On Leadership

Naomi posed a question in her comment to my stat post that I’ve asked myself a few times, too. Why do I hold myself back from being a leader – and underneath that question is, of course, what does “being a leader” mean to me?

I’ve tried in the past to figure it out, but I’ve never tried to puzzle it out through writing, so this is an attempt to do that and it may get sort of long and sloppy (you’ve been warned).

I started off this question by thinking: who do I think of when I think of the word “leader”?

The first person that came to mind is pretty random.

William Wallace. Not the REAL William Wallace (I have no idea what his story is), but William Wallace as portrayed by Mel Gibson in the movie “Braveheart.”

So: Mel Gibson. That’s who I think is the epitome of a leader (lol).

Seriously, though, I asked myself, why would that be who comes to mind? What is it about William Wallace, as portrayed in Braveheart, that makes me think “leader”?

The first thing I thought of was that William Wallace, despite becoming the leader of Scotland’s fight to obtain independence from England, was never separate from the people he was fighting for. He was one of them. He suffered, as they had. He didn’t dress different, he didn’t assume any special position in battle — he was down there with the rest of them, risking his life, fighting alongside them.

He also was of course brave, hence the name of the movie, and he was very passionate about his cause. The cause, in fact, is what made him a leader – he basically shifted to 100% responsibility and decided that he was going to become the cause of the cause. He didn’t say to himself “I’m the best fighter,” or “I’m the most inspiring person here.” Instead, by becoming the cause of the cause, he naturally became its leader.

What’s interesting though about choosing Wallace is that things do not end well for him. While it’s true the cause he fought for came to fruition (Scotland won its independence from England), prior to that, Wallace was publicly beheaded, screaming “freedom” as his final word. The cause made him a leader – but the cause also killed him.

He’s not alone. Leaders get killed, literally and metaphorically, all the time.

Which got me thinking about the limiting beliefs I have around leadership, and my judgments and beliefs about people I perceive as leaders.

Limiting Belief 1: Leaders get killed. Jesus got crucified, for Christ’s sake (see what I did there?).

I believe that happens any time someone steps up as a leader. Not always literally, but, when you put yourself out there like that – you get criticized. Often harshly, often by people who are coming at you from bad come-froms. They feel envious, they feel threatened, they want to attack you for putting yourself out there because they’re too afraid to do it themselves and are resentful.

Brene Brown actually talks a lot about how viciously she was attacked after her initial wildly successful Ted Talk. That led her to write her second book, “Daring Greatly,” which was about the difference between the critic – who stays safe in the stands – and the “man in the arena,” the one who is out there risking. She said that one of the things she decided for herself was that she would no longer take criticism from the people in the stands – she would only listen to others who were in the arena with her.

It’s a nice theory, but the people in the stands can be relentless, never stopping until they finally tear you down. And what happens when you look around and realize you’re the only one in the arena? If there are others with you, great, but, how often does that occur? Let’s face it: most people are in the stands.  [Insert Jimmy’s two cents here:  “What about LP?  What about PSPLife?  In those cases, isn’t it the case that everyone is in the arena with you?”  Yes, I suppose so.]

But to get back to who I think of when I think “leader,” I thought to myself, William Wallace is pretty far off – he’s basically fictional, for one, living a life that is incredibly different from the life I live. Can I think of anyone closer?

The first person who came to mind when I did that was Katia. She and I went to high school together. She went on to found the company “Birchbox,” and she now has a net worth of over $1 billion.  I’ve mentioned her before.  It’s not easy being in the same high school class as someone like that (lol).

I thought of Katia not only now, but in middle school and high school too. She was very popular—extraverted, beautiful, charismatic, always willing to put herself out there. In high school I was very critical of “popular” people. I saw them as incredibly inauthentic – they had to be, to keep up their image and keep their friends. Katia was different, though – she was popular because of who she really was, and if the next day everyone decided they couldn’t stand her, I think Katia would’ve gone on being Katia.

I didn’t know her very well—we had several classes together, but I’m not sure we ever even spoke directly, at least not often enough for me to recall it. I knew her now husband much better, we were on the Speech and Debate team together (lol — if you were wondering, I was not popular).

If you asked what do I think of Katia’s life – knowing only what I know – I would say, it’s incredibly impressive. Some kid from El Paso, Texas founding an international billion dollar company is, by any measure, remarkable. She’s without question a leader – to entrepreneurs, to women. She’s also a mother – of twin boys. She is someone who “has it all.”  It would seem I don’t have any negative impression of her or her life.

