Over the course of my life I have inhabited many positions but one role. The role that I refer to is less related to the jobs I have done (which are many and varied) but rather the role I have held in relation to others. For the entirety of my life, even my formative years, I have been the leader, the boss, the change driver, the one at the helm. How that played out practically has depended on the stage I was in life, but the role stayed consistent.
For example, I taught my mother and father how to be parents. That may sound grandiose, nonetheless it’s true. You see, I was the first-born, so I taught my grandparents their new job too. Later, I led my brother and sister through life, carving a path, beating back the bush for them to march through. I naturally assumed leadership in the classroom, earning for myself a reputation from a young age of being the one to challenge a teacher whose views didn’t make sense to me. At the age of 7 I was known in my catholic school, in our catholic country for questioning the catholic teachings that we were expected to simply accept. At the same age, I explained to the class the cycle of evaporation, much to the surprise of the teacher who had put the question to the class not expecting any of us to know the answer. In high school I was chosen as a prefect after just 18 months at a new school, in a new country.
After getting my degrees, since standing in front of the classroom came naturally to me I took up lecturing first and second year students at my alma mater, as well as at two other independent colleges simultaneously. I left academia and owing to a confluence of events, found myself in the motor industry, not practicing law as I had intended. Stuck there, I decided I would rise to the top position in a dealership and did, against some steep odds. At this time I was also a single mom; the head of our little 2 person home which included 2 staff members (our live-in nanny and her husband), 2 dogs and 2 cats.
If you are feeling exhausted by now, so was I! I decided to step off that rat race and open a practice as an Executive Coach. (I can hear you rolling your eyes at this point…. Yes, there I am right back in front forging on.) If that were not enough, I grew tired of city living and moved our small family and my business to a little sea-side town to start a new life.
Some would say I could be forgiven since I come from a line of extremely strong women; women who were community leaders, political activists, leaders in their families and religious communities and women who had degrees back when women didn’t hold qualifications. However, in relation to others, the fact remains, I have been out there in front since I was born. For me, being part of a team meant leading the team. Until recently.
Almost 2 years ago I entered a relationship with a man who has allowed a completely different side of me to emerge; an aspect of me that I didn’t know existed. My role is changing; I am discovering (and embracing) the supporter in me. Before you jump to my defence or assume that I have, in some overly-exaggerated, hand-to-my-forehead-style faint given away all of my power to a man, allow me to set some context.
The change in my role has not been a dramatic about-turn, rather a metamorphosis, a gradual becoming. As our relationship has grown, our roles have evolved to complement one another’s strengths and compensate for each other’s non-strengths.
Moreover, one of the things my man loves about me, nay cherishes about me, is my strength, the fact that at any point I can march out ahead and take on the world if I need to. Giving away all of my power to him would completely undermine our relationship, it would erode the very foundation upon which our relationship is built; that each of us is a strong and powerful individual in our own right.
Lastly, my man’s role in life too is changing. He is learning to be a supported leader. For most of his life too he has been the pioneer, out there leading from the front, forging the way for his parents, his younger brother and his children. There is a degree of false comfort that comes with this kind of leadership. It comes in the lie that whispers “I will only have myself to blame”. To welcome support and embrace it, is to surrender to the risk that another person could let one down, not easy if one has already experienced being let down.
Has it been comfortable? No, at times it has been deeply uncomfortable, as any metamorphosis must be. Personal growth necessarily involves the relinquishment of the old self in order to accommodate the acquisition of a new self. Letting go of the familiar is never easy or comfortable, and the new self takes some time to settle and become familiar. The supporter role requires a deep level of trust in the guy up front. Once the mission has started one has to surrender to the process and trust that together any obstacles or challenges will be overcome by the combined influence of two who work synchronistically. Not only do I have to surrender to this, but he does too; from inside the team I could potentially be a destructive force as much as a supportive force.
Do I feel disempowered? Hell no! As a couple, we choose our life destinations together; neither his will nor mine carries more weight. It is in the execution of the plan that our roles become evident. What I am learning is that I am as powerful and valuable in this role as I am in a pioneering role. To lead alone from the front can be lonely and exhausting. Progress is slower and often happens in fits and starts because the pioneer must stop to rest before moving on again. The presence of a complementary force inside the team means the pioneer can regroup without losing all momentum. Without me carrying out my role to the fullest, our family would not reach its destination.
What I am seeing is that pioneer leadership and supporter leadership are two sides of the same thing. One cannot operate without the other and neither one is less than the other. Both carry the same power to enhance or diminish the success of the team’s endeavour. Both require absolute trust in another person’s integrity and honour. The roles must surrender to the context that each is acting in the best interests of the whole so that mistakes can be forgiven and resolved. Both require an acknowledgement of the huge value the other has and both roles must be able to give and receive support. In order to truly call ourselves leaders we must be fluent in both types of leadership.
For now, I am learning to master the supporter role as my love is learning to master the role of supported leader. In our life together our roles will change over and over because at the heart of it is a singular unit, two people operating as one, where pioneer and supporter loose meaning as we constantly move to complement each other in the creation of our chosen legacy in life.
However, there is still one place where I am up front; in our kayak. You might see us out on the river paddling in sync while my lover expertly steers the craft from the back so we arrive at the destination we have chosen together. Look out for us and wave….
If you are interested in more resources on leadership check out some of the posts here: leadership