“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. We have not only failed to achieve a culturally accepted level of success, but we have also lost our own instinctive knowing, our own singular way of being in the world.
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, encouraging their nourishment 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. The same is true of each of the individuals we collaborate with. 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 system. And by improving that system, you improve the whole eco-system in which that system operates.
If we are that fundamental fractal, and our role in the system is that of a caretaker of our particular plot of land, then our capacity for care is directly reflected in how we care for ourselves. Part of this is about sustainability; we can only give out of what we have. If we don’t care for ourselves, eventually we will run out of capacity to care for others. If we continue to give what we do not have, the self-inflicted trauma of chronically ignoring our own needs can make it difficult to re-build the capacity for caring for anyone else at all. Ironically, ignoring our needs creates conditions for self-absorption, while consistently tending to our needs cultivates a healthy internal environment where we naturally look outward in a spirit of contribution.
But there is another element to this. In order to be effective in our care, we need to have an honest understanding of what “care” means. We can only develop this understanding if we are consistently practicing reflective awareness of our own selves and the nuance of our needs as human beings.
For example, at a surface level, we may think that caring for someone means protecting them from discomfort. If that is our fundamental belief, then we might do everything we can to make the paths smooth, taking it on ourselves to be the savior of all. But as we reflect on the direction of our own growth, we notice that discomfort is one of its most effective tools. By protecting others from being uncomfortable, we not only keep them from getting stronger, we also overdevelop our own strengths at their expense. We end up creating vertical relationships, where we are dominant in our strength and the other person (or people) is subordinate in their weakness. Our goal instead is to create healthy horizontal relationships, where all are valued for their contribution and all are given agency as caretakers of their own plots of land.
While this is not a book about self-knowledge and self-care, we need to start with a basic understanding of the capacities that make us stronger in our role as a caretaker, strengthening not only our own selves, but increasing the capacities of everyone around us.
“You return to yourself through cultivating a dialogue between your many parts. You return to yourself by committing, first, to the asking.” —Mara Glatzel
As someone who takes responsibility for growth (both your own personal growth and growth in your organization), you’ve probably done more than your share of visioning exercises. “What do we want in 1, 3, or 5 years?” “What will it look like? What will it feel like? How will we know we’ve achieved our goals? What will that make possible?”
If we’re at all ambitious, we quickly learn that in order to achieve our goals, we’re going to have to defer our desires for another day. We are trained to “think big,” “hustle,” and “do the work.” We learn to measure our days (and likely our self-worth) by how productive we’ve been. Being productive feels good. Being unproductive brings feelings of guilt and possibly shame. Even in our self-care, we often try to maximize our experience with the intention of fueling our future productive selves.
There is nothing wrong with knowing what we want and doing the work it takes to get there. I love thinking about what’s possible and aligning myself and our team in that direction; it’s why my job is a good fit for me. But what often gets lost is that if we don’t learn to also prioritize this experience in this moment, “getting there” is not going to feel a whole lot different than being right here. In fact, once we’ve raised the bar, it’s likely to feel worse.
In order to pursue growth in a healthy, sustainable way (for ourselves and our teams), we need to build our capacity for both our awareness of the current moment and our willingness to meet ourselves and our teammates where we’re actually at right now. We must “begin as we mean to continue,” knowing that how we inhabit this moment is how we inhabit our entire lives, including what the future has in store for us.
We build this capacity by developing two skills. The first is the skill of checking in with ourselves. In a 10-month class on learning to tend to our human needs (appropriately called “Tend”), coach Mara Glatzel teaches students to ask themselves, “How am I doing, really?” as the foundational question that allows us to partner with ourselves and notice what needs tending. Simply by asking the question, we prioritize not only the bigger picture of what we desire and are working toward, but also the reality of the here and now.
By doing this, we also learn the power of our feelings as clues to what is really going on inside of us. Culturally, we may be moving toward confessional conversation, but it’s more of a performative “in the past, I was really struggling, but look at me now!” kind of vulnerability. We are still not comfortable with feelings as they arise in the moment. When feelings inevitably come up, we pile embarrassment and shame on top of whatever was going on in the first place.
But humans are a mess of feelings. Even the most logical among us are often driven by our feelings. The need to suppress them is often the biggest driver of all. By acknowledging this and becoming aware of the feelings underneath our behavior, we can let our feelings guide us to what we are unable or unwilling to tell ourselves.
The second skill is an extension of the first. Once we know how we’re doing (really), we start to learn how to develop options for ourselves that will meet our needs in ways that are specific to who we are and the resources we have at hand. We form hypotheses about what will actually meet our needs, try them out, and then adjust. These things can be big, but most often they are small adjustments made throughout the day as we become more aware of what the actual needs are.
Through practicing this skill, we learn that “self-care” is not about bubble baths or taking a nap. It is about listening to ourselves and responding to what we discover, consistently. It’s about being in our own corner, no matter what. This in turn teaches us how we can truly, effectively be there for others.
As we start to build our capacity for self-awareness, we begin to realize just how persistently external factors are pushing against our ability to meet the more “human” needs that are unique to each of us. We are constantly tempted with feelings of urgency, prior commitments, and what we “should” be doing. It is surprisingly difficult to pause and reflect, much less actually say, “You know what? This can wait. By tending to these human needs first, I will be in a better place to tend to the needs of the day.”
