“What are you steeped in?”—Jocelyn K. Glei
I keep thinking about this question from teacher and Hurry Slowly podcast host Jocelyn K. Glei. It’s an important one because without intentional intervention, we will become whatever we’re steeped in. And right now we’re steeped in a society that implicitly values achievement over anything else.
I spend a lot of time and energy educating myself on ways to live in alignment with my own values rather than the values passed down to me by the culture I was born into. Still, the operating manual hard-coded into my system makes every bit of progress feel like swimming upstream.
I want to prioritize calm and spaciousness, giving things their proper time to germinate and grow. But when I commit to that path, it comes with feelings of guilt and fear. Guilt that I’m not moving faster; fear that I’m not being vigilant enough and that some terrible thing is around the corner that I won’t be prepared for.
I want to prioritize the natural direction of my curiosity. But when I do, I’m worried that I’m not optimizing my time to the most efficient degree. I want to prioritize presence with myself and others, but when I do, I’m constantly tugged toward multi-tasking and responding impulsively to whatever messages and notifications are coming at me.
The tides of our cultural values are hard enough to wade against in our personal lives. It’s even harder when we’re trying to live out a new set of values in leadership.
Taking a people-first approach to growth encourages us to take the mantle of leadership in a different way than the hero in the larger culture’s achievement-based narrative. Instead of embracing the story of the lone genius who is so intelligent, so resourceful, so enigmatic that they single-handedly turn their (uniquely brilliant) ideas into gold, we need leaders who can recognize collective possibility by investing in the strengths and potential of others. Rather than relying on singularly mythic personalities who scoff at popular opinion and blaze their own trails, we need to learn how to create healthy, resilient eco-systems that flourish through shared ownership and interdependence.
I imagine, since you picked up this book, that you are already on a path of cultivating these qualities in yourself. Our focus in this chapter, then, is less on “how to lead in a people-first way” and more on “how we can orient ourselves, as people-first leaders, in a world that is not designed to support people-first leadership.”
"Nature has taught me about fluid adaptability. About not only weathering storms, but using howling winds to spread seeds wide, torrential rains to nurture roots so they can grow deeper and stronger. Nature has taught me that a storm can be used to clear out branches that are dying, to let go of that which was keeping us from growing in new directions. These are lessons we need for organizing." —Walidah Imarisha, from Emergent Strategy by adrienne maree brown
Our dominant cultural narrative is so pervasive that it’s difficult to notice all the ways in which it influences our decision-making (and our well-being). We talk about business in terms of competition, domination, virality, and command-control. We “target” customers, we “disrupt the market,” we are “bleeding edge.”
Within these metaphors, we’ve developed templates for productivity and success that serve as the default baseline for conversations about career, leadership, and business. They are so pervasive we rarely question them. Of course we need the nested to-do lists, the Pomodoro timers, the one-hour lunch break, the eight-hour work day, the 40-hour work week. What would business be without mission statements, org charts, and action plans?
I’m not against planning and structure, but if we don’t examine the metaphors we operate within, it’s easy for the most intentional among us to forget that we are creatures in the service of our fellow creatures. What makes for (at least the illusion of) predictability and ease of control does not necessarily make for the flourishing of human beings.
At first, when we start to shift our language, it might feel like a mere aesthetic change that isn’t worth the explanation necessary to make that language a shared one. “Why not just call it what it is?” But that’s the problem. Our old metaphors aren’t what it is. They make it what it is. And we want to change it and make something new. We want to extend beyond the version of reality we’ve created.
So in the service of questioning our baked-in assumptions on what “growth” means in a business context, we’re going to start by shifting our metaphor. We don’t have to throw out everything we know and have been taught, but we can seat our imaginations in a different context to re-examine our defaults and see what else we discover.
So many of us are responsible for growth in our organizations, however we define it. You may be a CEO defining a vision for your company’s growth and bringing everyone else in alignment with that vision (that's my current role). You may be a director of marketing coming up with a strategy for telling your company’s story effectively. You may be a product manager prioritizing your customer’s needs in alignment with your team’s goals. You may be responsible for sales, trying to meet revenue goals in a market that feels more saturated every day. Or, you may be an individual starting something completely new, wearing every hat there is to wear and trying to spend your precious time as potently as possible. These roles have many things in common, but they all involve responsibility for the care and stewardship of something greater than yourself.