However, the truth is, I’ve often thought that her life seems sort of isolating. She and her husband don’t actually seem to be surrounded by that many friends. They also don’t seem to spend a lot of time together. I have a similar reaction to my friend David, who I also went to high school with and who became a multi-millionaire after founding a major media company (which he sold a couple of years ago). When I saw David years later in New York, he embraced me like one of his most trusted friends, even though in high school, we were at each other’s throat every day.  I later got the impression that David did not feel he a had a lot of people around him he could trust – as a result, anyone he knew from “before” (i.e., from El Paso) he gave instant credibility to. His fiancé, for example, is a girl he knew since middle school.

I think though it’s important to note that I don’t actually know much at all about these people’s lives; I’m simply assuming that they are isolated. It may not be true at all.

Limiting Belief 2: Leadership is isolating.

I think of David’s fiancé –the one he met in middle school in El Paso — as a leader too.   She got herself into the political world in New York. She now has become the first Asian-American representative of Chinatown (it was in the news for a while).

What struck me about her after she got elected is that she posts a lot online – and on more than one occasion, I thought to myself, she is being way too free and casual with what she’s saying. She’s a politician now. You can’t do that. She also wears bold red lipstick all the time (which looks lovely on her) — you certainly can’t do THAT.

Limiting Belief 3: Leadership is restrictive.

Back to me, though, what is my personal experience of being a leader?

A couple of things came to mind when I asked myself that question, and they were not things that I expected to come to mind.

In my junior and senior years of high school, I was in the “Advanced Placement” classes. We had an English teacher in that program who was revered at my school; everyone loved him, everyone wanted to be loved by him. He didn’t know I existed, because I was quiet and hung back – until he gave us an assignment to write a 5-page piece with a nostalgic tone (I think I’ve written about this before, because it was such an impactful moment for me and I still haven’t fully dissected why). Katia, by the way, was in this class, as was her future husband.

After the teacher had graded everyone’s papers, he read the three best pieces – he said the first two (one of which was Katia’s husband’s) were really great, but the third “blew me away.” It was mine. I had written about my horse, Platinum, but what the piece was really about was a realization that my childhood was ending. I recall that it exhibited a wisdom and an angst that was beyond my years (even I was surprised by it after I wrote it). I wish I still had it; I wonder what I would think of it now.

In any event, he read my piece aloud to the class, and I couldn’t handle it. I was, truly, elated. It was one of the best moments of my life (as I write that I’m thinking, wow, that sounds a little pathetic) – and one of the most excruciating. I put my head down on the desk and could not look at anyone.

After this assignment, he told us we would be doing a group project that would have a huge impact on our grades for the year – and that he would be choosing the three who had written the best pieces to be captains, meaning I was one.

This is where it gets interesting. When I became a captain, I totally shifted. I didn’t want to be “better” than everyone — but no, that’s not quite accurate.  Really, I didn’t want to be “different” from everyone. I was desperate to get back in the crowd. As a result, I was very casual as a group captain – most of our group meetings became social, lots of joking around, led by me. I used it as a chance to make friends, really, and I ignored doing well on the assignment completely.

We got a B. I never got Bs. I was very jarred by it, and pretty angry at myself afterwards.  It felt like a squandered opportunity.

This story makes me think of a moment even further back in time, in first grade. My reading and writing skills were two levels above the kids in my class. It was because I had been reading and writing a lot already at home, wanting to keep up with my older sister, and also desperate to read as soon as I could because my father paid much more attention to his books than to us.

My teacher did not know what to do with me. She began teaching me separately from everyone else, giving me an entirely different book and different assignments. I hated it. It made me cry. When she pressured my parents to have me skip a grade, I lost it; I had a complete meltdown. I was already tiny for my grade. If I went up one, I would look ridiculous. More than that, though, I just wanted to be like everyone else! Please, let me just be like everyone else.

Again, I think this wasn’t really distress about having a higher level of skill than everyone else, it was more about being different – not belonging.  Or maybe, standing out.  I really didn’t want to stand out.

That brings me to my most powerful limiting belief about leadership.

Limiting Belief 4: Leaders stand out/do not belong.  

This “not belonging” belief runs deep for me, and I’m not sure I fully understand it.

It’s been a lifetime narrative, starting with my family. At some point, I knew I was an unplanned second child. The family was “supposed” to be just my parents and my sister, and I felt like that was reinforced by their words and actions again and again (this was something I imagined; I do not think, looking back, that they actually or deliberately tried to make me feel this way).

