Recently it seems everyone I talk to is thinking about leadership. Much of the conversation has to do with the upcoming election here in the United States. Everyone has an opinion on how the country should be led. These strong opinions seem more relevant to me than they have in the past. And being a leader in the world has never been more difficult.
When I was ten, I had to write up and draw “Tell us what you want to be when you grow up” so the sheets could be hung up on the wall for the Fall Parent’s Night. So there that night, when the parents rolled into our small school you saw the following:
“I want to be a teacher”- Jessica Hopkins, (This Jess is currently a teacher, by the way and a great one)
“I want to be a marine biologist”- Jessica Reinke (That Jess later joined the Coast Guard, so that dream stayed intact)
And then a picture of a stick figure girl on a podium making a speech with big flags in the background, with this written above. “I want to be the President of the United States of America”- Vicki Perry. And that little girl was me. And I am no closer to that goal in theory, (but don’t’ bet against me yet).
I wanted to lead.
And I didn’t just want to lead because I was some tiny egomaniac. I wanted to lead because I honestly believed I could make the world a better place.
Around this same age, I wrote to President Reagan about how we could take care of the “drug problem” by locking all the drugs behind a big wall, but with a key so doctors could get to them. My theory was flawed but I had chutzpa.
I have never been afraid to raise my hand, not only to answer, but mainly to ask questions. I respected authority but never was afraid of a leader at any organization. Instead I tried to watch and learn. I wanted to know how people handled problems both big and small. And even if I disagreed with a decision, I figured I could try and figure out why someone made that call.
I once worked for someone who had a sign on her desk that read “Don’t come to me with problems, come to me with solutions”. I interpreted this to mean that she was inviting her staff to be creative problem solvers. I have abided by this sign whenever I have dealt with a boss since. I never wanted to be the employee that complained, I wanted to be the one that figured out how to make a loss into a win. I hate negativity. I want to inspire thought.
But then, one day, you become a leader and well…all your theories and lessons are helpful but they are no silver bullet. Suddenly you are criticized far more. You will no longer be beloved, no matter how good a boss you try to be. People will talk about you with reverence occasionally and with frustration often. As one mentor warned me, “People will even watch what you eat every day”. This is the nature of being a leader. But ultimately you need followers.
You will need to do the right thing for your team, for your company, for your family. And you will have to live with the decisions you make and the things you say. And it’s hard.
There are however many other leaders I have learned from and still pull from their playbook occasionally. One such leader is Cynthia Round, my last boss at The Met Museum. Cynthia was as kind as she was kick-ass. She supported our team and she pushed through our goals against many obstacles. Even if you didn’t like her, you had to respect her. She was the sort of leader I decided I wanted to be. Before I left that job for my latest role, I asked her, how do you do this? And she told me this,
“Lead with love.”
“What does that mean?”
“Well, it means that you have work to do and you can’t do that work without a great team. And a team is made up of people who have lives and problems and agendas and issues, many of which you may not know. So treat everyone how you’d want to be treated and try to rise above all the pettiness and just be a good, decent person.”
So, I don’t know if I will ever become president of the United States. But one day, I hope to be president of something. And I know that it will be challenging and I know it could be easier to stand on the side lines and I know I have so much to learn. But I will continue to raise my hand, learn from my mistakes, come not with problems but solutions and try as hard as I can to lead with love.