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Here it was, right in front of me, the gig of a lifetime!
A very tall, distinguished looking man approached me after I gave a talk at a conference. Later, I learned he was a career politician, a successful businessman, connected and funded. He told me my style and message captivated him, and he wanted us to build leadership capacity in his country. Ummm, what? Me? It was at this moment I felt the very real possibility of realizing my vision to teach values-based leadership on a global scale.
I’ll be honest, At first, I didn’t take him seriously. I think that is because sometimes I don’t take myself seriously. There are times when I wonder how I get to do what I do, I feel like a phony, a fraud and little small-town girl. I reflect on how many times people have come up to me and offered me an opportunity to collaborate, to speak at an event, to work with their team…and I leave it there…some internal thing inside of me that does not believe in myself. That is an old story, but it comes out from time to time…this was one of those times. The official name is imposter syndrome.
Do you do that to yourself? Let opportunities go because you feel undeserving? I’m sure I’m not alone here!
A few weeks after the event he reached out and made contact. I decided to then take it, and myself, more seriously. This could be it, my big break!
About 10 months had passed before our schedules aligned for us to meet. The plan was set, and the date was fast approaching. I was working another job during the week and we were going to meet up that Friday and Saturday.
No sooner had we made our plans to meet and ‘it’ started. At first it was a text message, I ignored the undertone. I joined him for dinner. The conversation was rich, and I was present. I was captivated and on the verge of my long-held vision. I was clear, excited and ready.
Then, a comment. A hint. Of what, I wasn’t sure. I ignored it. My intuition and my ‘safety’ radar on full alert, I shut it down, again!
Dinner ended, and we made a plan for the next day. Another suggestion: I should move from my hotel to his hotel; to make meeting ‘easier’.
What do I do? What do I say?
I’m a strong, outspoken woman. I believed this powerful man was holding my holy grail, my dream, my biggest vision. I told myself the suggestion to change hotels was to simplify our meeting the next day.
I brushed it off, but my intuition was screaming that something was off. It was at this moment I became present to my fight or flight instinct. I had to get out of there. “Refocus, ground yourself, Kathleen, you are overreacting. Get a grip!”
We arrived at my hotel, he walked me to the entrance, and then he said it: “I was hoping you would come and stay with me tonight.” BAM! I could no longer deny what my intuition had been telling me. His intentions could not be clearer—he didn’t see me as a collaborator, he saw me as a conquest.
Body shaking and heart pounding, my external response did not reveal what was happening inside. I hid my truth. Our inner-self is the best guide through a sticky situation, as I reflect on this I wonder why I ignored it. Perhaps I was swept away in the fantasy of what ‘could be’; and then I found my ground, a little bit. I looked him straight in the eye and said, “I am not staying with you. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I was a woman in the middle of a tornado and I was unwilling to acknowledge it was windy!
How could I have been so stupid? I took the shortcut to self-blame and negative self- talk. “It serves you right. Who were you to think you could play at such a level? It was never about bringing you into a project. You don’t have what it takes. Stay small town. It’s what you’ll always be.”A haunting sense of self-betrayal set in. I felt foolish that I allowed possibility to seduce me. I visited a familiar place—self-doubt. We’ve all been there; where we question, we doubt, and when we are shaken to our core, we can forget who we are.
“Disturbance, confusion and a sense of chaos are not signs we are about to be destroyed. These are, in fact, the conditions which awaken us to our own possibility.”
I needed to find calm in the storm and navigate this struggle with my own self-destructive thoughts.
I took a breath and realized this state of mind was familiar. I became present to the moment, allowing it to be what it was. As quickly as the negative self-talk appeared, a new energy replaced it as I breathed, became present, and allowed it. I remembered who I was, and I softened my heart. I wanted so much for this to be about him. I realized, in that moment, it had nothing to do with him. This was about me—about my values and boundaries.
When you are triggered, what do you do? Often the initial impulse is fight, flight or freeze, that urge to run, counter attack or become incapacitated. Your first impulse is just a habit, a conditioned response.
Leadership mastery is being able to recognize when we are triggered and learn to sit in the energy , to refrain rather than surrender to habit. Learn to hang out in the restless energy long enough to gain perspective, clarity and to take clear, kind and fearless action forward.
As leaders, we face moments that call us to act from the parts of ourselves we have not yet occupied; those moments define us. I was facing a choice: I could make him the villain and me the victim; I could play along and flirt my way far enough to get what I wanted, or I could live my values and be clear about my boundaries, fully aware that I risked losing this opportunity. It hit me how difficult and disturbing living up to my values could be. I reminded myself the centre of all power is located in the awareness of why we make the choices we make, not so much in the choices themselves.
