If I choose to be a leader who speaks — whether in measured, angry, or conciliatory tones — there will be days when I am punished. Silence in a leader also merits punishment. People’s curiosity and entitlement to information are strong. The right voice-to-silence mix shifts from day to day. Even when I’m confident in the balance, the punishment may come anyway, in words and in deeds. Both linger, reminding me of an art installation in which spoken words were translated into smoke or water vapor letters, dissipating yet remaining invisibly in the atmosphere.
Occasionally I encounter an eruption. Someone demands that I speak about something I can’t, so I don’t. My silence is labeled complicity rather than good judgment. Self-righteous indignation and condescension follow and sometimes additional bad behavior that requires a lot of clean up. I generally manage to get through these situations but not without the physical cost of a racing heart and a tense stomach. Emotional fallout of sleepless nights and rumination come next. Eventually the professional matters are taken care of, the mess mopped up, though the hollowness remains. Why do colleagues do these things to each other? Some would say it’s not personal, just business, just professional. But with us tender human beings everything is personal, really. The harsh words, slung like a beer down the bar without thought for the mess, hang in the atmosphere, growing fainter but never fully disappearing.
Some days I dream of an escape hatch, a beach faraway sounds both appealing and not entirely impossible. What if we sold everything? Our youngest could finish high school online and become a professional surfer. My husband could open his bike shop/law practice that he jokes about. The dog would adjust to a new climate. I would read by the sea, go for a daily snorkel, cook fish. Thin, tan, and relaxed under a sun that would not sting. No pressure to be the bigger person, no worry that I had somehow failed even when through all the second guessing I can see no other choices. I would not return to a lonely office…blah, blah, blah. These professional dramas and doldrums come and go like my fantasy worlds. Looking for the way out is often like retracing steps on a beach. When I’ve taken the time to think a situation through, reflect deeply, seek consultation, and conclude that I’ve done what I can, all that is left to is wait for the encouragers and the teachers. When I’m on the right path and even if I’m not, they tend to show up, buoying my spirits or helping me see what I’ve missed.
The phone rang mid-morning, a fellow faculty member on the line. Early in my term as chair, our first coffee date coincided with some dramatic campus moments. Her whole focus was not on the small talk typical of first meetings. Instead, she lasered in on me saying, “leaders’ spirits can be wounded when they are fighting for others. Some people understand your choices and others criticize them. It can be painful. How are you tending to your spirit? How can I help?”
From her long and varied life experience, which began under an autocratic regime, she described a deep spirituality that sustained her during difficulty. She described us as “twin sisters by different mothers,” working in different ways and in different spheres. Listening, I felt like warm oil, a verbal balm was being poured on me, anointing me with strength and peace. I was grateful to be seen, encouraged. These words linger in the atmosphere too, countering the more troublesome reverberations.
She called me again not long ago about a problem she and others were concerned about. Clearly and gently, she pointed out parts of a particular puzzle that I’d not seen. Her words encouraged me to take a step that made me nervous, was a risk, which is of course what courage is: being nervous, scared, or afraid and acting anyway. Like hers, the words I chose to address the problem were both clear and gentle, taking responsibility, pointing out a problem, asking for reflection and action. As of now it looks like there has been a positive result–not a resolution but a step.
When I saw the art exhibit Atmospheric Memory, I was drawn by the idea that my lost father’s words encircle me still. Now I am thinking about words in leadership, those said to leaders and those leaders say, the ways these words remain present if no longer visible. And I am also thinking about the encouragers and the teachers that every leader needs around them. My “twin sister” called, seemingly unbidden, and told me her Lenten altar holds a candle lit daily for me. My spine tingled, my eyes watered, and I listened, with little to offer beyond gratitude. The recent storms in my orbit are not ones I can talk about. I cannot seek her counsel and hardly anyone else’s. But it doesn’t matter. What matters is that a candle is being lit and the smoke, like those encouraging words, is ascending upward dissipating from view, yet ever present.
(Photo Credit: AtmosphericMemory.com)