This is an excerpt from a talk I did last week at Illlinois Women in Leadership event. Even if you are not a woman from Illinois or not a woman at all, I would hope you could find something helpful in it…
So, since we only have about 15 to 20 minutes together, I figure it’s best if we just bypass the formalities and just cut to the chase. Since the overarching theme of my book is vulnerability, we might as well begin with less glamorous and rather embarrassing nuance of the back-story of my journey here today. When Mia invited me to speak at this event a couple of months ago, my immediate answer was yes! I would love to! SO I came to the luncheon last month to get a feel for how this event runs and meet some of you. I still felt fairly confident, until Kelly Hurst, the speaker, opened her mouth. Suddenly my answer changed. I started to panic and frantically scanned the room for Linda Jones so I could tell her with my eyes, “I’ve changed my mind! I don’t want to do this anymore!” I instantly compared myself to her and determined that I did not measure up. How could I compete with that? As if that were the point of any of this.
I tell you this story because, in a nutshell, that’s what I do. That’s what I write about. The parts of me that are messed up and immature and hard to say out loud. I share what I have learned and how I have learned it; and apparently I learn life’s most important lessons through suffering. Through circumstances that don’t go my way. Through hitting bottom and fighting my way back up. But ya know what else I have learned by sharing it on paper? I am not the only one. OTHER people have responded and confirmed that I am not alone in my crazy, my insecurities and my failures. So I keep writing. Because even though my disease of Leukemia is in remission, my disease of the SOUL is chronic. I have PLENTY of material, let me tell you!
Before I got cancer in 2015 and simultaneously battled with a family member’s addiction, I would say I was a decent leader. I read leadership books and went to leadership conferences and launched and maintained several women’s study groups at church for 20 years. I wasn’t TERRIBLE at it but I do feel that sometimes there are things about ourselves, our soul and our character, that can only be discovered when the fire comes. There is simply no other way to face them.
You may have heard the leadership refer to a book that was chosen to encapsulate this year’s IWIL theme. It’s called True North. I would say that prior to 2015, before I was forced to face my True and broken self, I lived a life that was North-ish. On paper I had a few skills, credentials and experiences that seemed to define a leader, but there were some deeper ingredients to leadership that I was lacking. They are actually both on the list of the key components True North identifies as necessary to be an authentic leader: The first is Self-Awareness.
My book is called Soul-Selfie because prior to my world being turned upside down by some pretty horrific circumstances, I spent a lot more time taking pictures of other peoples’ lives and either judging their bad behavior or, if they seemed to have it more together than me, trying to emulate them. When I came face to face with diseases of cancer, a loved one’s addiction and the abrupt abandonment of many life-long friends as a result, I somehow managed to turn that camera back on myself. Through these snapshots, these “selfies”, I became acutely aware of my own disease of the soul, marked by control, worry, fear, greed, jealousy and judgmentalism, just to name a few. I realized that working on myself is a full-time job. These Soul-Selfies were the key to getting to the root of all the character defects that that were inhibiting my ability to effectively lead others anywhere that mattered.
Being self-aware means we are intentional about regularly gauging our mental, spiritual, emotional and physical health. As a person who is fairly driven and admittedly often obsessed with being productive, I have to get pretty sick in these areas before I give myself permission to shut down, to take necessary rest and recovery time. Leukemia is one pretty effective way to do it, though I don’t recommend it. But it’s VITAL that we remember to assess these areas in us, or we will end up like so many leaders-dried up, exhausted and empty.
I heard a story a few years ago that still threatens my serenity to this day. A speaker was talking about how a few years before, she said goodbye to her kids as they went off to school, went inside and got in bed and didn’t get up for 6 months! A full-on breakdown in every area descended on her out of nowhere – or so she thought. But she had been burning the candle at both ends and ignoring all signs and symptoms that might have helped her prevent such a breakdown. My counselor, when he is encouraging me to pay attention to myself and do the work necessary to stay “fit” in my head and heart, reminds me that I will do it at some point, and I can either do it standing up or laying down; while doing regular life or lying in a hospital bed. But I will do it. He suggests that since I have already done it laying down once, I might want to take extra precaution to make sure it doesn’t have to happen again.
But as a good friend always say, “I don’t have to live that way anymore.” Today I do it differently. Or at least try to. Today I lead by being real, honest and steadfast through life’s trials, not by trying to be impressive or eloquent or more put together than anybody else. I am paying better attention to myself. I am acutely aware that being and becoming a leader is an inside job.
Another major component of leadership addressed in True North is the importance of having a support team. Through some pretty painful experiences over the past several years, I have learned that a support team does not just cheer you on in your leadership quest and applaud your successes and accomplishments, rather they come alongside you when you are at your weakest. When you have screwed it up and strayed off the path and have confessed that you are actually scared out of your mind and intimidated by others most of the time. They celebrate with you or cry with you or, if you give them permission, will tell you when you are being a jack-Marack. You know what I mean. That support team will also curl up next to you and cup your face in their hands, look you dead in the eye and tell you that “you’re not the only one” and that who you are today is “enough”. They remind you again and again that when you lead with vulnerability and humility and authenticity, people will follow.
So let’s start wrapping this gift up…
…when we share our story in a way that might inspire, motivate, awaken or draw others out of their trance, we call that leadership. But the reality is, that as I stand up here and speak, you are witnessing the end result of countless hours of thought and prayer and introspection and wrestling (and just a tiny bit of crying). And all leadership ultimately starts like that – in private and in a series of tiny, yet profound decisions and actions.