This led to a belief that “I do not belong,” which led to me trying to “be right” about that my whole life. I didn’t walk at my high school graduation, for example, nor did I go to a Texas college, like everyone else. I went to Hawaii.  I got married at 19.  I worked at Hooters.  I ended up doing a lot of things that were not in the script, on purpose.

But then, I wonder, is it true that I became comfortable with not belonging, and started to do things to cause it to happen in order to “be right”?  That’s what I’ve thought, after doing the work, but I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate.

I’ll tell you why.

When Jimmy and I were in Flight Club (Red Elephant’s program), we did a workshop with Belanie DeShong, who has this theory about “core filters.”  Belanie says “core filters” are limiting beliefs we develop as children that are very powerful, more so than every-day limiting beliefs (several of which are usually piled on top of, and concealing, the underlying core filter).

Using Belanie’s theory to explore “I don’t belong” yields an interesting result.

Belanie would tell me “I don’t belong” is not a core filter; that’s a limiting belief covering up the true core filter. She would try to get underneath it by asking: “what sort of person doesn’t belong?”

The first answer that comes to mind is a leper. Lepers do not belong. Lepers have to live in separate colonies – that’s the degree to which they do not belong. They are repulsive, diseased, and it’s not something they can change; it’s not who they are, but what.  It’s immutable.

She would then work with me to see what the exact belief is under “I don’t belong.” Is it that “I’m a leper?” Probably not. There’s probably a word underneath “leper” that goes to the heart of it, maybe one that describes a leper – “I am repulsive,” or maybe simply, “I am ugly.”

My sister used to call me “ugly” all the time, and I remember feeling especially stung by it, even though I knew it was just a juvenile thing older sisters say to their younger sisters. She would say it to me a lot, too, because she could tell it stung.  Looking back, it might have stung because I made up that that was the reason I was the outlier in my family, the one who was not supposed to be there.  I came out of the womb a leper, and they were like:  “What the heck is this thing and why is it here?  I guess we’re stuck with it.”

So, here’s where Belaie’s work offers a different perspective from the work. Belanie says it’s not that we go through life trying to “be right” about our core filters. In fact, the opposite is true.   We spend our whole lives trying to prove we are NOT whatever the core filter is. In this case, she would ask, “what have you done in your life prove you belong,” or, “what have you done in your life to cover up that you are ugly?”

Well, a lot.  Look at my examples above. Once I got appointed a group “captain” by the universally beloved English teacher, I shrunk myself down – in order to fit in. Before that, in first grade, I gave up an opportunity to skip a grade because I just wanted to belong.

But then, is it about “belonging”? If I think about it, what goes on in my head is a little different. It’s not: “belong at all costs!” It’s more: “don’t stand out at all costs!”

What bothered me about being the group captain and skipping a grade had more to do with standing out than it did with a desperate need to be “part of” (though I’m sure that has to be a component of it).

So, that begs the question: what is it about standing out that scares me so much?

And that takes me right back to what’s underneath “I don’t belong”: the belief that “I’m ugly.”

The main problem with leadership for me is that you are exposed. I remember in Red Elephant they would talk about that a lot, since Red Elephant is a program where the whole point is to start speaking on stages. They’d say, when you’re on the stage, you’re fully exposed. There is no hiding. People will see who you really are.

For me, it’s been a lifetime effort to not stand out, not get up on the stage – because if I do that, everyone will see who I really am: ugly, a leper. And then, if people see that, they will tell me to go off and live in a colony somewhere, away from everyone, “we don’t want you here.”

That means anything that makes me stand out — any talent, any unique quality — becomes dangerous for me.  It becomes something I have to hide.

This belief doesn’t make sense, I know. I could write down lists of evidence that disprove it, and yet, it doesn’t make a difference.  I could try to disprove it all day, talk about how ridiculous it is, hear other people tell me how ridiculous it is, and nothing would change.  I would still believe I’m ugly.

This is the thing about limiting beliefs from childhood – they don’t really make much sense, but you’re stuck with them. As Belanie says, they just are, they’re a part of you – the same as your arm, or your leg, or your nose.

That’s why Belanie’s theory is that the only way to be free of a core filter is to become willing to BE whatever that belief is (since you cannot rid yourself of it, all you can do is lessen the power it holds over you). In this case, if my above self-therapy is accurate, I would have to become willing to be exposed as ugly.

I do feel resistance as I think about that – i.e., I feel like I’m not willing to be ugly.  Certainly not in front of a crowd.

The next step would be to say, out loud to other people: “My name is Kyla and what I want you to know about me is that I am ugly.”  That’s way easier said then done.

