Empathy & Leadership

A couple of years ago I completed a qualification in leadership and management as part of my continuing professional development. I loved the course, met some brilliant people and learnt a lot. At the time, I was not in a position of leadership but was hoping that I might get the chance to move in that direction. I had previously held leadership positions but I’d always sort of fallen into them and always felt a little fraudulent having that kind of responsibility. I was always convinced there must be someone better qualified, more experienced or just indefinably ‘better’ in some way.

I’ve never been a front and centre kind of leader. Leading from the front, quite frankly, terrifies me. I always feel more comfortable with what I have heard referred to as servant leadership. Leading from within. I find it an interesting and beautiful concept: that you don’t have to hold a formal position of leadership in order to be a leader. In fact, many of the best leaders I have known have been people who have guided and motivated the people around them, not from a position of authority but from a place of partnership. Don’t get me wrong, that authority is important. Formal leadership roles are necessary and useful. But anybody can be a leader and you don’t have to get that promotion to do it. Lead by example. Embody what you want to see achieved. Lead through supportiveness. Encourage those around you to pursue excellence. Lead through openness. Embrace opportunities and open them up to others. Leading in this way is hugely rewarding and, if you want to step into more formal positions of leadership, can help you demonstrate your leadership potential and develop and exercise some of the skills that help to make a great, authoritative leader.

In my own leadership journey, I not only came to understand and embrace this notion of leadership from within but I also came to recognise how easily we become critical of our leaders. Of course, it is important to have leaders we feel we can trust, who we feel will deliver on promises or who will simply respond in the way we feel is most effective. But that’s just the thing, isn’t it: the way WE feel is most effective is not always the way everybody or even anybody else will think is most effective. And we are so quick to jump in with criticisms when our leaders don’t do things the way we would have. We so easily forget that we usually don’t have all the relevant information. We so readily pass the blame when things go wrong. We so quickly forget that they too are human, and will inevitably make mistakes.

Please don’t misunderstand me, I am not for a moment saying that leaders should not be held to account: of course they should. But I can’t help but feel we could do it with a little more empathy. Rather than allowing our frustrations and judgements to bubble over into something vitriolic, we could take a moment to step back and acknowledge the complex and delicate balancing acts involved in leading. The many stakeholders there are to please or appease. The many, varied and sometimes unfathomable implications of the decisions leaders have to make. The unavoidable truth that in leadership there is always going to be someone who is unhappy with the decision or outcome.

We don’t have to like every (or any!) decision made by people we encounter in leadership.

We don’t have to nod along and sit placidly by if we disagree.

But we also don’t have to lambast them. We don’t have to forget that they are human too. We don’t have to lose our empathy.

This, of course, can be easier said than done. When we consider that a leader can be anyone from the person who organises the cake rota at the local community centre to a world leader with responsibility for armed forces, it’s understandable that we might be inclined to treat some with more empathy and respect than others. I can certainly think of one or two leaders who, if I were to meet them in person, I would struggle not to launch into an angry, profanity laced tirade about their ineptitude or lack of compassion. But then, if I am going see myself as a leader – whatever my position – if I am going to lead by example, through supportiveness and openness, would that angry tirade be the example I want to lead by? And furthermore, if people were to fundamentally disagree with my leadership decisions – as will undoubtedly happen – would I want them to address this through an angry, profanity laced tirade? No. Of course not. It is unproductive and only further removes empathy and humanity from a situation potentially already lacking compassion.

Disagreement is good: it allows a situation to be considered from different angles.

Challenging and criticising leadership where we see problems is good: it keeps leaders accountable and checks abuse of power.

But disagreement, challenge and criticism need empathy to be truly effective. And if we respond to leaders with empathy maybe we’ll see more leaders respond – and lead – in kind.

I wrote this poem some time ago when I was first beginning to think about
what it meant to be a leader. I was reflecting on the many meetings I had
sat through, listening to muttered grumbles - mine and others' - and 
perhaps been unjustly judgmental of whichever leader happened to be in
front of me because I was bored or tired or frustrated or just disagreed
with them.

In writing this, I was trying to explore both sides of the story: the 
leader and the led. The experiences described at the beginning of the 
poem could easily belong to either.

