If anyone can be a leader, are all leaders experts?
Crazy times, huh? When you don’t encounter as many people in day-to-day life as you used to, you tend to think a bit more. I’m generally more of a pensive person – happy to observe the intricacies and tendrils of life unfolding – but since about mid-March, this pensive side has gone into high gear. Well, in one sense. There is a lot more time to “think.” What’s missing from my “I’m happy to watch” perch is, well, there’s nothing to watch. I can watch my husband and two teenagers, but that could get a little creepy. I watch the dog; she likes it. I go out for daily runs, but there’s not a lot of action out there, folks. So something that I now find interesting to watch is Twitter. Not in a mindless, scroll-yourself-silly kind of way – I try really hard to curb mindless social media scrolling – but, again, in an observational sort of way. Our tangible interactions with others are curbed, so we’re looking for leadership and engagement in different places. Maybe we’re seeking “expertise” too. Well, Twitter’s the place for those who have it – and those who think they do.
In March – right when America and other countries started grappling with the coronavirus – I read Kingdomtide by Rye Curtis and The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd. They were both appropriate (yet totally serendipitous) choices: Kingdomtide follows 72-year-old Cloris Waldrip, the sole survivor of a plane crash, as she lives approximately three months in Montana’s Bitterroot Mountains before getting back to “civilization.” That’s some hardship for you, don’t you think? In The Secret Life of Bees (which you’ve most likely read), teenager Lily Owens navigates the death of her mother, as well as the newfound knowledge that her mother may have abandoned her, in Civil Rights-era South Carolina. I like to mark up my books, and Bees is the kind of book that now boasts my squiggly and haphazard underlines because it is so rich with insight and wisdom. Kingdomtide is that kind of novel too, but since it’s a library book, I now have a four-page-long Word document full of quotes. After finishing both of these books, it struck me how novels often promote this perfect duo of leadership and expertise – because they are borne from what I believe to be the fundamental quality of both a leader and an expert: Curiosity.
Two years ago, I was a member of Leadership MetroWest’s year-long Leadership Academy, which brings together “leaders” of all levels from nonprofit, government, municipal, and corporate entities to learn and impact the greater community together. My participation was mostly a happy accident – one of my colleagues was supposed to attend, but ended up not being able to commit – but it has been one of the most pivotal moments in my ever-winding career and also gave me a personal sense of purpose when I was finding community-building in our current area arduous and sometimes sad. Each month we studied a different facet of leadership, using the Positive Leadership curriculum developed by Adam Seaman. The bottom line: True leaders are humble, gratitude-filled, and community-building with a purpose.
After reading Curtis’ and Kidd’s books, I’d like to posit that we can look for “leadership” in a novel as well. There’s always something interesting to learn from novels because almost by design, there has to be a bit of mystery to them. Rarely does anyone want to read things that are predictable. Isn’t opening a book and wondering “where is this going to take me?” one of the best feelings? But the book is in control, of course. Its author has plotted and plumed each word to project a story forward. So in this sense, although we all read for different reasons, we look to the author and his or her work to tame our wild thoughts.
Rye Curtis starts Kingdomtide with 72-year-old Cloris, a typical Texan “church lady” who experiences her plane crash while on a vacation with her husband, reminiscing on what she’s learned since her experience: “I no longer pass judgment on any man nor woman. People are people, and I do not believe there is much more to be said on the matter. Twenty years ago I might have been of a different mind about that, but I was a different Cloris Waldrip back then. I might have gone on being that same Cloris Waldrip, the one I had been for seventy-two years, had I not fallen out of the sky in that little airplane on Sunday, August 31, 1986. It does amaze that a woman can reach the tail end of her life and find that she hardly knows herself at all.” In fact, far into Cloris’ “adventure” in the mountains – where she is stripped of almost every dignity as she tries to press on – it occurs to her: “I am the greatest mystery to myself.”
Similarly, Kidd’s book is full of what one might call “spiritual” lessons. (As an aside, she has a new novel coming out this month called The Book of Longings which takes place in Nazareth, with Jesus as a character.) Lily faces hardship, as does almost everyone in The Secret Life of Bees. As Kidd writes, “The world will give you that once in a while, a brief timeout; the boxing bell rings and you go to your corner, where somebody dabs mercy on your beat-up life.” Hers is a story of finding one’s worth and, therefore, one’s ability to lead others through a mixture of learned experience and acceptance of the ambiguity of it all. Lily narrates, “I realized it for the first time in my life: there is nothing but mystery in the world, how it hides behind the fabric of our poor, browbeat days, shining brightly, and we don’t even know it.”
My husband likes to talk about genchi gunbutsu, a Japanese principle translated to “go and see” or “real location, real thing.” It’s the driving principle of Toyota, where the prevailing notion is that you can’t really understand anything (i.e. a factory) until you go and simply stand around and observe, take it all in. I like this; it’s very much how both my husband and I operate despite having polar opposite careers. In my personal and professional life, I have very little patience for people who squander intelligence by quickly asserting their unwavering “right answer” and how much more superior their ideas are.
I’ve been listening to the NPR podcast How I Built This a lot lately. And one of host Guy Raz’s overarching themes of his own life is “curiosity over intelligence.” How fitting that Curtis and Kidd have given us protagonists, i.e. “leaders,” who espouse a willingness to explore new ideas, to inch away from the roles that society has foisted on them. The leaders of these books are a determined teenage runaway, a cadre of Black women who create their own spiritual community, and a small-town woman who – prior to a plane crash – embarrasses easily. For a reader, this is what leadership looks like.
Speaking of podcasts, check out the “mini episode” that Krista Tippett and On Being released on March 31. It’s one of the “Living the Questions” episodes and it’s called “At home, frustrated, and stressed — is ‘just being’ worthy right now?” In a nutshell: YES, “just being” is worthy at this moment! What Tippett moves toward, though, is asking how you can “serve” during this time…what you can bring to the table given your own particular situation. I believe the thing that we can learn the most from is this platitude: Life is a mystery. To pretend otherwise – to declare firmly that your answer will always be the correct one without input from others – is foolishness cloaked in comforting certainty.
My takeaway: You’re the expert of…you. How will you use that expertise to humbly lead?