The final step is to understand that “I am ugly” only because I say so – because I said so to myself back when I was a child. In other words, the final step is to realize it’s a fiction, it’s not true, it’s just something you told yourself one day and it stuck and there’s no rhyme or reason to it at all.

If you do these things, Belanie says you’re free of the core filter — it’s lost its power over you.

So, putting the pieces together (and I know this probably got hard to follow for anyone who is not me), my most powerful limiting belief about leadership is:  When I am a leader, I am exposed, and everyone will discover I am ugly.

I feel as if all of this may have raised more questions than answers for me. I will say at the outset of writing this, I would not have thought that underneath my reluctance to be a leader is “I am ugly” (or something along those lines; I still don’t know if I got the word right, and Belanie stresses that you must find the exact word that, for you, captures the core filter).

In any event, you can imagine how, if that’s my thought process, of course I would recoil from leadership.  Can you imagine going through that every time you step up to be a leader?  I mean, when I do step up as a leader, it’s pretty unnerving and difficult. I’m basically out there cringing, waiting for everyone to realize I’m a leper.

Well, this was distressing. Thanks a lot, Naomi (lol).

Really, though, if all of this is accurate – does awareness of it help? Probably yes, especially if I go back in time and think about the prices I’ve paid fighting the “exposure” of leadership.

Advanced is one place where I paid prices. I joined an Advanced group I didn’t do Basic with (I skipped to the next class).  As a result, no one knew me, and the first day when Kathy said “find the person in the room you have the most resistance to,” I had five people standing in front of me. The main reason they felt resistance to me was because I was new (so they had instantly made up a bunch of stuff about me based on pretty much nothing), but for me, I had this panic moment: you’re standing out.

Even so, in the beginning, on that first day, I remember fighting through it (almost defiantly) and not holding back when it came to giving others feedback.

Then we did the feedback arc, and I paid for it (that’s how it felt). One person called me a “bully.” Another called me a “dark person.” Those are the words I remember, because they’re the ones that stung.

The message I got from that was this: you tried to put yourself out there as a leader, and your ugly inner core got exposed. It’s time to run back to shelter.

While I got a lot out of Advanced, I know I did not get nearly as much as I could have if I hadn’t reigned myself in after that and run back into the crowd. I didn’t give anyone feedback anymore; I hardly said anything at all. I became an observer, for the most part. I behaved the same way in LP, unless I felt like I was in control (that’s a whole other blog post). When the coaches and Gloria were in the room, though, it was too risky; they might put me on the hot seat and expose me (and for most of LP, they were in the room).

It’s interesting thinking about this now, because I think I actually may have had a meaningful breakthrough this cycle on this front.  As the “integrity buddy,” I took a leadership position this cycle (at least that is how I saw it).  As you guys know, one of the first pieces of feedback I gave in that role was to Raul, and several people did not like it or take it well (including him). In fact, someone called me a “bully” (how perfect is the Universe that that particular word was used?).

I say that not to play victim, all of the feedback was fair, but more to take a look at what I went through when that happened.

I had a hard time with it, honestly (in private).  I got defensive. I thought to myself, forget this role, if this is the shit I have to put up with. As if I want to spend extra time and energy holding other people accountable rather than just focusing on my own goals. I had a strong urge, too, to kind of check out after that, “reign myself in,” get out of the spotlight – my (subconscious) thought was, they’re beginning to “discover” your “ugly” core and they’re going to tell you that you don’t belong here.

That probably sounds silly, but it did come up for me.

I shifted, though, because I am so relentlessly determined to get to where I need to get for my family.  I opened myself to the feedback, reminded myself it was just information – not the truth – and that I needed to consider it and see if it resonated.  As a result, I made some adjustments the next time I addressed someone who had missed a blog post, and I think they were helpful.

But, the one thing I decided not to change was holding firm in my stand for the group to be in integrity. That meant that I would continue giving feedback, and risk that it might hit people the wrong way. They would react however they were going to react, maybe I would learn something from their reactions (maybe not), but I wasn’t going to give up and retreat back into the crowd. Not this time.

It’s a small thing, but I do think it’s a breakthrough of a sort.

Still, I had to go through a lot to get there.  I’d really like to not have to do that, it’s taxing.

In the end, I think this is a pretty important area for me to focus on to be able to truly move forward, and to move up a level in my leadership capacity (which I am committed to doing). So, I’m going to take some time and think about the other prices I’ve paid in my life for retreating back into the crowd. I can’t afford this anymore. It has to change.

So, now, a sincere thank you to Naomi for the push (lol).



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