It’s my dad’s birthday today. I’m on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon taking in every ponderosa and pinyon pine vista with my nine-year old son, K.
As I circle the Visitor’s Center parking lot, I can feel the tears coming. I dial his number and wait for the familiar, “This is Steve. Sorry I missed your call.”
Sorry I missed your call.
How many times had toddler K, from the back seat on the way home from daycare, exclaimed, “Saw-wee? Saw-wee I missed your cawl! Why he’s not home, Mama?” The indignation in his voice was, clear. What could he be up to that was more important than a call with his grandson?
Within a minute or two, the phone would ring in the car, and K would squeal.
“How are you doing, Little Man?”
“Gooo-ud. How you doing?”
No matter if he was watching the birds on the back porch with my mom, negotiating a water deal with a tribal chief and an energy mogul, or rolling through the horrific effects of immunotherapy, his answer was always the same.
He was great.
It was an open-ended optimism we shared, even in the last few months of his life.
“How are you feeling today? How were your client calls? How was your last day of radiation? How did the meeting go with Cliff (his hospice nurse)?”
“Great. It’s a beautiful day to be alive.”
Over the two years he was sick, well-wishing co-workers would check in with me often.
“How are you hanging in there? How is your dad doing? How are you mom and sister coping?”
For years at work, I had a saying at when the times got rough at the office: “You can’t penetrate the positive.”
I’d extend my arms out straight in front of me with two fingers sky high, and then make a force field motion as I brought them out 180 degrees. Don’t come to me whining, with negative energy, or gossip.
Our team was about solutions. Building and celebrating partnerships. We pushed hard to find new approaches to accelerate conservation and slow climate change. When the challenges became increasingly complex, the funding sources wavered or waned, or we flat-out failed, we redoubled our efforts. We tried again. When one of us was down with an illness or a sick little one, the others covered. We took on more assignments. We traveled more days. We said yes more often. In short, we worked harder.
No one, including me, often asked “How’s the team? How’s morale?”
If they had asked, I imagine I would have been quick with my reply.
“We’re great. Thanks.”
But we weren’t great.
We had sick babies and parents with dementia. We had miscarriages, anxiety, and post-partum depression. We had partners lose their jobs. We had separations, divorces, and custody hearings. One of us lost a child. One of our sisters never woke up.
Because we were so committed to and so passionate about our work, much of this living happened on the side. It didn’t make its way into conference calls or team meetings. It hardly ever wove its voice into a 1:1 phone call, and only on rare occasions, warranted an actual discussion.
Best-selling author and social researcher Brené Brown assures us in her moving books and talks around vulnerability and leadership that the two go hand-in-hand. The strongest leaders have the courage to be vulnerable. And that means admitting when things aren’t great.
“We have to create cultures where being armored all the time is not rewarded,” she says.
But where do you start? And where do you draw the line? How vulnerable is too vulnerable?
As leaders, do we share with our teams our midnight fears that our venture-backed idea might fail? Or are we seeding doubt among all who have trusted us, and stood by our sides for so long? How do we gain the courage to ask for leaves of absence when we are care-taking or grieving? Instead of ignoring aside the gut-wrenching tug and powering through?
Over the course of the past year, I’ve participated in a series of coaching classes with several sustainability masterminds, who have taught me that it’s okay to start small. Even two-degree changes in our behavior, it seems, can change the world.
So small, it is.
At the start of our weekly calls with my colleague, I’ve changed the mindless, “How you doin’?” into “How are you doing, really?” I wait now, for her to answer, and then I take a moment to acknowledge what she’s shared. Slowly, I’ve conditioned myself to pause when I’m asked, and give an honest response. I don’t dwell. But I’m done sugar coating my answers.
I’m sharing more about where I’m stuck professionally, what keeps me up at night about growing my business, and—yes—more about my real life. In return, the advice, wisdom, and feedback I am receiving is way more relevant, thought-provoking, and useful than ever before.
When the client call comes in today to ask me how I’m doing, I can respond honestly.
“I’m not great. Thanks for asking. I miss my dad. It’s his birthday and he would have loved this view. We talked about coming to the Grand Canyon together one day – maybe on a float trip. It’s gorgeous. And it’s hard to be here without him.”
Chances are, the leader on the other end of the line will be genuine, vulnerable, and way more generous with her response than if I had stayed quiet.
And that will be great.