Our culture is designed to focus hard on the “responsibility” piece of that equation. This bias puts significant pressure on us as leaders, particularly in the digital marketplace. The landscape is so massive and is changing at such a rapid pace, our impulse is to believe we should keep up.
And so much of the business literature we have available to us says we can. All we need is willpower, or to maximize our efficiency, or to delegate more, or to adopt the latest productivity/goal-setting/networking system.
What our culture doesn’t emphasize is the elements of growth that are beyond our control. There are more of these than we acknowledge. What privilege were we handed, or not, at birth? What access to resources do we have, or not, based on that privilege? What calamities have befallen us, large and small? What happy accidents have we stumbled into that we could never have predicted?
As much as we may like to believe we have most of the control over our destinies, where we are now is largely influenced by situations and circumstances completely beyond us. We have control over how we respond (which gives us significant power and agency to shape our paths), but we cannot downplay the substantial role of context, luck, and happenstance in determining the conditions we operate within.
Accepting the reality of this situation isn’t easy. Even if we feel a great burden of responsibility in the illusion of control our culture has conjured for us, at least we are the ones controlling our outcomes. Learning to live with the fact of ultimate uncertainty is less comfortable for most of us than holding tightly to the belief that if we only work hard enough, learn fast enough, and prove ourselves worthy enough, then we will be successful at achieving whatever we want to achieve.
But there is also great freedom in letting go of that narrative. When we do, we realize that shoving ourselves into someone else’s version of success is a waste of time. If we mimic the “best practices” of others year after year and still don’t succeed, we have doubly lost. Instead, we can stop trying to control the uncontrollable universe and take on a role that more accurately embodies the level of control that we do have—doing the work of understanding ourselves and how we are uniquely fitted to take care of the plot of earth that is ours to tend.
The role of a leader is the role of a caretaker. You may be tending to a tiny patch in your backyard or a farm with hundreds of acres, but your domain is specific and has bounds. You may be responsible for one small section of a larger field, but your power and agency exist within that particular space. Ironically, the more you can increase your level of focus on what you can do inside that space (and remove your focus from external factors), the more power you have to influence the change you want to see in the larger context.
As the gardener of your plot of land, you’re never working alone, whether or not you collaborate with a team. You have access to the soil, the rain, the seed—whatever elements you have to work with. When those elements are supported by healthy systems that work together to nourish the entire eco-system (including yourself), the strength of the environment you’re creating is greater than your strengths alone.
This is even more true when you’re working in cooperation with others. When you pay attention to the human beings that are part of that environment, making sure they are nourished as they tend to the elements in their domains, the relationships become exponentially symbiotic—the health of any one element increases the health and prolificacy of the whole.
Taking a people-first approach to growth is about understanding those elements, and your unique role in bringing them together and tending to them systematically to create a flourishing eco-system.
“In a fractal conception, I am a cell-sized unit of the human organism, and I have to use my life to leverage a shift in the system by how I am, as much as with the things I do.” —adrienne maree brown
“Every time you lovingly, intentionally do one caring thing for one flower, something about that act and the process is secretly working to nurture and support the other ones. Even the most sloppy, half-assed splashing of water in one corner counts. Fractal magic.” —Havi Brooks, The Fluent Self
Fractals are a fascinating efficiency of nature. A fern looks like a fern, whether you’re looking at one stem or the whole plant. Each leaf is repeated, over and over, in the same way that each stem is repeated over and over, in the same way that each frond is repeated over and over, creating a unified pattern for the whole.
The truly amazing thing is that if you were able to change the pattern of one single leaf on a cellular level, you’d be able to change the entire plant. One precise application of effort would be exponential in impact.
When we approach our work fractally, we realize that we ourselves are the basic fractal unit of everything we touch. The same patterns that show up within ourselves have a way of showing up in everything we do. This happens regardless of whether we think at a fractal level, but if we understand this truth and are intentional about it, we can use it to our advantage.
Working fractally is all about alignment, a principle you will see repeated often throughout this book. When we align who we are with our contribution to others, when we align what we need with what we desire, when we align our goals to the goals of our teams, customers, and collaborators, these all help us create systems that function fractally.
A fractal system is powerful because it allows every person to make an impact that is greater than their individual effort. Within a fractal system, when you work on one thing, you’re ultimately working on everything. When you make just one thing better, you improve the entire system. And by improving that system, you improve the whole eco-system in which that system operates.