There was the boss who had probably been good at this gig at some point, a long time ago. At first glance, it would seem that there was nothing to be learned here.
I mean, what do you take from someone who comes into your office, and in the middle of your discussion, the building maintenance guy pops in with a quick question, and she asks him to go and get the blowtorch please, and the next thing you know, he’s using the torch to singe the hair off her arms, while you sit there, dumbfounded (no. I am not. making this up).
But she did tell me a story once, about how, when she was put in charge of a fairly large organization, the first thing she did was ask the Board to send her back to school part-time, to take classes in Human Resources and Management, because she lacked this kind of experience. The lesson was a good one: recognize your skill set gaps and ask for help in closing them. Not as entertaining as the Blowtorch Story, but valuable.
There were the bosses who did not inspire, lead or teach–but provided me with at least some little gems, nonetheless.
There was the boss who, despite my best efforts to find something of value–even something superficial–to emulate, brought nothing to the table. And that’s saying something, because even in the most dysfunctional of sweatshops, there are always little gems to add to our toolkits. Leadership qualities. Good habits. Favorite office supplies. Something (and a How Not to Do Things list doesn’t count). You have to dig for them, but those little nuggets are always there. And the spirit of always learning something that you can take with you is one that I’m glad to have cultivated. So, to come up empty handed, well, that’s bleak.
But I digress.
And there was the one who brought so much. To the program that she led–which was so much more than a “workplace.” To her family, to her friends, to her community, to the world. It’s difficult to describe how far her hard work and influence has reached, and impossible to quantify.
How many children and youth are now receiving an education that is not “one size fits all,” but planned according to their needs, because of her tireless fight for their rights–and the seeds that she planted in so many others, who continue to advocate? How many incredible professionals have been mentored and shaped by her, and now mentor and shape others? How many friends gain strength to face their own challenges, because of having seen her courage in action? How many family relationships are strengthened by knowing the bond that she had with her own child? Tens, hundreds? Impossible to know.
I miss her, and I think that “unfair” is both a cliche and an understatement, but there it is.
I take comfort and pride in having absorbed from her what she so generously gave: the tenacity to not let go and settle, when a child’s education or well being is at stake; the unashamed mother bear instinct (which she had, long before becoming a mother, and once she did become a mother….well, I pity the fool); the delight in embracing differences and the respect and loyalty for her team, her tribe; the ability to conjure up that humor (sometimes silly, sometimes dark, always smart) in the face of the difficult stuff; most of all, the ability to lead by example, and be the best example any of us can hope to have.
I hope that I have taken the qualities of leadership, building of team, managing and mentoring at its absolute finest. I hope that when I find myself in a position to manage others, I will lead and inspire half as well as she did, giving feedback that brings out people’s best work, knowing their strengths and striving to improve on their weaknesses.
Not long after she died, I read an article that described how she saw evidence that her daughter had internalized an important lesson: to speak up, even if your voice shakes. This lesson practice embodies how she lived her life. I don’t doubt for a second that the ripples of her influence are alive and well in her bright and talented daughter.
I resolve to not squander those of her gifts that I may have underused or forgotten along the way. To never stop trying. To keep my eye on what matters. To never stop learning, and wanting to learn. To go forward with humility and courage. To speak up, even if my voice shakes.