I spend a lot of time in charge of things. I think most strategists do – whether it’s a content initiative, a site performance project, or a trip to the zoo, our default approach to any situation is to evaluate options and plan a path forward. Start with editorial wireframes, switch to using the <picture> element, head to the elephants first.
We also, for the most part, like being in charge. The subtitle for the author experience workshop I’ve been teaching this year is “Micromanaging for All the Right Reasons”, and my audience always laughs knowingly when that slide comes up. They get it. Strategists are a bossy bunch.
Last month my partner and I took a week-long singing workshop at a retreat in upstate New York. Neither of us has any singing experience, so I expected that it would be scary, and fun, and moving. I did not expect that it would also serve as a profound leadership detox.
I knew that, on a macro level, I wouldn’t need to make any decisions: we were staying on campus (so no need to drive or plan travel), our program went from 9am-10pm for the whole week, and the dining hall served 3 full meals a day. There was enough down time that we didn’t feel rushed or overtaxed, but not so much that I ever needed to figure out what to do with myself before our next session started.
In the sessions, though, I found places to give up decision-making at a much deeper level. To understand this, you may need to know a little bit about the shape of Circlesongs. In their simplest format: a single person stands in the center of a circle of singers and creates a small, repeating phrase of music. They feed this phrase to a section of the circle and those singers take the part and continue repeating it. The leader finds a new musical phrase to layer on top of the existing one and feeds that to the next section of the circle. And so on, around the circle, until everyone is singing and an entire interlocking piece of music has formed underneath us.
The week started with our instructors leading the circles, but quickly progressed to participants leading both large and small groups. Anyone who wanted to lead a song could. At first I was terrified by the idea and wanted no part of it. Then I grew more comfortable, and felt like I should lead a circle because it seemed like The Next Step. Then I remembered that the voice in my head is very dumb sometimes, and that doing things because I feel like I should is a terrible idea.
I settled in as a singer in the circles, and found benediction waiting for me there. Without the responsibility of being in charge, I was able to give my whole self over to the role of supporting our leader in each song. It’s a reciprocal blessing, to offer your raw energy and grace to another person, and to feel that person accept it and radiate it back with clear intention.
Being fully present in my support for another person – without analyzing, or managing, or planning – made me realize how rarely I get to do that. It felt like a continual release, to put down the burden of keeping the big picture in mind and to go where I was guided. I was reminded, through following the path of another's creation, how much of a gift leadership is to a group: the gift of safety, and comfort, and direction.
I’ve been doing my teams a disservice, I think, by leaving my strategist brain on all the time. Full-time leadership isn't sustainable. The muscles get overworked, the edge dulls, the gears start to strip, and slip.
In the same way that writers are inspired by reading, and chefs by eating, a healthy strategist can find rejuvenation by following someone else’s plan. I need to look for more ways to widen the channels that accept and direct energy, to trust in leadership other than my own, and to give the organizing and analyzing parts of my brain regular rest.