Carlos stepped in front of me one day when I walked out onto the playground. Four feet tall with black hair slicked back, he stood his ground. He signaled for me to lean down. He had something important to tell me. Then, as I leaned, he reached up, fixed the knot in my tie and said to me – your pants and your tie – not happening. You’re the boss man. You need to step it up! And don’t worry. I got your back.
Wow. Really? I had been at my new school about a week – a brand new principal. Now this from an eight year-old. I took one look into this kid’s big brown eyes and two things struck me. First, he meant it. Second, he meant well. He had sized me up and stepped in to help.
I checked out this pint-sized fashion plate and he had it together – shine on the shoes, pressed Ben Davis pants, white T-shirt, ironed. Precision and attention to detail. I got his point.
But I also felt as if I stuck out. Following that encounter, I got reminded of one of those “naked” dreams where one steps out on a big stage having left his costume backstage. I went through about sixty minutes feeling watched, hearing (and doubting) my own voice and second guessing even the simplest actions. Why had this stripping down not been included in my college courses? How about managing the feeling of having no place to hide.
I thought the edginess might ease, but instead, the sensation doubled up. I asked questions about my questions. I felt some of raw stuff left over from boyhood coming back– this whole bit about being a leader or a follower – All of this within the first few hours on the job. I made a call to an old-time principal friend. She asked me how I was doing. She listened to my tone and said “hang in there” as she hung up.
Exposure – the imposter feeling – doesn’t kill you. I know that now. Likewise, sitting in a circle, talking about leadership does little to prepare anyone for the body blows that come along with the job. If you do survive the journey from theoretical to factual, you have to come to terms with all of those “imcompletes” – the myths about manhood, the lies, and the battering that comes from perpetual public review.
From above, I hear this: I am capable, I am kind, I am fragile, and I am who I am.
Eloise Brookes, A take-no-prisoners leader who had a formative impact on my early leadership years had long lived in the public eye. She told me that everyone deserves the dignity of privacy. But when you go, then go. Don’t be standing out there, looking all surprised. You’ll just make a fool of yourself.
So, Carlos remains my adviser. I carry his memory in my lapel pocket, I check my ties twice and make sure that my belt and shoes match. And, no matter how much attention I place on the look, I know that there’s no point in holding back. In the end, all that I am is all that I ever had to give. I have to be good with that.