It was one of my worst days as a leader.
The issue was polarizing, and my team was divided. Literally, there was one group adamantly defending one position seated to my left and another group adamantly defending another position seated to my right.
This wasn’t our first meeting, but things were coming to a head. After a vigorous, passionate discussion, we reached a familiar impasse. That’s when everyone seemingly turned to me, waiting for me to weigh in.
I’m not sure if someone said this aloud, but I felt the collective question. “So, leader, what are we going to do?”
I wish I could tell you I responded with profound wisdom and courage that day. What a great story it would be if I charted a way forward, united the team, and helped us overcome the division.
But that’s not what happened.
I broke down crying, actually. I was burned out as a leader. My downward spiral away from health was reflected in our team. And I had no vision to lead us forward. That night was the beginning of the unraveling of our team.
A couple of months later, I made the difficult, painful, and unpopular decision to shut down that branch of our organization. Some friendships forever changed with that decision, and they remain frosty to this day.
That process convinced me that leadership isn’t optional; it is essential.
When I was young and naive, I wondered if a flat leadership structure could work. In fact, that organization has functioned for many years with a very flat-like model. Driven by teams and without a domineering personality, we experimented and found what we thought was success. Some season even felt like we were pioneering uncharted territory, with boldness and creativity.
But, it was that season where we began to disagree on the future when we needed leadership the most. And because I didn’t have it to give, we fell apart.
It was that moment of genuine diversity, a lack of trust, and a crisis moment for the organization that we needed leadership I was unable to give.
Over the last few months, I (like you) have learned from some incredible pieces on diversity and leadership here at Thin Difference. Jeremy Chandler guided us from echo chambers to common ground with those we disagree. Molly Page showed us how to seek counter-arguments, educating ourselves about the different perspectives our neighbors hold dear. Yonason Goldson unpacked a TED talk gone wrong for surprising insights about the connection between censorship and freedom.
As I’ve read these pieces, I’ve been reminded that we need leadership now, maybe more than ever before.
The need for leadership is highest when the stakes are high, divisions are strong, and resistance is growing.
This moment in time is scary for leaders because it demands vulnerability and courage. And as the stakes get higher, the divisions get stronger, and the resistance grows even more, fewer will feel the desire to step up and lead. The payoff for leading may be bigger, but the risk grows too. Some will say, “It’s just not worth it anymore.”
And it is into this moment that you and I have been thrust and given an opportunity to lead. To lean into diverse communities and build common ground. To acknowledge the high stakes and rally people to seize the opportunity. And to turn into the resistance and move towards it as a sign that we are moving the right direction, closer to a breakthrough than we realize.
Leadership is hard, but it is an awesome privilege.
We get to set aside our comfort and agenda to serve other people. We get to bring people together, attack an obstacle, and seize an opportunity bigger than ourselves.
Seven years later, I’ve overcome burnout, and I’m grateful to be still leading.
No matter the challenges diversity presents or the difficulties you’re facing in your leadership, I hope you see your leadership as a “get to,” not a “have to.” We need leaders just like you!
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