You have probably heard the saying: ‘romance starts in the kitchen” meaning, a person is crazy if they think that how they treat a partner throughout the day-whether or not they take out the trash help with dinner or dishes or baths has no correlation between the intimacy they should expect in the bedroom that night. The foreplay starts at breakfast, whether we know it or not. In the same way, leadership is not about the end result, whether or not we “score” at the end of the day. It starts on the couch with a cup of coffee at 6:30 in the morning (ok, who am I kidding-more like 7 after I have hit snooze 5 or 6 times) where you sit in quiet prayer and meditation or read from authors who challenge and encourage you. Or at night when you review your day and determine where you might need to make an amends to someone you snapped at or inwardly rolled your eyes at that morning. Or when you choose to tell the truth instead of telling a lie in order to save face. Or when you listen, really listen to that friend who is struggling and tell her you know how she feels, that you struggle too. Or when you respond with a smile and a kind spirit to that co-worker who just seems to stomp on your last nerve on a daily basis. Or when you celebrate the good in other people’s lives instead feeling jealous or ripped off. Or when you choose to let your rotten circumstances make you better rather than bitter. Or when you learn that you are the only person you are ultimately responsible for, and give other people the dignity of being themselves, even when they don’t do things your way.😝
My point is–taking regular Soul-Selfies keeps us rooted in the soil that helps us flourish as a leader. Who we are when no one’s looking matters first. It trumps every skill or credential or positive review. As they say, it takes years to develop and establish a reputation as an effective and memorable leader, but only seconds to destroy it. Our character and our actions are permanent.
And in order to lead in the way that I think most of us in this room desire to lead, we have to be self aware and surround ourselves with people who know our deepest flaws and love us anyway. Men and women who help us resurrect our dead or dying places to spur others on in strength and redemption. We have to use the good, the bad and the ugly to inspire a movement of women who lead with a power and a passion that is unbreakable.
I have some books here today. One of my favorite things about it is the cover. It’s a collage of my support team. Readers, friends and family who walk along side me and help my compass continue to point to its true north. Every single picture is a selfie. A few of my doctors are even on it. Most of which apparently spend a lot more time investing in saving people’s lives than learning how take selfies with their I Phone…whatever. I think I had to take a selfie with my oncologist and then edit me out. Hey, we can’t all be good at everything.
It’s really important for me to tell you, that even though it’s sort of my story, this isn’t a book about ME. It’s about YOU. Or rather, a book about ME AND YOU and how we are all in this together. It’s a book that will help you establish the foundation on which you build your leadership. I am a realtor also, and one thing I have seen over and over in negotiating contracts, is that if the foundation of a home is compromised, all bets are off. Nothing sends buyers running for the hills more than a crack or bulge in the foundation. If that can’t or won’t be remedied by the seller, buyers will just keep looking. If your foundation, which is to say, your character and identity, is not firm, is not solid, your leadership will be fleeting at best. Because the truth has an uncanny way of rising to the surface, no matter how hard we work to disguise it or distract people with our fancy words or sparkly personalities.
Who you are when no one’s looking will not stay a secret forever. You may be very, very busy. From what I have heard around these tables, I am convinced we are busier and more productive than most people out there. But in that busyness, be mindful that our success as a leader, at least in the long run, has to be grounded in our humility and willingness to look inward regularly and learn from others. Daily reflection of some sort is crucial if we want to stand the test of time and pressure from such a calling, if we want our legacy to incite a burning IN others as opposed to a burning UP of ourselves and all we are passionate about.
I try my best not to boss people around, but I do want to boss you a bit about how to read it. It’s designed to be a daily reading of sorts. Each entry is one or two pages long because that’s about as long as I can focus. My vision for you is that you keep it next to your bed or your favorite chair with a pen resting on top. I want you to read it and underline it and practice what it says. If that means you read the same entry every day for a week, so be it. When you are done reading the whole book, repeat. I know it sounds weird, but occasionally I read myself and just weep as if I have never read it before. As if it weren’t my own life I was getting a glimpse of. I would think, “If only I could be as wise and discerning as her…”. On a side note, you know you have a real problem when you compare yourself with yourself and you’re STILL not good enough ( I wrote an entire blog on that topic!). ANYWAY- I have several books in my little library that I regularly order for other people, because I guard with vigilance my own personal copy. Some of them are practically falling apart or have every sentenced underlined from 10 years of re-reading. I now have to resort to using various colored pens, in order to differentiate the time frame in which I underline significant words or powerful sections. That’s what I want your book to look like. Like I said, This book is a compilation of the first hundred-ish blogs I wrote when I got Leukemia. When you get your fill of the book, you can go to heathercarterwrites.com to read a couple hundred more. The disease of leukemia is what GOT me writing. The disease of the soul is what KEEPS me writing.
The Book can be found on Amazon or I will be selling and signing them here for 10$. I especially love to sign them for anyone you know who is currently battling cancer or the family Disease of addiction. I don’t promote this book to make money. In fact, last time I checked I am in the hole because I just keep giving books away!
I published this book so I can get this specific message to as many people as possible: that we are all recovering from something, whether it’s the disease of cancer, addiction or the disease of soul that haunts us all. But there is always hope and you are not alone. So I hope you will either read the book or just go to my site and read the blogs. And think of who you might know who would be encouraged by someone who has been there, done that.
So, one final thought: As I was prepping this morning, I read this quote and I want to put it in your head as we leave here today, because there’s a chance that some of you know you have the makings of a leader, but are holding back, waiting for people or your situation to change in order for you to act on it. But please hear me, “never allow the thought, ‘I am of no use where I am’, because you certainly can be of no use where you are not.”
Wherever God has dumped you down in your current circumstances, this is where your leadership journey begins.
I promise it will be worth the wait.