The below is adapted from a talk given at a PechaKucha Night Seattle event, Designing Leadership, which was hosted in collaboration with Design in Public for their Seattle Design Festival. Over the coming weeks, we'll release more adaptations of presentations given that evening. —ARCADE
My first job out of college was working for a biotech company. For a groundbreaking ceremony we rented a Chihuly sculpture. The piece had a million dollar insurance policy, and the insurer required that someone sit for hours and hours and watch as the thousands of pieces that made up the art were put together. That someone was me.
Leaving my biotech days behind, I’ve now worked in the arts in various positions for some years. And I’ve come to understand that like a prized Chihuly sculpture, a leader must first be constructed then broken down into pieces before being put back together again, time after time.
Failure was the first piece of leadership I learned when I started a theatre collaborative called The Mahogany Project. Our initial major project didn’t succeed because I forced my vision for the organization onto the group rather than developing their support for my ideas. It’s hard to put yourself back together after you fail. But I refocused and went back to school to study leadership.
The second piece of leadership I discovered was ambition. As a Black artist I had to create my own opportunities to do the work I believe I was put on Earth to do. I had to dream big and make it happen. “That’s ambitious,” advisors said as they counseled me on projects in a cautionary tone that made me doubt myself and feel like what I wanted to do was too big. But then I looked up the meaning of the word. Ambitious: “Having a strong desire for success.”* I thought, hell yes, I’m ambitious!
With ambition comes fear, and this was another piece of leadership I came to know. I developed a project and took it to a public relations workshop. Presenting it made it real—and reality is scary. Fear told me I would fail, that I couldn’t pull off the project, that no one would buy into the idea. While I was freaking out, I came across an article by Richard Stengel in TIME Magazine, “Mandela: His 8 Lessons of Leadership,” that said, “He knew he was a model for others and that gave him strength to triumph over his fear.” Reading about Nelson Mandela reminded me that I’m not alone in my fears, which gave me the strength to fulfill my ambitions.
Another piece of leadership is collaboration. There is strength in numbers. As Jim Collins wrote in Good to Great, “You have to get the right people on the bus . . . .” Through my experiences I’ve learned that it’s up to you as a leader to surround yourself with people who challenge you and have skills that you need. Be still, listen to yourself, pay attention to your gut and follow your heart.
Failure, ambition, fear and collaboration are a few of the pieces of leadership; we discover the roles they play as challenges break us down and build us up into the leaders we want to become.
*From Collins English Dictionary, thefreedictionary.com.