As an emerging leader in my late 20s and early 30s, I was desperate for a chance to be heard. I sought out opportunities to get involved with organizations and groups that would both connect me to other people in the field and allow me chances to organize, empower, and lead others. I had ideas. I wanted to share them. And I wanted to learn in the process.
As the sun set on my emerging leader status—though I’m not sure exactly when that started happening, just when it was over—I had a pretty stark shift in my attitude about leadership. I found I wasn’t hungry for it anymore—not in the same way, at least.
As a mid-career leader, I’ve found people ask me now to lead things more than ever. The younger-me would have been over the moon about this development (if not a little impatient for it to arrive). But current-me isn’t always so thrilled. Partly this is because I know how complex effective leadership is, how much of yourself you must give to it, how emotionally taxing it can be, and simply how much time it can take up. And partly this is because I recognize, to some extent, how much of a privilege it is not only to be able to lead, but to be invited to lead.
Though I put in a great deal of effort during my early years in the field to learn leadership, develop my skills, and develop a framework and methodology for thinking about leadership, I’ve learned, too, that being white and male in this era, in this field, and in the places I’ve worked helped me more quickly claim leadership roles. This is a system I didn’t ask to be part of, but one that has served me and my queerness in ways it hasn’t served others.
I have a lot of questions now when people ask me to lead something. Sometimes I turn down the opportunity and recommend strong emerging leaders I know, particularly women and people of color. Other times I want to know who is in the group. Is my leadership really the best choice for these folks? Sometimes I’m a good choice. Almost always, there’s another choice, if not an outright better choice.
When leaders become visible and accessible, people reach for their participation again and again, often to the detriment of people who are clamoring for opportunity. I know this because I once was him. Now that I’m a mid-career leader who can use my position to share opportunity with others, I look for those people. I keep them in my network. I look out for them. I pass their names on when people ask me for my participation or my recommendation. I keep in mind what they’re seeking and when I find it, I share it.
I also understand better now why people, when I ask them to volunteer, participate, or consult on a project with me, sometimes suggest others to take their place. They are holding doors open for the people in their networks, the people they want to support. I take these suggestions with gratitude, as each one is a chance for me to expand my own network of emerging leaders, to encounter new perspectives and ideas, and to become, I hope, a better leader myself through working with them.
There is no greater joy in my current leadership practice than facilitating the opportunity for others to lead.
There is a great deal of privilege that comes with mid-career leadership. I got here because others were invested in my success, and they invested in me.
It is not up to me to decide when someone is ready to lead. It is up to them. But in the meantime, it can be my job, too, to keep doors open, to let people know they are welcome to pass through, that they, too, have what it takes to lead. That the future includes them.