“Climbing out of the Leader Box”

I think it’s time…time to reconsider our current models of leadership.  Lately I’ve become keenly aware of how limited our culture’s view of leadership is…so confining, particularly for those who hold leadership positions now.  I can’t imagine trying to be authentic, bold or expressing empathy, love or compassion in the current political climate.

Yesterday I gave a TEDx talk and it is my first attempt to explore how we might shift the leader-perspective…to also include love, compassion and empathy.  I guess to be totally honest with you, I’ve never understood why love, compassion and tenderness aren’t part of the dialogue.  So here goes.  (The video of my TEDx talk should be up in a few days.  Until then, here’s the letter in writing.)

There will continue to be more on this subject from me.  I’m feeling a nudge to encourage more open dialogue on the topic…and I’m not one to ignore a powerful nudge.  🙂

Peace.

out of the leader box

Dear Congress:

I’ve been wanting to write you for awhile.

I need to come clean with you.  I haven’t liked the way you seem to communicate with each other.   There appears to be a lot of name-calling, bullying and downright mean-spiritedness. If we can’t respect each other within our own house, how can we possibly work together to find the solutions our country needs so desperately right now.

But the truth is, I don’t know you.  I’m a busy woman.  I work full time, am the single mother to two teenagers…I, like so many Americans, don’t have the time or resources to really know you and so I, gather a lot of what I do know about you from the media.  Interestingly, as the founder of a non-profit that works with young girls, I see the devastating effects the media has on our young women…the distorted images and manipulative advertising strategies are designed to uglify us into buying their products.

So it’s no wonder that my impressions of you are less than favorable. Ugly behavior sells too…it’s all we see in the media. We all love a good train wreck.  More hits, more ads, more ads, more money. I honestly don’t know what is “truth” anymore.  One network on this side claims that you said this and the other network on the other side claims that you said that…add in the pundits, the political satirists and the “experts”  in our newspapers and on the internet…it has become virtually impossible to know, understand, really see and hear each other.

I’m so tired of all of it.  I’m close to becoming apathetic and this is not good for me, my children, any of us.  The complaining, MY complaining…God it never stops. It isn’t doing any good anyway and the truth is, the complaining isn’t really because I’m mad at you…it’s because I feel so frustrated, so helpless…so unheard amongst all this yelling.  Everything seems so broken and unfixable. We are all so separated, distant and far apart.   Where to start…how do we possibly begin to tackle such a complex and overwhelming issue.

Like I said…we don’t know each other…so if you will allow me, let me start by introducing myself.

My name is Molly Barker. I am the single mother to two teenagers.  I love them with all of my heart.

I used to compete in the sport of triathlon.  I did the Ironman in Hawaii a few times.  I don’t compete anymore, but still enjoy running.  I have three dogs, am petrified of heights and am a terrible cook.  My yard isn’t very well maintained and my house is very small, but it is warm and welcoming.

I grew up in Charlotte, NC.  I was the fourth of four, nine years younger than the one before me.  My mom was an alcoholic and my dad was a politician.  It was not until I was in fourth grade and my mother had her breakdown, that I am able to remember much of my childhood.  That was May of 1970.  I’m happy to say that my mom stopped drinking and from that day forward, our relationship flourished, the laughter returned to our house.

A year later, my parents enrolled me in a new school.  This coupled with the typical adolescent angst and the deeply rooted shame I had come to know, made me a prime candidate for going to extreme measures to fit in.

I felt invisible, alone and ill-equipped to handle the new environment…and so I stepped into the Girl Box…that space many girls go around adolescence…where my appearance became more important than who I was…where dumbing myself down and having a boyfriend took priority over most else…where vulnerability, fear and the sharing of those were seen as weak, where no matter how hard I tried, I would never ever be sexy enough, woman enough, good enough.

So in 1975, when I was in tenth grade, that first sip of liquor at a friend’s house had a profound affect on me.

