19 Jul 2015
Follow the shy kid
The idea of me leading a team, leading a company even, is absurd when I stop and think about it. I was the shy kid. Not just slow-to-warm-up-shy, but the kind of shy where if a stranger (or a teacher, or my friends’ parents) spoke to me I would freeze, deer-in-the-headlights style. People called me Chatty-Kathy as a joke. Everyone thought there was something wrong with me.
Fast-forward forty-odd years and here I am. Outspoken. Opinionated. Leading a team, a company, and senior-level clients. Pretty successfully, if I do say so myself. And I’m doing it with confidence, even though that shy, insecure little girl is still very much part of me.
I never intended to become a “leader”. I struggled to figure out what I wanted to do. Who I wanted to be. I come from a family of academics and knew that wasn’t for me, but I had no exposure to other options. I tried to follow the path of self-expression—one that would lead me to better understand myself. It was certainly a curvy path, full of surprises! I think, in a large part, it was my shyness that led me towards leadership.
I was the classic quiet kid with her nose in a book. As a child, reading fueled my imagination – Narnia and Black Beauty sparked years of creative play. As a teenager, Stephen King, Thomas Hardy, and Herman Hesse were my escape and armour from the world. It wasn’t until much later that I realized the richness that reading brought to my life. I learned to empathize with different characters in different situations; to understand that there are different ways to live and behave, and that very few of them are “right” or “wrong”. Reading showed me that I’m only a supporting character (at best) in anyone else’s story. To lead, I know I have to understand other people’s characters, motivations, and life plot. If they fit in my story, then my job as a leader is to support them in theirs.
In high school, even as I was honing my invisibility super-power, I longed to be noticed. The stage had an almost magical draw for me, so I started acting in community theatre. I learned that I could act confident as long as I had a role to play or a persona to put on. I got comfortable with discomfort, and nerves, and the possibility of making a complete fool of myself. As a leader, I typically assume the role of content strategist, mentor, or business owner. It’s a role that I still find scary at times, but it suits me.
When you don’t fit within the social norm, you’re free to find your own way. Arbitrary rules and authority have always frustrated me, so I quickly became adept at finding ways around them. My reckless independence tormented my mom (and teachers) during my teenage years but, in a more tempered state, it’s what drove me to chart my own course as an adult. I discovered that when you strike out in a new direction, on your own, people will follow. And then you find yourself leading them. Not by design—it’s just that they start wondering what you’re doing, and why, and asking if they can come along. And the more that people expect you to have answers, the more answers you learn that you have.
I think shy people rarely struggle with a big ego. I know I can’t do everything. I don’t want to. It’s why I’m a co-founder, and not founder, of a company. It’s why I have a team who each play to their own strengths, while I play to mine. It’s why I celebrate all of our team successes, and work hard to become completely replaceable. I’m thrilled to have a voice, and a position, and a very big say in how things happen, but I don’t hold tightly to that. In fact, what thrills me now is seeing our team grow into their voices, and find their positions.
That shy girl is still with me. She still gets hurt, and embarrassed, and frightened with some regularity. Occasionally, I’m still tempted to get angry with her, or deny her, or blame her. But not so frequently anymore. Now, I’m more likely to lift her up, give her a big hug, and take her hand so we can keep moving forward. Together. After all, it’s her experiences and perspectives that give me the strength and courage to be a leader. To be myself.