It's raw and unedited but it seemed apt for this post:

I am surrounded by a sussuration of sighs
And whispered words
As the seconds vibrate onwards:
The restless, dragging minutes
Wringing out the deepest aches of my mind
And squeezing front and centre
Until that dull pounding pain
Pushes all else aside.
Information overload.
Too much of this,
Not enough of that.
Common sense and communication
Out the broken window,
Which we asked to be fixed months ago.
Hit the ground running,
We're already collapsing,
So quick to judge and
Not always eager to please.
It's easy to point
And roll your eyes
And mock and moan and mumble
Curses under your breath,
To pontificate on "it would be better if"
Or "why didn't they think of..." that
Or "same old sodding story"
When you're not the one
Standing up there
Alone
Trying to convince the reluctant crowds to follow.


A Moment In Time

I have done a few of these ‘Moment in Time’ posts now and I always really enjoy them. It’s a lovely way to pause, take a step back from the chaos of everyday life, reflect on what’s going on, exercise some gratitude and think forward. I invite (and encourage) you to create your own moment in time post. If you do, please leave a link in the comments – I’d love to see what your moment in time looks like.

Outside my window… it is dark and there is a chill in the air. January’s lethargy settles over everything as the world (and I) tries to stay awake.

I am thinking… about the future and how to build the one I want. I can see where I am aiming now but how I get from A to B is foggy.

I am thankful… to have some of our evenings and weekends back, now the work has finished on the house, to just spend some quiet time together.

In the kitchen… it is calm and clean and finally a space to enjoy being in. And my lovely husband is preparing this evening’s meal.

I am wearing… leggings and leotard under a longline cardigan and cosy socks, as I take a break between dance classes.

I am creating… draft two of my first novel (!), a blog post, a collection of poetry and short stories, bookstagram content, some snippets of creative writing and dances for our upcoming show.

I am going… to start taking vitamins to try and ward off the colds and various ailments I keep seeming to attract!

I am wondering… how to effectively build mindfulness into my day in a way that I will consistently stick to. I feel like mindfulness practice is something that I could benefit from hugely but I really seem to struggle to stick to any form of daily mindful practice.

I am reading… Muse Of Nightmares, Hollow City, The Wisdom Of Sally Red Shoes, Thinking Reading.

I am praying for… health, wellbeing and family.

I am hoping… for the courage, commitment and confidence I know it’s going to take to pursue my dreams.

I am looking forward to… the weekend.

I am learning… about effective copywriting and the processes through which we learn to read and acquire vocabulary.

Around the house… it is pleasantly orderly. We’re slowly clearing out the bits and pieces we no longer want around the house (watching Marie Kondo is having and effect on us…) and we’re enjoying taking pleasure in our home after a few months of madness.

I am pondering… the next steps in my career.

A favourite quote for today…

A life’s made of hope like a house is of bricks.
Matt Haig – The Truth Pixie

One of my favourite things… is to have a period of time when there is nothing I need to do. Time I can fill with reading or writing or watching something or listening to music or just simply taking time to be.

A few plans for the rest of the week:

Start editing the novel

Draft some blog posts

Have dinner with my dad

Submit expression of interest and example work for a freelance opportunity

A peek into my day…

A brief pause between dance classes:

A Life’s Made Of Hope…

“Yes, the night has dark bits, but it has stars too,

And you’ll feel when they shine,

That they shine just for you,

You will step outside and see from the park,

That the light is brighter when it’s next to the dark.

You will have so many great times ahead,

And soft happy dreams from inside your bed,

The future is changing, a life is a mix,

A life’s made of hope like a house is of bricks,

And tonight, right now, you feel very sad,

But the rest of your life won’t be so bad.”

Some days are just hard, aren’t they? But it’s so important not to lose sight of the good, not to forget to hope. I am taking hope and comfort from the lovely and wise words of The Truth Pixie today and, as ever, I am so grateful to people like Matt Haig who not only share and speak openly about their own difficult days, but also create wonderful things like The Truth Pixie which provide gentle reminders of the light in the dark. With illustrations. And talking rabbits.

