Quietly Leading to Win

The May edition of Fortune magazine featured an article titled, “How Introverts Can Be Leaders”. Showcased in the story is former Campbell Soup CEO Doug Conant, who describes himself as a “born introvert”. I related to Doug’s experience when he told the story of the time he was offered the job of President of Sales for his company. His response to the CEO : “You’ve got to be kidding. I’m an introvert and I don’t play golf.”

In the end, Doug took the job, “his most challenging ever”, and got it done. He goes on to explain that although he isn’t the archetypal charismatic leader, his work ethic and directness won him the trust of his team and his leadership style got results. He would go on to even greater success, underscoring the point that one must never discount the power of a quiet leader.

I’m hoping this is true because I’m a quiet leader with a new responsibility much like Doug’s sales job: way outside of the comfort zone. On July 1, I am going to be the Chair of the Board of Directors for Leadership Augusta. Now that the start date is approaching, it feels like a recipe for an anxiety attack. Although there are no sweaty palms, I definitely have some heart palpitations and heaviness, similar to what one might feel after consuming a 6-pack of Mountain Dew and a bag of gummy worms. This year will definitely be a test of the quiet leader.

I know you think I should be a pro at managing these symptoms by now, and I truly should be. After the pressure of being a Dancing Star and a bride last year, surely this new role will be a breeze.  There is no reason to panic; it’s just a few board meetings and pep talks. So what’s the big deal? Why the extreme physical distress? I will tell you the big deal in one big word: expectations.

I can tell myself that the Board Chair position is just a few meetings and speeches, but I know in my heart that I expect much more of myself. This exceeds the stress of the Dancing Stars adventure because my goal this time is diffferent. Facing a crowded Bell Auditorium to perform the Tango, I aspired to make my instructor and supporters proud, and to avoid any serious mortification and/or injury. A couple of times the possibility of winning would pop into my head, and I would say, no, that’s the not the objective here. I was seeking survival over success. Survival was my success. I wanted to have a good experience, make new friends, learn something about dance and about myself. From these measures, the endeavor went beyond my expectations: it was an amazing experience and I am thrilled with how the final performance turned out. I tied for second place and doubled my fundraising goal. I didn’t win, but I was happy.

Some people who were there that night tell me I should have won. But they don’t know the truth. They don’t know that I played it safe. I didn’t do the tricky kicks  in the promenade around the dance floor, knowing that statistically the odds were stacked against me. The kicks would have given a tremendous ‘wow factor’ if I pulled them off, but the slightest hesitation or mis-step would cause a catastrophic tumble. I knew If I did the dance without the kicks, the audience wouldn’t know the difference. I could save face, turn in a decent performance, and live with my decision. I was not willing to take the risk, so I did not deserve the win. I can live with that.

This time, though, the stakes are higher. I don’t want to turn in a safe performance. I don’t want to just preside over some meetings and make a few speeches. My predecessors didn’t settle for that, and I don’t intend to, either. I want my year of leadership in this organization to be a year of progress. I want to leave my mark on the history of this impressive group. This isn’t just survival without mortification. This time I want to win.

In planning for my win, I have been conducting alumni interviews to determine what my best strategy might be. It has been a powerful and informative process, guiding me down a path that feels as right as that kick should have felt. I can imagine having a year of increased engagement, improved processes, fiscal responsibility and memorable experiences. The team is falling into place, the playbook is being finalized and the interviews are wrapping up.

So why the anxiety? Because it means so much. This organization has been important to me since I graduated in 1999. I have served on the Board for almost 10 years. I have been preparing for this role before I even knew I wanted it. And now it is time for the green flag. This is my one chance, my one race. I want to make it count. I’m willing to take the risks.

In one of my interviews, an alumni underscored this sentiment when she said, “Every day we must prepare for our finest hour, because we don’t know when it will be. Sometime during this year you could have your finest hour. Be ready.” I intend to be ready, but not because it could be my finest hour. I intend to be ready because that is the kind of year my team deserves and I deserve. A leader sets the bar for excellence, and it will not be said that I did not aspire to win, even if it is quietly.

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