…the noise, the voice of self-doubt, the shame and loneliness all went away.

About the same time I began to drink, my mom started running.  One morning, when I was 14 and she was 52, she invited me to join her on one of her early morning runs. I ran one block with her–about a mile. We didn’t say a word. Our steps in unison, our breath in and out—mantra like–the crisp edge to approaching autumn filling our lungs. I had never experienced anything quite like it…the quiet, the fellowship, the connection, the acceptance, the power.

The one-mile block grew into two blocks and then three. Eventually we were  running eight, nine and ten miles, usually first thing in the morning….and despite the chaos of my outer life, the  ever-growing despair alcoholism would bring and the depression that went along with that, when I ran I felt connected, loved strong, powerful and real.

For 18 years, the battle was hard-fought…between the strong empowered me I found on those early morning runs and the confused a lost woman, struggling to be something she was not.

The alcohol won.  On July 6th, 1993, I hit bottom.  I was 32 years old.  I wanted to die.  I called my big sister Emily, “I need help.” Emily talked to me, urged me to go to sleep.  “This too shall pass, Molly.  This too shall pass.”

The following evening, a thunderstorm was rumbling, the air was electric with it.  I decided, despite the potentially dangerous weather to go for a run.  Coming down the last stretch of road, the thunder rumbling, the lightening overhead, the earth’s tender reach to my feet and the gentle urging to run faster and faster, my breath in and out, like sound of ocean, wind of soul… Something real, raw and indescribable was happening. I moved into what I can only describe as the space of nothingness.  NO-thing-ness.  I wasn’t a woman, a runner, an alcoholic, a divorced person, a struggling person, a poor person, a word or label…I was no-thing.., brilliant, beautiful and free of the Girl Box.

Three years later, I started a program called Girls on the Run.  The program helps girls take charge of their lives and define the future on their terms.  It provides a safe space where girls and the people who love them see, sometimes for the first time, that they can choose to create a life where there are No limits. No constraints. No labels. Only opportunities to reveal their greatness.

The program started with 13 girls in Charlotte, NC in 1996 and has now impacted over 600,000 in 210 cities across North America.

The success of the program is the result of so many dedicated, passionate and loving people.  Thanks to their continuing efforts and intense level of commitment, Girls on the Run is a living, breathing, organism, now able to survive with very little day to day input by me.

I’m at an age where a piece of me wants to slow down, relax, kick back and settle in…but I gotta tell ya, that something about all this unsettled frustration, anger and near apathy regarding our current state of this great nation, won’t let me go… there is a new voice growing in volume, nudging, pushing, encouraging me to speak up…to address the anger, polarization and separation in these United States, hence this letter.

Where this new voice was first brought to my attention was at a speaking engagement.  Bruce Fritch who is now my “vision coach” approached me after my presentation.  “You are a leader.”

We talked for only a few minutes.  The space he created though was infinite.

On the drive home, I could think of little else.

Me a leader?  Hell no, I’m not a leader. I’m a lover, a social worker, a runner, a mom.  I am not a leader…I am an educator, a curriculum specialist…an inspirer maybe, but not a leader.  Leaders don’t look like me.  Leaders wear suits, have MBA’s or Law degrees and understand and speak the language of leaders.  They are not what I am…I speak the language of love, connection, children.  I am scarred, imperfect and still wounded in some ways, trying very hard to be and become the strength and power I see everyday in my children, the children I serve and the amazing men and women who believe in our work.

Leader?  Me?  No way. Leaders are…well…whatever they are…I am not capable of that…I am not good enough.

And so, without the thunder, the lightening and the immediate shift in perception, I’ve more slowly come to realize that I had done it again.  Gone into a box, but this time it was the “leader box.”   I had, as anyone would and so many of us do, been manipulated into a limited view of what leadership is and I certainly wasn’t cut out for it.  I have a past.  I have a story. I get scared sometimes.  I am imperfect.

