When I was co-running a start-up organization, I would be asked by another community leader how many paid employees we had. It never felt right to answer that question but I could not name why at the time. Once, I was able to mutter out a simple “We don’t have employees, we have partners” but without full context, it came out more as an excuse for why we were not at a point to pay our leaders than a heart-driven value.
Over the years the reasons why came to me:
- I never wanted to manage people when I knew that it was more powerful to empower them.
- I have always seen other leaders as partners.
So I could name those two things but I still couldn’t name my truth in a way that expressed my genuine feelings. Well, not until I came to understand why I felt inspired to respond the way that I did through the productive power of joy. In joy, I found the true inspiration behind my value.
Looking at this through a survivalist mindset, I could remember that I always found the hierarchy of boss, supervisor, and staff unnecessary for getting good work done. When I would shadow adults on “take your children to work day.” I would watch my own parents get nervous to introduce me to their boss. Egad, how could someone have that much power over someone else? Never, I thought. Never. We are all humans, right? Nonsense, to diminish the heart of someone’s heart because they have a particular title as if their title at work was actually who they were. But, even as I share that story, it does not convey the value of partnership that I hold. And too much of this survivalist mindset story is driven by how someone else felt as they were trying to survive their boss. So, it still doesn’t speak to the power of what I knew to be true in my heart, no one’s humanity is captured by their title at work. Once I finally took a breath on why I had this deeply held value, a more impactful experience emerged and this one speaks to the core of my heart in so many ways.
“People are designed to lead from a place of creativity and innovation,
necessary for our individual and collective evolution”
There is no surprise to anyone that as a young person, I had lots of energy. I was eventually put into gymnastics to simply burn the energy off. It happened to be that I was also pretty good at it. Eventually, I was invited to join the private team at Universal Gym and on day one of showing up for practice, I fell off the beam and landed squarely on my back with the wind completely knocked out of me. The coach began yelling at me. You know that tone of voice that some coaches use to act like they are encouraging athletes forward when it is just actually emotionally abusive. I will never forget that I look that coach square in the face and said, “I’m going to sit down to catch my breath for 30 seconds. I can’t breathe.” He looked at me like I was weak for not getting back up on that beam right away. As I sat on the side of the beam for literally one breath I knew that I had made the right decision for me. I would have fallen right back off that beam has I not taken a moment to breathe. Back in my breath, I climbed back up on the beam ready for whatever was to come next. Cartwheels, handstands, and split kicks, I did for the rest of the night. That night, on the way home, I decided that I was not going back to that team or that gym and I found a new home at Midwest Gymnastics where I could smile and still learn to be a better version of the gymnast that I was designed to be.
Now, that story is still not the full message. The full message is in the story of how I knew that the gymnastics coach at Universal Gym was not a coach that my heart wanted to partner with. When I was first put into gymnastics, in the 3rd grade, I took lessons from my gym teacher at Windermere Elementary School, Mr. Mitchell. It was Mr. Mitchell, who not only taught me the core elements of gymnastics but he also taught me how to fly. So the story goes that I kept doing back tucks while trying to do back handsprings. Over and over and over again, I could not keep my hands on the ground. However, Mr. Mitchell never yelled at me. He never made me feel out of sorts for not being able to do what everyone else could more easily do. Not even as the only young Black female in the entire school. Instead, Mr. Mitchell invited me to try the high jump on track and field day and that is where my track and field career began. Not only did I eventually learn how to do a back handspring but I also learned that I was naturally talented at jumping all while breathing, bringing my whole self, and partnering with Mr. Mitchell. So, that is why I could see that the coach at Universal Gym was not a good fit for my heart. In joy, I can see that walking away from him that night was the wisdom of joy in my heart in full and complete action! Grace and gratitude for that. That is why I so deeply value authentic partnerships and the multitude of ways that co-creation and collaboration from one heart to another can elevate people in their own understanding of just how amazing they are in this world all while breathing.
“Healthy mechanisms of leadership liberate people
to be their best, most creative selves.”
Ask anyone who knows me, partnership is how I look at love (not marriage) and leadership (not business). More and more I prefer to refer to the people that I have the opportunity to engage in leadership guidance with as partners because it opens the space for me to bring the very best of who I am in my heart to empower them in their leadership journey to live and lead from the wisdom of their joy within. That distinction is critical because it honors that in order to empower someone else in this world to the fullest of their heart’s potential we must bring our whole hearts to the work. In a world in which leaders are starting to detach from corporate mindset notions of who they are as employees and embrace that they are partners in leadership at the companies that they work for there is an opportunity for the models of leadership to flip inside out and right side up.
It is time for everyone to be seen as a leader, a partner, and a co-creator in this amazing journey of life. When you hold true in your heart that everyone has something meaningful to offer as a leader then it becomes possible to remain curious about what wisdom each heart has to offer and what space is best for them to bring that wisdom to. A person may not be a leader at X and yet they could very much be a leader at A, B, C, D, F, and Y. A leader may not be a fit in corporate America but they might be the best community organizer ever. The key is to more authentically structure leadership from a place of honoring that every heart is a leader at something that is valuable and meaningful to the collective evolution of humanity. Whether that message of joy fits in one silo or another is not the point. Whom else’s heart that message is for is the opportunity for us all. It is our opportunity to find out what that is and then let it fly just like Mr. Mitchell did for me. This is what opens the space for us all to partner heart to heart, to co-create and innovate for a better world. Organizational cultures, HR policies, and the like can and need to be re-engineered to empower each heart to become the leader that they are designed to be, all while breathing and getting great shit done.