The challenge of leading in the arena

Leading from the arena

At the outset of the year, I reflected on my new role and recent roles I’ve held. I considered the three-year arc, and one thing I realized with the help of my mentor (and manager) is that I made a big move out of advising and into the arena.

Advising offers comfort and certainty

I was very comfortable in an advisory role – I spent two years as a Chief of Staff understanding, empathizing and making suggestions for how things could be better. I built excitement about culture and trying new things as a leadership team. Excitement that didn’t always translate into action and I never quite understood why.

Advising is safe because you can do it with certainty. The thing you sell is an idea, a vision. And ideas and visions (while sometimes misguided) are not wrong in and of themselves. They might be ineffective once people start interacting with them, but they are kind of like babies – inherently good for the time being.

Leadership happens in the arena

Now, as I lead a team of more than fifty people through a period of change and modernization, I get it.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood…who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.

– Theodore Roosevelt

I was reintroduced to this quote during a workshop on Brene Brown’s book Rising Strong. This is the basis for vulnerability. When you are vulnerable you have to show up and actually do. You have to turn those thoughts and ideas into actions. Actions that can have good or bad outcomes. Actions that can be judged by the people around you.

But I get it now, the action is the test of courage, and how leaders are formed. You can’t become a great leader without action.

Action is the true test of leadership      

It is in the acting that we learn about ourselves, as whole persons. Without acting, we can pretend to be the greatest version of ourselves. It is only when we confront and reconcile our actions and beliefs that we truly grow, and can realign our vision of who we are with something a bit closer to reality.

I had been sitting in advising. Sitting there and preaching the power of vulnerability, and story and change.

And now that I’m in the arena, I understand why it is hard.

That said, I am delighted to be here in the arena. To start each day knowing that I might do the wrong thing. I might approach things in a way that isn’t the most productive and that leads my actions astray.

I’m energized because I get to wake up and try. I can get curious, and learn, and be up front about not knowing everything and that is all part of the process. Some days are great, some days less so. The trick is to keep showing up.