Like many other kids growing up, one of the greatest leaders in my life was my dad. He immigrated to Canada as a newborn with his parents from Germany after the war. They built a home on the prairies where my dad was raised to believe hard work and perseverance would result in success. After an extensive career in human resource management, he started his own leather business; 30 years later it is still thriving today.
My dad always called me his “trailblazer”. It inspired me to believe I could accomplish great things like him one day. Although he showed me an abundance of support, I felt an ongoing pressure to measure up as a daughter. As I got older and I started working for him, the pressure started to affect my attitude in the business and our relationship. I feared taking on additional responsibility and managing the company. I also feared letting him down by not being the leader he needed me to be. I decided to go back to school because I needed more time and experience to find out what the meaning of leadership was for me.
Most leaders are represented by individuals like my dad, who are educated, courageous, and confident. However, not every leader fits the traditional model that most of us identify with. This contributes to the stigma that leaders can only be found if they have the specific traits and skills that reflect a conventional leadership style. My outlook on leadership has shifted by observing the way real leadership derives from a process of discovery, rather than an inherent disposition.
The part that is often overlooked, is just how messy this process can be. We think because the leaders we see now are strong at speaking, motivating, and making decisions, that they have always been this way. What we do not see is the years of setbacks, struggle, rejection, and failures that contributed to their growth and development.
In an interview with Jeremy Loveday, city councilor of Victoria, his thoughts on leadership reflect this nature. “Leadership is a process of becoming,” says Loveday. “It is when you are able to recognize space where you are needed and able to make change and step into that space.”
Asides from his work in politics, Loveday is also a passionate spoken word poet. He speaks out on issues such as gender violence, the environment, and even once used a poem in a debate to pass a motion for a change in the Canadian Constitution.
With all his public speaking engagements, not many people would know that Loveday has always been shy and had a fear of public speaking due to a speech impediment in his youth. “I hadn’t really realized that the speech impediment is not in my story that I tell,” says Loveday. “I recognize that is very formative to the fact that I am now a spoken word artist.”
Author Mark Manson also touches on this idea in his article How to Grow from Pain. He describes that people who experience trauma often find a deep sense of personal strength that helps them establish healthier priorities and consider new possibilities. This process opens a door to personal growth and development by overcoming weaknesses or self-limitations that may not have been recognized before. In this way personal leadership is not defined by our strengths but through our weaknesses.
Many of us who do not feel capable of creating change or influence in the world might also be in the middle of that self-discovery process. We may experience moments of self-doubt, insecurity, and indecision which fog our vision for the future. If we can learn to accept being uncomfortable, identify our challenges, and look for the solutions, we can learn to authentically lead our own lives. By learning to lead ourselves, we have the power to influence others in the same way.
I came across a quote from the ancient philosopher Lao Tzu that embodies this perfectly: “Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.” This mastery starts from within. As the world evolves and deals with more complex times, it will be important for roles of leadership to include people who have faced adversity and built personal resilience through those experiences.
The nickname I used to resist, is the one I have learned to embrace. My relationship with my father has not always been easy, yet it is through that difficulty I have learned the most. I have learned he is not a perfect father or leader, but he tries the best he can with what he knows at the time. His mistakes are the ones I have the privilege to learn and grow from. I have found meaning in the realization that even the best trailblazers do not know the way; they learn by getting lost and finding their way back again.