In my first moment of leadership, I wasn’t trying to be a leader. I didn’t know if anyone would really get what I was saying, but I said it anyway. “My brother has paranoid schizophrenia.” It was part of a poem I performed at a poetry slam in Seattle, a poem that upon finishing, left me in tears. That night I discovered that there was someone who needed to hear what I was saying. That someone was me.
This is the foundation of all leadership work I do. I believe that leadership is about opening yourself to connection, and if you’ve been closed off for a while, you’ll find the first person you need to connect with is yourself. When I stood up for my beliefs in front of other people, I was most amazed by the things I learned about myself. Previously I wanted to speak out about mental illness, but I had never seen anyone else do it before. Not at school, not at poetry events, not in church. I didn’t know the impact speaking out could have until I did it. When I spoke openly about my brother’s struggle with a mental illness, I figured out what his struggle meant to me. I admitted it was a part of me, even though I wanted to ignore it. When I really connected with the experience, and discovered the grief and pain and hope that I held, I gave others the courage to make their own connections.
Last fall I helped start a poetry community at the University of Washington. When we planned our first open-mic, we weren’t sure many people would come. I said, “Even if it is just the five of us, I want to get together and share poems with you.” I wanted to speak out and I needed to be heard. It turns out, so did a lot of other students. Our first open-mic was packed, and I was amazed at the number of people who gave poetry, applause, or simply their presence. Each open-mic, I learned a new name and encouraged a new poet to the stage. It was a joy to watch other people perform for the first time, because I got to see them discover the same thing I discovered: that other people find their stories important. I saw them hear themselves in a way that they never imagined possible.
Once I invited someone to go with me to the youth slam where I first got my start. I called her directly, and I said, “Hey, Want to go with me? Oh, and you’re eligible to compete. You should give it a try.” She wasn’t sure. “But they’re so good…but what if I suck?” “So what,” I said, “We’re going together, why not compete? Meet me at the bus stop at 6:15.”
My friend won the slam that night, but I got the biggest prize of all. Bringing her to the slam was far different than simply performing myself. She had a new found confidence in the importance of her voice, and she got much more involved in the Seattle poetry scene. She is a leading officer in our club this year, committed to giving other people the same opportunity I gave her. Recently, she thanked me for taking her to the slam, “I never would’ve performed if you hadn’t told me to.”
This goes to show that leadership can sustain and grow itself. It can be energizing, not exhausting. The first step is simply saying, “I think you’re the right person for the job,” and the next step is following through to communicate the job’s skills and responsibilities. When these steps grow from genuine connections, the process is smooth. That’s why I believe that leadership is about opening myself to connection. Because leaders stand up for their beliefs in a way that connects and good leaders inspire others to join them. Great leaders give others the tools to take their own stand.
This essay is part of an occasional series inspired by the “This I Believe” series on the Bob Edwards Show. For more information on it, visit www.thisibelieve.org