Being a Leader Means Being Uncomfortable
The night of July 6, 2016, I couldn't sleep. I’d just witnessed, via social media, the violent and unjust death of Philando Castile, just 24 hours after Alton Sterling was shot to death in Baton Rouge. They were not the first, and I feel a constant pain in my heart knowing that they won't be the last. But for me, they were a catalyst. I lay awake in bed in a sadness-fueled insomnia peppered with so many other emotions besides grief.
I didn’t fall asleep thinking about work, about upcoming meetings, or if we’d hit our quarterly goals. Instead, I thought about my team, and how these incidents and injustices must be affecting them too. How, like me, it must be getting increasingly harder to absorb these headlines, these injustices after leaving work, and then come in the next day, sit down at their computers, and focus on their typical routine.
So, as I headed into the office the next morning, bleary-eyed and still in a state of shock, I decided that I could not and should not start my day with business as usual. I wrote my heart into an email to my team. When I prepared to hit send, I was scared. I felt uncomfortable and vulnerable. Was this the right thing to do? Was I the right person to say it? How would the team react? Was I going too far? Or not far enough? There wasn’t a clear answer and there wasn’t a “career expert” who’d weighed in yet on the proper managerial response.
But my need to talk about this with the 100-plus Musers who work with me every day pushed me through that and I sent this out:
Subject: On the News This Week and Being a Whole Human
I write to you this morning with a heavy heart. Having trouble with our world and the senseless killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by the police—in the past 48 hours alone. I also think about the hateful murders in Orlando, the Stanford Rapist, and acts of terror in Baghdad, Istanbul and my home, Paris. Each of these acts, and so many others, cut so deeply, provoking fear, anger, helplessness, sadness and so many other emotions—affecting each of us differently.
Talking about pain and fear and race and bigotry and terror are not easy things to do at work. They’re messy, personal conversations, loaded with our own experiences and identities. Many of you may not be interested in having those conversations here, and that’s something I absolutely respect and understand. But we all process these events differently, and I know that for others it may be impossible not to bring that burden with you some days into the office. Kathryn and I talk to you, our Musers, about us all being “whole humans” with lives outside the office, families and passions, marathons and travels. But part of being a whole human is also, occasionally, having the pain and shock of what our world is capable of.
I write you today not with any sort of answer—but with an acknowledgment of my own challenge this morning to put my head in the game 100%. Last night was a sleepless night for me, as I lay there processing the breaking news of the killing of Philando Castile in Falcon Heights. And I also write to you with an open door, and an open heart; with a promise that if any of you ever want to talk, you can come to me. Even if it's just to get a coffee or walk around the block. Or just to be able to acknowledge something difficult that’s affecting you that day. Kathryn, Lindsay, and Shannon are also here and have made that same promise to you. We live in difficult and turbulent times, and some days, that can really be hard.
Responses came flooding in. Email after email, grateful for words of support and affirmation. Emails with personal stories, and personal struggles. Emails with sadness, and with hope. Colleagues who were incredibly affected feeling validated, and some that were less so, pushed to think and feel more empathy. The wall had come down, and in that moment, our humanness united us more than our work.
In those responses was also an ask, from several people on my team, to write about this. And immediately, I felt uncomfortable. I didn't write this for the outside world. I didn’t spend hours drafting it or send it to a PR consultant for approval. How would I explain the context? What would people think of my intentions? How could I possibly get the words right to communicate my thoughts and feelings to the world, to people who didn't know me?
It took a few weeks to digest, but I realized that I needed to be uncomfortable. To share this. Because none of this is about me, and how I feel; but what I do and how I react impacts the world around me. I'm a white woman in New York City, who grew up in France, and I know that there is much I cannot speak to, and many I should not speak for.
But that does not remove my responsibility to speak at all, and to use my experience, my position, and my privilege. Maybe by sharing, I can show just one way of being more open and compassionate at work and encourage just one more person to act or speak up. And perhaps managers and teammates will think about their colleagues with more compassion—and start being and seeing whole humans too.
I didn’t send the email with the intent of solving a problem. Or to put myself on a leadership pedestal—but rather to remind my team that I’m aware of what’s happening in the world, I’m aware that it might be affecting them, I’m aware that it’s a difficult topic to discuss, and I’m aware that just because they’re at work, it doesn't make it easy to bury or ignore.
Even though it was uncomfortable to put myself out there, I wanted the team to know that I’m here to talk, and here to listen, and here to support everyone to the fullest of my abilities, even when that support falls outside their job descriptions. And that’s what being a leader is all about. At the end of the day, there is strength in action, and it is a leader’s duty to act in the face of discomfort.
Photo of person typing courtesy of Hero Images/Getty Images.
Alex is a Founder of The Muse, where she focuses on the product, engineering and operations of the fast-growing business. Her book "The New Rules of Work", written with her co-founder Kathryn, comes out in April 2017. Outside the office, Alex can be found on her road bike or deep in a book. She also loves productivity hacks more than candy.More from this Author