I am also 52 years old.  I have one dance in me left.  One last chance to lay witness to the brilliance that rests in you and me, our children, this life…our world.  I know what I know and can no longer pretend that I am not a leader because I am.

I am a leader.

So…here I stand…giving voice to her, this leader, the one writing you…that if she..heck if I…if I could, I would invite you for coffee. I would look you in the eyes, clear the hard embittered table that separates us…and invite you, without ridicule or judgment to talk about the things that really matter…like being wounded, about not feeling good enough or brave enough or loved enough.  Talk about the brokenness of our current leadership models, the intense competition, bullying and name-calling and how this no longer serves us.  We would share how we don’t know each other anymore…and instead label, judge and hide behind the fear of losing, being seen as weak. We would talk about our kids, our health and our marriages or lack of them.  We would talk about…how as leaders, we often feel trapped, afraid to say these things, afraid to be vulnerable, afraid to connect with each other…afraid to claim and live fully into our biggest and boldest selves…because we may lose our office, position, ranking, funding…be raked over the coals in the media…be bullied, shamed or ridiculed for simply being ourselves.

And as I write to you, the self-doubt begins…I am challenged by the old stories, the old guard and the voice from the “leader box.”  “Won’t fix anything, Molly, the old voice says with near disgust.  How ridiculous to suggest that something as simple as heart-full dialogue over coffee could change anything.

I understand…I understand because I’ve been there…how much easier has it been for me to blame others, to wait for something to happen, to suggest that what has torn us apart is our broken political system, the media, the fear of terrorism, political posturing, loss of our traditional and valued institutions, money, power, ideologues, pundits, the other party. The “blame” list is long.

But this voice of the new leadership, the one you and I will share over coffee knows that …it is in the smallest of moments, where the tearing begins…this human condition…our tug o war between love and fear.  The young girl who, decides in a split second, to step away from her computer screen to call and comfort the girl they are cyber bullying.  The young wife, who in an instant, decides it is time…turns, cries and says a prayer of hope and love for her abuser as she leaves him.  The father, who in one small revelation, decides to put aside his need to be right and calls his estranged son to tell him, I’m sorry. I’d like to listen, really listen, this time. “

We know, because we are human, that it is in those precious and private moments… when we can choose to complain, judge and blame or choose to take action… dig deep, do what is right and what is good and what is love…those moments are when the leader in all of us lives.

Interestingly, it as this point in this letter, where numerous people I respect immensely, made a variety of recommendations. “Your ending is weak…Challenge them, Molly.  Confront them.  It’s time to stop letting them off the hook.  We need change and we need it now. Hit ‘em where it counts.”

So…I tried on that ending…for a little while anyway when it hit ME…that’s the predictable ending…the one we all want…where I really give it to ya…knock it outta the ballpark…tell you what I really mean… and ironically the one that would make this speech go viral on the internet and in the media…but that’s not changing anything…that’s just doing more of what got us here.  Besides that’s not me, that’s not how this leader lives.  The spirit which grew Girls on the Run from 13 girls to a movement influencing literally hundreds of thousands of people across North America..this spirit didn’t  force, confront, shame or challenge people to move from a place of weakness to strength.  No, this spirit was and still is an invitation for those who are willing and ready, to reveal and unleash what is already there, the love, compassion, strength and brilliance that is within each of us.

And so. . . my honorable friends in Congress… I invite you to join me in bravely breaking free of our culture’s confining, defining and limiting “leader box” and accept my invitation to, in the small quiet spaces, over coffee, on a run or like the one I am sharing with you right now, in that sliver of a second when we can choose the words, the thoughts and the actions, I invite you to consider choosing love, compassion and the willingness to listen, to really see and honor each other and ourselves…to be what lies within, strong, brilliant and wonderfully human.

The coffee’s on me. I’m ready to listen.

