On Becoming an Accidental Leader

Four years ago, I founded a school. It seems absurd to say it, but in some regards, it was an accidental business; a purposeful founding, with no thought about how it would result in a business to run and manage. I met a woman at a local garden by chance when we were both there with our families. We talked about schools we would like to see for our then 2 year olds, and over several months we  met, traded ideas via google docs and email. We secured a fiscal agent, a space, families willing to enroll their children and pay in advance to help us buy materials,  teachers.

My co-founder had a second baby around our opening day. And I will always see myself standing  in the humid basement, the faint smell of the new yellow paint in the room as I snapped a photo of  a group of children gathered at a table with our head teacher and sent it with a message to the effect of “we did it!”

When I see that image in my head, I vividly see someone with no idea what had just started and what it would bring to my life . Over the past 4 years, I have learned how many minuscule moments it takes to start and to run an organization. As I have tried to juggle the work that people in all sorts of departments and positions that exist in larger businesses do every day, I have gained a great respect for work that I never thought about before:  nonprofit tax filing, book keeping, purchasing and returns, operations, maintenance, billing , state licensing agencies, human resources.

Somewhere along the way, I started to regret how hard I had been on leaders in my life– leaders who really cared but who might  have been trying to tread water in too many details,  in imperfect and evolving systems.

How many of those leaders had found themselves in the same position of the accidental leader?  The accidental leader: The one that is, perhaps, really meant to be a leader of sorts, but who somehow got his/her skills mixed up with a gift and took a position (or created it) that focused on– or demanded– the skills rather than the gift.  The person who jumped into something without realizing what it might mean.

If I could go back and coach myself in the Fall of 2010, there are so many things I would say. For that matter, I think I could also think of many things to say to  leaders and bosses and founders I have worked with and pushed so hard. The first of which would be “thank you” and the second “I’m sorry.”

This winter, I got stuck underneath the weight of these things. The number of details, the size of the responsibility  but also the insight into myself and into who I have been and have the capacity to be.  I saw how high my expectations were for the school and for myself. The idea, from William James, that you should “‘act as if what you do makes a difference [because] it does’ was a painful one. I live by that creed every day; but suddenly, in the midst of the winter, it felt as though the difference I was making was the opposite kind of difference I wanted to be making–my overwhelm was calling out all of my worse qualities. But, for a time, I couldn’t find a way out from under the external things that I felt pressing on me. And I felt like a failure for not meeting my own expectations or those of the people around me. I got stuck under the weight of that.

In a tweeter feed, I recently read a quote from Yoga teacher Baron Baptiste: “Stand in front of your past and let it be.” In the end, as Spring began to give hints of coming, I started to feel this in my cells. I had to just let things go. I had to accept the imperfection of the school,  and of myself. I had to stand where I was right then and take a deep breath; take many deep breaths. Each time my mind wanted to return, to pick at the last years, to point out the mistakes, the many many ways things were so much less than perfect and sometimes just very bad, I would remind myself to breath. This practice worked– moment by moment it helped me loosen my strong hold on the regret, the panic, the overwhelm. And I feel that it is inviting me back into my self, back into my body. I am able  to live in my leader self again;  the deep inner knowing in all of us wants to be seen, deserves to step forward, right now no matter what the past has been. In reality, this lesson may be the only real lesson there is– to be here now.

As I reflect on all of this and work to map out the school’s next steps for sustainable existence and new leadership,  I am being asked to be a real leader, to evolve past feeling surprised by the place I find myself. I am being asked to  utilize the gifts  that  I do have as I map out tasks and skills needed to run this school– with or without me. I am no longer going to be an accidental leader.

 

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