Leaders go first

I shared with a friend recently that I see leaders as my target audience for the Gift of Happiness. Not necessarily people in leadership roles (although they could be), but people who think and act like leaders.

I happen to consider this friend such a person, so it surprised me a little when she pushed back on my use of the word, cautioning me that there may be people in my audience who wouldn't use that word to describe themselves. Herself, for instance.

For her, the word "leader" brought to mind the person in charge who seeks power and control, and puts their own needs above others'. Someone who is bossy and manipulative, and maintains their position by instilling fear.

This is decidedly not what I mean by leadership.

Lately I've been defining leadership very simply as the willingness to go first. Quite literally, to take the lead. To do something before other people do it. Before it's "normal" or comfortable or accepted, and before the outcome is guaranteed. Not because it will win you acceptance or approval from others, but because it feels to you like the right thing to do.

To be kind to someone who hasn't yet been kind to you is a form of leadership. To be the first one to apologize after an argument is leadership. To do any scary-but-important thing that others are avoiding is leadership. Being a leader makes it easier for others to follow suit, so that positive changes can happen in your collective experience.

To me, starting to put signs on my lawn that said things like You are Loved and You are Worthy was a form of leadership. Why? Because no one else was doing it. By definition, it was weird. And it made me weird, in a much more public way than I was used to.

It scared me to go first. But it also felt really important, because these are messages that I know people are longing for right now. I see us longing for our kids to feel safe and cared for. Longing to believe for ourselves that we are needed and important. Longing to hear from our leaders that our lives and interests matter. Longing to see love and wisdom embodied in our collective actions.

These signs help give us a taste of what all of that would feel like at the community level, and can help inspire people to act in other ways that create feelings of love and care and belonging. To be leaders for kindness.

My hope is that all of you who plant Signs of Kindness, or use Connection Cards, or help create happiness and well-being in so many other ways, recognize that you, too, are leaders. Not ego-trippy ones like my friend (wisely) wanted to distance herself from, but leaders who know what they truly value and are committed to bringing more of it into their lives -- even if it sometimes means facing the discomfort of going first.

Can I tell you what I learned about penguins?

A friend of mine shared a poignant story this week that I've been excited to pass on to you.

In 4th grade, her teacher asked for volunteers to go to the library to find some facts about penguins to share with the class. She raised her hand, and was thrilled when the teacher picked her for this special project! She spent the afternoon diligently learning as much as she could, and came back excited to share her penguin presentation with the class.

But instead, when she came back to the classroom she was met with shouts of "Surprise!" and "Bon voyage!" -- a special party being thrown just for her, to celebrate a multi-week vacation she was about to take with her family. 

"When do I get to tell people about the penguins?" she asked the teacher.

"Oh, you don't have to do that. We just want you to enjoy the party." was the reply.

"But really, I want to share what I learned!" she persisted.

"No, we really don't need you to do that," the well-meaning teacher insisted. And so she never did.

In fact, she never willingly spoke in front of any group, ever again. Because that day she learned a formative lesson: "People don't want to hear what I have to say."

That wasn't really the situation; nevertheless, the belief became so deeply ingrained that it shaped the next several decades of her life. I'm not really a public speaker, she would tell herself. I get too nervous. I'm much better 1-on-1.

Until this week, that is, when she finally decided to face her fear. She shared that 4th grade penguin story as the designated speaker at our monthly networking meeting, and proceeded to give one of the most honest and moving presentations I've seen.

I've been rolling her story around in my mind for days now, seeing it from all sort of different angles.

I've been thinking about how, even if our intent is good-hearted and pure, we can't ever fully predict or control how we impact other people.

I've been thinking of my own core childhood experiences that taught me pernicious things like, "I don't belong" and "I am unwanted by my peers," and wondering what those situations would look like if I went back in time and witnessed them as an adult. Would it free me to see things differently?

I've also been wondering what leads us to learn the lessons we do from our experiences, and whether our strongest gifts and desires are also innately the most vulnerable to being shut down. Is it possible that those areas where we feel the most wounded and afraid are precisely the ones we must lean into if we are going to feel fulfilled?

Later this month, I am launching my first half-day Happiness Adventure Challenge, encouraging people to work as teams to take small actions to create happiness, and challenge beliefs that get in the way.

If this sounds fun to you, I hope you will join us. And if it sounds daunting to you, I especially hope you will join us, because it is in that willingness to stretch ourselves that happiness lives.

Who knows, maybe you'll even find someone to talk to about penguins.