There is a rule of thumb for comedians: “Get off the stage while they are still laughing.” For politicians, maybe it should be “Get off the stage while you are still laughing!” After almost twelve years in local government (in the Town of Golden, BC), two terms on council and two terms as mayor, I chose to retire while I still loved what I did. My gut instinct led me into the role, and now it has told me that it is time to move on.
I have learned a thing or two over my tenure, not only the procedural aspects of government but also about leadership and about myself as a woman.
Although I did not feel that being a woman in a leadership position was particularly unusual and therefore hardly worthwhile fodder for discussion, apparently, I was wrong. I was surprised how often the fact was addressed to me as if it were both a novelty and a hazard. I encountered first-hand comments that equated being a woman with lacking the “balls” to do what needed to be done. Second-hand grumblings reached my ears; “She’s a nice lady but………” You can finish the sentence anyway you like.
· I constantly felt like I had to prove myself.
· I could not let go of the sense that many people felt I could not do the job because I was too amiable or not tough enough.
· As a result, probably one of the greatest personal challenges I faced as a mayor and as a woman was to confront both my need to be liked and my desire to be a strong, competent leader.
This led me on a journey towards embracing an important leadership theory; a concept I later learned to call self-differentiation.
Self-differentiation is defined as being able to stay connected to people without losing oneself.
· My natural style of leadership is to affiliate with others. It is what people love about me. This is also what people hate about me.
· Personal relationships are important, and I am often able to recognize my own emotional state and the emotional states of others.
· I naturally want to reach out to provide encouragement, kindness and humour.
· I want others to be comfortable around me.
· The downside of this type of leader is that they can become hesitant to take unpopular steps for fear of disappointing others.
· They are your quintessential appeasers. Sound familiar?
· I had to watch that my sensitivity towards public scrutiny did not make me overly responsive to criticism. Often my willingness to accept responsibility minimized others from accepting it. However, I did not want the anxiety of disappointing others to immobilize me and take precedent over making tough decisions. Equally important was ensuring that I did not over-compensate by being harsh and inflexible in order to be taken seriously.
It took constant effort to strike a balance between being grounded, mature, and open while maintaining a clearly articulated course of action.
Self-differentiation can be especially challenging for politicians. Your life is no longer your own. It is easy to become vulnerable to what people think and say about you. Suddenly you are both loved and hated simply based on your title. Although, the general public loves to hate politicians, they elect leaders and they put them on a pedestal. They treat them differently; they treat them like they are important and special. As a result, elected officials begin to think they are important and special. Not only is this ridiculous, it is wrong. Holding any title does not designate your intrinsic value.
I was incredibly fortunate to have a few precious people I could trust to invest in me as a person and a leader. Their candid and sometimes hard-hitting feedback pushed me to see the need to create stronger boundaries for myself. I had to learn to decrease accommodation during difficulties and to accept conflict as a necessary by-product of tough decisions. I had to become really clear about where I end and others begin. Growing into my leadership role meant embracing the fact that I would encounter resistance and that this is all right. This allowed me to understand, listen with curiosity, give clear instructions, invite negative feedback and embrace my own truth. I chose to learn to be comfortable with leadership, even when it’s uncomfortable.
Edwin Friedman said “The function of a leader within any institution is to provide regulation through his or her non-anxious, self-defined presence.”
This is not a destination but a process.
I knew that if I was going to have an impact as a woman and as a leader that I had to examine my heart and consider my personal values.
Embracing my own truth meant creating some new rituals that would support me in staying grounded.
After some intense self-reflection, I developed the following personal credo that inspires me every day:
• Excellence: I value excellence in my life and in the lives of others. I will seek to raise the bar in the areas that matter to me.
• Learning: I am a lifelong learner, and I am obsessed with learning and self-development. I value continuous improvement. I face my fears and lean into them. I welcome feedback. I work intensely on developing a rich inner life by reading, reflecting, and writing in a journal.
• Vitality: I will bring positive and dynamic energy wherever I go. I will ask myself, “How do I want to feel today?” I am committed to excellent self-care which includes eating well, exercising, resting, and meditating. I will engage in supportive and nurturing relationships.
• Independence: I will lead my own life. I will choose how I spend my time, my energy, and my passion. I am grounded. I do not measure myself by the standards of others. I will run my own race.
• Joy: I want to fully experiencing the pleasure of life. I will smile generously and laugh freely. I will choose thoughts that raise my levels of joy. I will live in the moment. I will be grateful for all my blessings, and find delight and amusement in everyday things.
If you truly want to be a leader, then lead your own life first.
Self-differentiation is not a static condition one arrives at; it is a direction one follows.
As I stumble and bumble along the path, I continually realize that my primary and ultimate responsibility is taking charge of self and not changing others.
I embrace the process and trust that the best gift I can offer others is the resolute embrace of my own peaceful, grounded, and self-aware presence.
Christina Benty has been and will continue to be a positive role model and mentor to women in community leadership. So lucky to have her in my life.
Less politics; more leadership.