Living your values can push against comfort zones, loyalties, habits, beliefs and bank accounts. As disturbing as this can be, values pull us to hold ourselves accountable to the best possible version of ourselves.
I have spent years discovering who I am and knowing with certainty that while I do care about what others think of me, I care more about what I think of me. At the end of the day, I must face myself, a far worse critic than anyone has ever been.
Pure, empowered choice comes only when you consider all options, even if those options play out in the imagination. I realized I was confronting a conflict of values, nothing more. I could make him the enemy, but then I would deny what I know to be true: We can always find connection when we look to values we hold in common.
Values connect us, beliefs can divide us.
At every decision point, we face a choice to limit ourselves with the habit of beliefs or let our values pull us forward. It’s not easy to live up to a value when so much seems to be at stake.
“You stand alone on your one square foot of earth—nobody else can. The implication of this can be as profound as standing up for your deepest values or can be as simple as having the courage to say you are cold when everybody else appears comfortable.” Ron Short
No One is One Thing
Our values create boundaries—demarcating lines we will not cross. Our ability to articulate our values to ourselves and to others naturally results in clear boundaries.
If, in my own situation, I could not find a way to see our connection, then how could I affect leadership on a global scale? How could I execute my vision if I could not navigate this situation?My ability to recognize my own process gave me clarity on who I am and who I want to be, both in this situation and in the future. My choices are empowered. My boundaries are clear. My actions are sourced from my values.
My reflection enhanced my ability to see him beyond the part that had triggered me; my world expanded, as did the realm of possibility. He was not the villain. I was not a victim. It was simple yet complex.
I chose to express what was true for me. I was nervous, clear and willing to walk away. With clear boundaries set and collaboration as my guiding intention.
Today, that project is no longer a possibility. However, my vision to co-create leadership programs on a global scale is very much alive and possible.
This experience has been liberating and has led me to further examine my own leadership. I could file the scenario as unique and completed; however, I know too much about myself to allow this to pass by without deeper reflection.
The difficult side of leadership is owning those parts of ourselves that are less than fabulous. I speak of those facets that, were they to be revealed, may risk our positions and reputations. No one is one thing. I am not, he is not, and you are not. These are the places I go, in my own mind, and ask myself this difficult question, “Where else does this show up in my life?” How willing are you to look at the times you put yourself last? It is a difficult query. Our values can serve as touch points, a baseline measurement for when we leave pieces of ourselves behind or cause others to do the same.
Leading from values extends beyond the workplace and into our personal lives. Our values help us define our boundaries. Life taught me this.
Not so long ago, my middle son began to experiment with drugs. He started smoking pot and, as so often happens, that soon turned into using harder drugs. As you can well imagine, this contributed to a great deal of conflict in my home. Creating a stable home environment for my youngest, safety became my highest value. There came a time that the conflict escalated to such a degree I could no longer have him in my home. I arranged for him to live with his brother and sister-in-law in another Province. I packed his stuff and moved him without telling anyone. This caused tremendous conflict between me and my ex-husband. We both saw the situation very differently. Although I received a lot of criticism and judgment from people who only saw part of the picture, I knew I was doing the right thing for his safety and to create more calm in my home for my daughter. I spent nearly two years in the court system, enduring multiple hearings, preparing multiple affidavits, all emotionally draining and time consuming, to ensure he could stay where I located him and secure the financial support he needed to get well.
I was driven by my commitment to my values of family and safety. There was a time when my son was not allowed in my home. Previous visits resulted in him connecting with old friends and old habits soon followed. I was not willing to have this in my home with my daughter, who was then 12 years old. Although it was difficult to enforce this boundary, I knew it was the right thing to do. It was hard because he was hurt and angry, but I was not willing to allow repeated behaviour.I never wavered.
I am grateful to say he is now happy, healthy, has a full- time job and is welcome to visit my home anytime. He also knows I will not compromise my boundaries, should he relapse into past behaviour. I am proud of him. When we are clear on our values, even in challenging times, they help us through the most difficult circumstances. Have I been in situations in which I compromised my values? Yes, most certainly—sometimes without awareness and other times by choice.
The centre of your power is located in the awareness of why you make the choices you do, not so much in the choices themselves.
Ask yourself, “Where else does this show up in my life and leadership?”
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