Sincerely,

Molly Wilmer Barker

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7 Responses to “Climbing out of the Leader Box”

  1. Judi Mohr says:

    Hi Molly,
    I thanked you today for an article I read a year ago about Taylor King “letting go of the rope”.
    Well I just read your speech above and I need to thank you again. Especially for the line
    “an invitation for those who are willing and ready, to reveal and unleash what is already there, the love, compassion, strength and brilliance that is within each of us.”
    I hope you have many more dances left in you.
    All the best,

    Judi Mohr

    • I loved meeting you and your son today. Thank you for connecting and for letting me know how the piece on Taylor King inspired you. Taylor inspires so many.

      And…I got a lot of dances left…but may choose this one in particular…the dialogue on leadership as my last.

  2. How is the term “leader” assigned? Is leading others to accomplish work for the greater good of all a standard part of a leader’s definition? The leaders that you address in your talk, the leaders that we vote to represent us and protect our interests, the leaders who are supposed to do good for all of their constituents seem to address accomplishing work for the greater good of all in an expedient way. They accomplish work based on how they think they will get reelected. In addition, many of them have not experienced what you mention above in terms of addiction, single parenthood, and financial distress. They can not empathize with those who suffer in economic and circumstantial ways that they can’t conceive. These struggles are not real to them. For example, electing to cut unemployment benefits in North Carolina is merely a means to a bottom line, and those who vote for the cuts do not register that someone who is barely making it on the current benefit will be in more duress after such a vote. Nor have many elected leaders had the need to learn compromise, or letting go, or giving in for something that might be for the greater good of all. I hope your final dance is about leadership. Maybe you can create a “Leaders Off the Run” program K-Beyond that teaches all leaders–particularly those in government who have been elected to represent a broad group of people– how to be off the election or any other run by sitting down for coffee, listening, and accomplishing work for the greater good of all.

  3. Rob Cannon says:

    Dance? This topic is a dance-a-thon! There’s much to consider here and I’ve read Molly’s letter several times. As I’ve read it I’ve also read, and re-read, one of my favorite works which is Roosevelt’s “Citizenship in a Republic” speech.

    Molly, your most powerful line to me in this letter is, “But the truth is I don’t know you.” I think there is indeed a “leader box”, and there is a “follower box” as well.

    My kids had a big box the other day. They were having a blast curling up on the floor and having someone put the box on them and sit on it. This went on for long, laughing time! I finally asked them what was so great about being in the box. They told me, “it’s small and dark!” Apparently we humans love our boxes! But we can’t get anything done in a box. Thanks for the discussion on how to get out! I look forward to more idea sharing.

  4. robertgcannon says:

    Great letter Molly. I’ve read it several times. As I’ve pondered it I’ve also gone back to read one of my favorite pieces which is Roosevelt’s “Citizenship in a Republic” speech.
    To me the most powerful line in your letter was, “But the truth is I don’t know you.” To go along with the “leader box” there is also a “follower box” and we have to make sure leaders are not in a box, and we’re not in a box either.
    The other day my kids had a big box. They loved getting on the floor and having someone put the box over them and sit on it. This went on for a long, laughing time. I finally asked them what they loved so much about getting in the box. They told me, “It’s small and dark.” Apparently we humans love our boxes! But we can’t get anything done in there. Thanks for the great discussion on these ideas and I’ll look forward to more.

  5. Ashe says:

    Well said Molly. Keep talking, writing, singing, dancing, running – but don’t just keep doing what you do – keep being Molly. It’s in your authenticity as Molly that you already fulfill your quest of “trying very hard to be and become the strength and power I see every day in my children, the children I serve and the amazing men and women who believe in our work.” You seem comfortable in your authenticity, you make it look easy. And your authority as a person is derived from your authenticity as a person – your willingness to be who you are and not who you think we would have you be – which empowers your leadership. The public and private authenticity you live every day is a powerful example of the authority you wield…that we could all wield if we were willing to experience the vulnerability that accompanies the honesty of living authentically. Thanks for your example Molly!

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