This isn’t to say that we shuck our commitments and become entirely self-focused. But it does mean that we realize that all commitments are up for negotiation, and as we have new information, we can take that information as an invitation to conversation and negotiation on our own behalf.
Sometimes in negotiation, we’ll discover that it is important to us to continue with our commitment as part of meeting our human needs. Sometimes we’ll discover that someone else’s need is truly more urgent and needs to be triaged before we take care of our own. But even then, just by having the conversation, we are shifting the cultural supremacy of productivity and achievement. We are making our choices intentionally in the service of human beings, rather than as a knee-jerk reaction to our inherited assumptions of what is important and valuable.
As a person who values gentleness and compassion, explicit communication is a challenging skill for me to practice. As a CEO who works with a team who also values gentleness and compassion, it’s even more challenging to weave the ability to communicate clearly and kindly into the way we manage projects and encourage each other to do our best.
So many times when someone (including myself) has a challenge with what someone else is doing or how they’re doing it, the question “Does that person know about this challenge you’re having?” reveals that the answer is “No.” If that’s the answer to the question and the person is someone you trust and whose relationship you’re invested in, the answer is always, “Okay, it’s time to have an explicit conversation.”
We may have implied that it’s a challenge. We may have alluded to it in a million ways. We may have tried to adjust our own management style or laid out some new ground rules for the whole team to adapt to. But when it comes to outright saying, “Hey, I know this isn’t your intention, but when you do X, it has X impact on me,” we’re likely to stop short.
This usually comes from a good place. We can understand the human reasons why this challenge might be happening. We don’t want to hurt their feelings. We take (too much) ownership of our part in the problem. We second-guess our perception. We don’t mind the additional work. And also, we’ve likely had these conversations before with people who were unskilled at taking this kind of feedback. In fact, we may have been traumatized by backlash due to someone else’s emotional immaturity.
Not only that, but we may not have a clear understanding of what plot of land is ours and what is theirs. We may be overly sensitive to something that is truly theirs to own. Or we may be truly impacted by the other person, but we justify that it’s really our problem to deal with.
Even if we’re clear on what is our responsibility and what is the other person’s, it’s incredibly hard to have these conversations in a calm, non-judgmental way. We might bring our own angst, so we come to it with an energy that immediately makes the other person tense and on their guard. We might begin in a calm, grounded place, but when we sense an emotional reaction in the other person, we become anxious and maybe even defensive. Or we begin to verbally retreat, muddying the waters of what needs to be said.
Both giving and receiving the gift of explicit communication is such an important skill to cultivate because a people-first approach to growth involves creating and tending to systems made up of human beings. When we don’t encourage this skill in ourselves and others, we end up creating untenable relationships within those systems, where some are over-functioning and some are under-functioning, and there is a certain level of anxiety and/or resentment throughout. This creates a nutrient-deficient soil that isn’t good for growth, and is even worse for people. As Mara Glatzel teaches, we talk so much about boundaries, but boundaries can quickly become toxic in relationships when we use them to avoid bringing issues to an explicit level.
Even so, we’re all human. We are never going to do any of this perfectly, and that’s okay. The best human systems are built on trust, and the ability to not only talk about the hard stuff, but also to talk about how hard talking about the hard stuff is. Having that meta-conversation helps us give each other grace and compassion, no matter where we’re at in our ability to skillfully navigate these things.
When we focus on building a fractal system that starts with ourselves, it can look very navel-gazey on the surface. But the power is that it isn’t just about ourselves. It is about who we are in the system we’re building, and who each person is in that same system. Building for people-first growth means that we truly focus on the people, first. When we do that, we create a healthy, fertile environment for new possibility to emerge.
Empowerment means understanding the system as a whole, and helping the people around you to grow as whole people. Often, potential areas of growth show up in the system wherever there is over-functioning and/or under-functioning. Over-functioning leads to over-developed strengths at the expense of whatever is under-functioning, and vice versa.
Often as leaders, we are the ones who are over-functioning. When we notice that we’re wishing that another person or group of people would step up or take more initiative or solve a chronic problem, the first person to look at is actually ourselves. Have we overused our power, inadvertently teaching the other person to step back? Have we filled in the gaps, leaving us to experience the impact of the problem rather than the person who actually needs to own the problem?
We can certainly borrow power from our positions in order to change someone’s behavior in the short-term, but what we’re looking for isn’t surface level change. A healthy system that puts people first requires our investment in the true empowerment of the people around us. Surface level change makes for a shaky foundation.
The wonderful thing is, because all the parts are interrelated, you don’t have to tend to everything (or everyone) all at once. You can focus on the part that is the closest to you, or the part that is the most urgent, or the part that feels the gentlest, or the part that feels the most full of possibility. There isn’t a wrong choice; you truly can listen to yourself and trust that whatever piece that is right for you to plant, weed, or water in this moment is exactly what is needed.
These skills are nuanced and there are entire books, classes, and even graduate degrees devoted to each paragraph I’ve written on them. That’s okay. This book is about the forest, not the trees. I want you to be able to see clearly a new framework for growth that you can graft into your current mental map, digging into each element further as it becomes relevant to where you’re at.