In my early twenties, a friend of a friend needed volunteers to take a personality test for her psychology class. I answered questions sitting on our mutual friend’s couch, and some weeks later the acquaintance handed over her analysis of my answers. The only personality trait I remember was the one I didn’t see within myself: leader.
To me, leaders were the people in charge. The one’s standing at podiums speaking to crowds, making laws and scientific discoveries, shepherding adults and children into unwritten optimistic futures. The leaders-in-making were those in the crowds and in the classrooms.
I worked in a local restaurant and I wasn’t in college. One weekend, I almost ran away from society with the nomads in the Rainbow Family. And, I had spent two weeks in jail (over the course of seven weekends) for a DUI, and reckless driving, that caused a friend’s serious injuries (hence the allure of running away).
I couldn’t have felt further away from “leader” than I did in my early twenties.
During the same time, I devoured any words, whether in book or song, to learn what it meant to live a meaningful life. Ironically, one of my favorite passages in the Stephen Mitchell translation of Lao Tzu’s, Tao Te Ching, was on leadership. I was first attracted to this line: “When the Master governs, the people / are hardly aware that he exists.” What? I could serve and support others without being known or seen? A dream come true!
Today, I’m thinking about leadership as a result of pondering what it means to be a citizen. Peter Block, in his book Community: The Structure of Belonging, says, “A citizen is one who produces the future, someone who does not wait, beg, or dream the future.” This sounds like leadership to me. So, if citizens are leaders themselves, then Lao Tzu’s teaching reaches even broader than I first realized. Citizen-leaders already do the work without being known or seen. They’re deliberate and conscientious down to the smallest scale. Therefore, my decision to face my civic responsibility did exhibit leadership. I didn’t just not run away, I chose to be accountable, and more importantly, to learn from the experience.
All by ourselves
I also chose to work on emotional strength, a piece that is often overlooked in society after the court fines are paid and the community service is complete. Yet, the emotional component is the wound that takes the longest to heal and is largely invisible to bystanders. It’s also invaluable to emotional resilience and personal growth, two strong qualities for a citizen, leader, and citizen-leader.
When I whittled through all the emotions I had in the aftermath of my DUI and my friend’s injuries, at the core was my personal shame. So I faced it. I’m talking, moment-to-moment, year-after-year, worked to rectify my shame until I embraced acceptance. And I did eventually embrace acceptance. A lot of my forthcoming writing addresses my process, including the healing I received from repetitious mundane domestic tasks.
I may never be a leader in the common definition, but I’m not afraid to be seen or known anymore. Facing my shame has everything to do with it. For now, I continue to learn from Lao Tzu and Block: I pursue action; I strive to provide space for others to be their best selves; I lead my life instead of it leading me.
The Master doesn’t talk, he acts.Tao Te Ching
When his work is done,
the people say, “Amazing:
we did it, all by ourselves!”
Quote and photo by author. All rights reserved.