Getting Uncomfortable Week 5: Leading With Courage

Some tips on how to be the hero of your own story

6 minutes
Haley Stomp

I’m speaking this week to a group of student leaders in the Women in Leadership group at a local university. In preparation, I’ve reflected on leadership moments in my career and my life that have helped along the way.

While pivoting in real time lately, I’m looking back at what has worked in the past, deciding what to amplify and build on going forward. Surprisingly, failures added to “what worked”, and other times, saying “yes” in uncomfortable, uncertain moments led to the best outcomes.

Be The Hero of Your Own Story

It would be great if you were the hero in someone else’s story and all you had to do was wait for them to write the next chapter, but the reality is your story is unique to you and everyone is more worried about themselves. Quit waiting for someone else to tell you what to do. What is it you want?

I’m not saying be alone in writing your story. There is value in inserting yourself in systems with access to support, resources and people who’ve been there/done that. That’s what we are doing when we work for a company, join associations, schools or neighborhoods; we are looking for shared values, access to knowledge and a community. We are searching to plant ourselves in soil that helps us grow.

Once you find your mountain to hike and mine for gold, get good at sifting out fool’s gold. Not everyone will want to help you. Some even want to slow you down. People are going to say things about you that are not true, but you get decide what is true about you. Don’t be afraid of criticism. Learn to observe it and keep the shiny 24-carat gold nuggets of truth. If social media has taught us anything, it’s that some people are haters no matter what. That’s on them, not you. However, if someone who knows you is trying to offer input, listen. What’s the worst that can happen? You get better in an area? We all have blind spots.

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Surround Yourself with Great People

I’m a big believer in creating a personal board of directors to provide input and support. I recommend having multiple mentors, depending on your stage of life and their stages of life. Find a group of people exactly where you are now and then find people who are ahead of you by ten years or so. At my stage, I’m finding a lot of value interacting with younger people who think I’m mentoring them, but they are also mentoring me with their enthusiasm, a different understanding of what’s possible and reflections on my decisions.

Ultimately, your career and your life are up to you. It can be uncomfortable not to have a clear sign or guidance or a roadmap for decisions, but what’s more uncomfortable is realizing too late you had the power all along to design your own direction and outcomes. The best we can do is put ourselves in places to learn, make a decision that feels right to us and be brave enough to deal with what happens.

You Have to Play to Win

I raised my hand over and over, sometimes overconfidently, sometimes under-confidently. I’ll be honest, I had no real idea what a chemical engineer did for a living when I signed up for the program, but there was enough mystery, possibility and challenge to motivate me to try. I signed up to live alone in Albuquerque one summer making breakfast cereal. I managed 2nd shift union employees in Ohio. I agreed to spend a lot of time in Asia learning about feeding chickens. I gave up three years’ worth of evenings and weekends to get my MBA. Every time I raised my hand, I learned and grew and became more valuable to others.

I learned key lessons in situations where there were few women, or fewer women in leadership. First, I learned the best way to help raise people’s expectations of you is to learn the business, keep going in the face of doubt and find a way to the stage to show them what you bring to the table. Once you’re on the stage and you have something of value to offer, you get to reshape people’s assumptions and open doors for others. It’s OK that you’re different. In fact, it gives you a chance to bring up new ideas that others might be afraid to; you’re already sticking out like a sore thumb, so why not be the one to suggest a new way? People start to expect new ideas from you, and that’s a great place to be. All of a sudden, it’s safer for everyone to innovate.

After you make it to the stage, keep working on your unique skills and knowledge. Focus on what it is that you do better than others and develop the heck out of it. Maybe it’s specific training or certification. Maybe you’re a subject matter expert on a new area where the business wants to go, or maybe you’re just a really awesome people manager.

No matter your identity, assumptions change quickly when you bring value, and diversity brings better debate and decisions. If after all of this work you still feel undervalued, you have to decide when it makes sense to stay and fight or when it might be a good time to take your talents to greener pastures. There are plenty of great employers out there who lift up people who bring value, regardless of pronouns.

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You Will Screw Up Multiple Times

Have you ever been around someone that is such a great leader that when they openly admit a screw up it makes you even more loyal? It takes a track record of good leadership to build that kind of trust, but it’s a great example of how necessary and powerful some failure is. Good leaders create a culture of quick failures within a safe sandbox of agile learning.

Confidence comes not from always being right but not fearing to be wrong. — Peter T. McIntyre

I’m not saying you should go out and really make a mess of things, although sometimes it does happen. I’ve had my share of hero and zero moments. Zero is just a place to start again with infinity positive possibilities, but you can and should limit the impact of failures by creating boundaries for yourself and for your experiments. You may want to test new concepts with smaller groups and bounce them off your personal board of advisors. Most importantly, you need to create boundaries for yourself. Knowing yourself and truly knowing when you’re going to stretch too far is just as important as saying “yes”. You can be too uncomfortable to the point of limiting growth. A hero knows her limits or learns the hard way for next time.

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Build Bridges

Here’s a not-so-secret secret: People want to work with people they know and like, especially if they trust you and you are good at what you do. For some people, networking and getting to know people is uncomfortable. Start building relationships early, when you’re all still paying student loans and have a metabolism, because some of those people, including you, are going places. There’s nothing better than connecting with people who knew you before either one of you knew about business class flights, board meetings or budget cuts. Who are you more likely to reach out and connect with — the person who saw you singing off-key karaoke after too much tequila, or the one you just met with a financial advisor and executive assistant?

Stay in touch with people. Make new friends. Join stuff. Get to know the people in your neighborhood. If you’re not good at it, find someone who is to be your wingman or woman. The floor is lava, and we are all just looking around for the next chair to stand on. It’s so much easier when there’s a friendly face waiting to grab your hand as you jump.

Wrapping It Up

It’s not always easy and sometimes really scary to be in charge of your career and life. A great leader has contagious courage to try new things, fail within boundaries and knows leading is primarily the business of making other people’s lives better.