, for the first and last time, this individual owned the feelings and experiences of having been that voice which led to having not been heard. That broke this person’s resolve and commitment. It was shocking, saddening, maddening, frustrating and demoralizing. Though our line of work calls for leadership skills and tendencies, my colleague’s experience became that of being ignored and dismissed.
No one wants to listen or hear that voice in the wilderness. We want it in theory. We want it on the grand scale on global issues. Because this individual chose to be a leader by being vocal about inconsistencies observed, that experience ultimately ended a sense of belonging. If one of the toughest people I know gave up, where does that leave me? Do I want to belong to an organization that is not willing to make difficult growth? How long will I remain silent and shrug off those things that don’t sit well with me? Isn’t being a leader about giving voice to effect change?
After I received this news I found it very difficult to focus on work. It was too close to me. I have sought leadership opportunities outside of work specifically parent-teacher groups and dance organizations. I know what it’s like to be critical and have that ruin the rest of my experience because I chose to be honest about my concerns. Mission statements, codes of conduct and growth mindset are great concepts that have little meaning if disagreement or controversy lead to dissension. To make matters worse, speaking out can affect how others perceive you; I have been labeled difficult or disloyal even if my intention was to seek improvement.
I am generally a passive person. I don’t like conflict or confrontation. At work, I usually lead through facilitation or building consensus. I generally go with the flow. I don’t go out of my way to seek to stir up controversy or to upset people. I take pride in being a calm, quiet leader. I do admit that one area of development for me is to be more courageous in my conversations. However, when I get shut down or even shunned because I did speak to my frustrations, questions or doubts, then I no longer feel empowered or engaged. I disconnect. I dismiss. I turn into stone, a stone sinking still waters where the bitterness of loss runs deep. I understand my colleague’s decision. I’ve made it myself. In the meantime, I think of that old wisdom saying, en boca cerrada, no entran las moscas. Shoo, fly, don’t bother me.