What one says and does not say: vulnerability, leadership, and professional trajectories

I don’t say this lightly: participating in ITLP has been transformative for me. I’ve learned a lot through the readings, workshops, and applied learning aspects, but honestly, the most valuable aspects have been individual development and participation in a leadership community. I’m not entirely sure why these two things go hand in hand for me, but I believe that it has something to do with the support I’ve felt from all of everyone, both the instructors and cohort participants, throughout the program. Everyone has been incredibly generous with their time and willingness to listen, be present, and reflect back to one another what they’re hearing. Unsurprisingly, coaching is where this most of this has occurred, too, but I’ve noticed this happen in other spaces, including socially. To that end, I’d like to offer my gratitude to everyone involved with my cohort - you’ve really helped me get the most that I can out of the program.

Since before the second ITLP workshop in March, the last several months have been a challenge for me professionally. I have become increasingly uncertain about the direction of my career - I don’t always feel confident about my trajectory or what I should be planning for, and I get to questioning a lot of what I know or I’ve become comfortable. In part, I can directly ascribe this to my participation in ITLP, and in some ways, it’s a good thing to be pushed out of my comfort zone. I absolutely should be thinking this deeply about where I’ve been and where I want to be going. At the same time, it feels like many things have shifted and I’m feeling more unsettled than normal, lacking motivation towards accomplishing things at work, and needing positive energy in a time when I really need it to be successful as a leader in the context of my organization. I also realize that at the same time I’ve been experiencing a slow uptick in depression, which amplifies and distorts this further. This also ties into an seemingly ever-expanding skepticism about some of the big picture ideas or nominally agreed upon set of higher purposes that are emphasized in libraries, which Fobazi Ettarh has identified as vocational awe. What started as a potentially healthy exploration of what I want to be doing has turned into something much more uncomfortable, and it has been incredibly unpleasant.

One of the things that ITLP has emphasized for me is that I should be looking for patterns in my behavior and reactions, interrupt them when they are negative, and reinforce them when they’re positive. In this case I knew some of my own past behavior that I tried to interrupt or discourage earlier, like applying for lots and lots of positions as a way to make an undirected and imprecise change. Being in ITLP has helped me realize I need to be a bit more intentional about what I’m looking for and where I’m looking to go, so this helped me slow myself down. I also realized that when I’m feeling this way, and especially when I’m depressed, I tend to isolate myself a bit more. This is a common occurrence for people with depression, but even knowing that it was hard to interrupt this. Being together in the workshops has helped, which underscores the importance of building relationships. Just the same, it also reinforced the need to sustain relationships through continued investment in them, both in terms of the ITLP cohort, as well as my friends and close colleagues who know both me and my career better than I know myself. As my friend Eira Tansey recently wrote regarding surviving current political landscape:

The most important thing you can do right now in this absolutely terrifying hellscape is to build a community of people, preferably in either close proximity or frequent contact, who care for you, and both hold and inspire you to the standards of bravery and accountability you aspire to. This is the foundation for surviving the foreseeable future.

So, with that in mind, I have really doubled down on having to both lean on and invest in my friends and colleagues. It hasn’t been enough to connect in spaces like ITLP workshops and at conferences, which means the onus has been on me to make space actively for additional conversations. All said, it’s sometimes a struggle, but this focus has also helped me choose the important over the immediate.

Finally, through all of this I’ve come to the realization that one of the things that can be the most challenging about dealing with kind of self-examination and questioning one’s own professional compass is how to articulate this to others. In my experience, there are very few ways to do so which are professionally acceptable. The seemingly professionally acceptable thing is to be silent; as leaders, we know we should be mindful of our presence. When we’re expected to bring our whole selves to work, being this open feels like a risk. Acknowledging this kind of doubt, indirection, or what have you in itself is vulnerable, and I was certainly less inclined to be open about it to others — even those closest to me — since I was worried that it would impact my credibility or authority. It’s also clear that something was in fact amiss - that my colleagues knew or saw something even though I had chosen to say nothing. As I’ve been able to open up about this more, I’ve realized that being this vulnerable is part of acknowledging my humanity as a leader. It’s still a scary subject because I am still afraid this openness might be used against me, or that it will somehow be a barrier to success. Nonetheless, my willingness to be more authentic about this has allowed me to connect with others even more closely now that I understand how common this feeling actually is.