It was a week full of challenges, and so I was steeped in learning opportunities. I was in Sao Paulo and Bogotá to speak about centered leadership.
My original purpose was a keynote speech at HSM’s annual executive conference. A few thousand executives entered the room and another 25,000 watched from their offices. That’s a challenge. It’s easy to grasp centered leadership intellectually. But the five capabilities are not yours just because. It takes deliberate practice with tools best introduced through reflection, dialogue, and experience.
I’m no television evangelist or guru, so naturally, I had never met an audience of this size. Still, my intention was to engage them all through experience. Minutes in, anyone could see that wasn’t happening.
Then something possessed me to step down from the stage to meet those 2,500 people personally. With each interactive exercise, I walked through the giant hall, introducing strangers to each other. I felt uncomfortable—good. I faced my fear of being found out—better. I persisted, fully present and focused on intention. Best. The room started to buzz. Challenge met.
A few interviews, company meetings, and book signings later, I landed in a room with 15 remarkable women professionals. They introduced me to my second challenge: something was missing in the book. Grow Wherever You Work is filled to the brim with formidable challenges that happen to most people sometime during their first ten years of work. Lousy bosses, big mistakes, poor reviews – it’s all in there with one powerful exception.
If I had to pick the one theme that characterized this session, guilt won by a wide margin. Women were guilty about missing hours with children that could never be recaptured. Wives were guilty about husbands living apart in a different city. Young women were guilty about working too many hours, running out of time. How do you alleviate the guilt that’s always with me, they asked. Usually glib, I was tongue-tied, searching my brain for an acceptable answer.
Some guilt is good. It makes us pay extra attention, avoid repeated mistakes, and be extra nice to people we love. Too much guilt affects performance. It drains energy steadily. Guilt is usually accompanied by untenable situations, like a 70-hour week topped off by a miserable travel experience when, all the while, our children are having birthday celebrations. Or being late for dinner yet again because we lose sight of the time. Or standing up a friend because our boss calls an unscheduled meeting and we’re too afraid to push back.
We blame the situation, but actually, guilt starts with us. We cook it up, triggered when we cannot do what we know we must do. Knowing that made me feel guilty, but that’s the best I could do in the circumstance. I want to invest more time in reading the research on guilt. Not every challenge is met with success.
Later that week, in Bogotá, I met two more groups of women professionals. When I had agreed to the two events, I had figured on an hour’s flight from Sao Paulo. Ignorant American! I would have agreed to Tierra del Fuego, that’s how clueless I am (was).
The first group of women—local executives—engaged in dialogue and seemed to embrace centered leadership, that is, until we got to the Q&A. Then they talked about the rural women who had watched their husbands and sons killed in the narcotics war, their villages destroyed by drug traffic. Bogotá was the bubble, and the rest of the country was the reality. What good would centered leadership do for them?
In the afternoon, I reenergized with a roomful of younger professionals who had flown in from all over Latin America. They were pioneers, isolated in Buenos Aires, Santiago, Lima, or Bogotá. You don’t understand our context, they reinforced. How many times had I been to London or Shanghai or San Francisco? Too many times to count. This was my first trip to Bogotá. That said it all.
To meet this third challenge, I offered respect and kindness, agreeing to return with a new workshop focused on mentoring, networking, and community.
Earlier that week, I had called my husband to console myself with ties to home. I remember blurting out, “My brain’s on fire!”
Yes it was. And that’s a good thing.