It is a beautiful story of feeling out of place and learning to accept and love yourself. Of losing hope and then finding it again. Of isolation and friendship. And of truth. Truth when it’s uncomfortable. Truth when it’s uplifting. Truth as the cornerstone of authenticity.

It’s a five star read and if you haven’t read it yet I highly recommend you do. And then lend it to your friends, your family, the stranger on the train. Spread the pixie love and don’t forget to hope. After all, “A life’s made of hope like a house is of bricks”.

What’s your go-to uplifting read?

J x

NaNoWriMo Check In – Days 3 & 4

Day 3 of #NaNoWriMo and #wrimohero’s prompt was #calltoadventure – how do you generate ideas? I get a lot of my ideas from the environment around me. Places, found objects, the weather – my imagination spots the most random and insignificant things as I’m going about my day and runs riot with them! I collect these scraps of ideas, along with words, quotes, and anything else that takes my fancy, in my commonplace book. When the ideas are ready to become part of my story, they worm their way back out of the pages and into my writing.

Day 4 of NaNoWriMo is behind us and the prompt for #wrimohero was NaNoCheckIn – 6,668 words? The answer is yes! And more! I’ve had the best start to my first ever NaNo and have managed to bash out over 11,000 words so far! I’m glad to be getting ahead of the word count goal because, by all accounts, things get tough in weeks 2 and 3! So far, though, I am truly enjoying getting this story out onto the page. I was worried that I didn’t know where it was going to go but really, the story is writing itself, I’m just tapping the keys. I’m super excited to see where it goes.

Fellow NaNo-ers, how’s it going?

Taking The Plunge

I wasn’t going to do this. I really wasn’t going to do this. Why would I? November is ALWAYS one of the busiest months in my year. Extra intervention programmes to run at work means increased workload and longer working hours. My birthday (Yay!) means fun outings with friends and family. Drawing closer to the big C the following month means there’s shopping to be done and family to be visited. It’s entering theatre season for us which means we have tickets booked for multiple shows. And on top of all that, this year we’re still at the tail end of our DIY/home renovation adventures, which we want to have finished before Christmas. Plus, we now have a dog who needs walking and playing with, and even if she didn’t NEED those things I’d do them anyway because she’s far too cute to ignore.

So why, oh, why, I hear myself ask, have I decided to sign up for NaNoWriMo? Why have I decided to take on the, already ridiculous, challenge of writing 50,000 words in 30 days, when I’m clearly too busy to do so? I can feel me giving myself accusatory glances and hear my brain muttering things like “always taking on too much!”…well maybe it will be too much, maybe I won’t manage it, but do you know what I realised? I am always going to be too busy to write a book. There will always be other priorities. I will always be busy with work and swamped with housework. But if writing a book is something I truly want to do (and it is) then one day I’m just going to have to sit down and make time to write the damn thing. And why shouldn’t ‘one day’ be now?

There is no reason why it shouldn’t be now. No real reason anyway. No reason that won’t still exist next month or next year or in a decade.

So, lovely readers, here I go. Plunging in at the deep end. I have set myself the traditional NaNoWriMo target of 50,000 words in 30 days. I’m going to do my damnedest to hit that goal. If I do, brilliant! If I don’t, I won’t beat myself up about it and will try again. And hopefully, in the meantime, I’ll have written more than I would have done normally.

I won’t be writing anything for the blog, aside from, potentially, the odd NaNo update to chronicle my progress (or lament my lack there-of…). I will be putting any writing energy I manage to muster into this mysterious and as yet unknown story.

Wish me luck! See you on the other side…

If you’re a NaNo-er and want to add me as a writing buddy, you can find me under the username Bookwormdancer.

Autumn Mornings

Last September we got a puppy. She turned our lives upside down (mostly for the better – who can resist a happy puppy face in the morning and when you get home from work?) but probably the biggest change she made is that I now actually HAVE to get up when my alarm goes off in the morning. No more snoozing. No more lying awake but savouring the warmth of my duvet. I am not a morning person but I have actually found that, once I’m up and out, I genuinely enjoy my morning walks with the pup. Hubby and I alternate the morning walk so we both get alternate days where we can be a tad more lazy/slow to wake up. But on my walking days, even when it’s raining, it’s nice to start the day with some fresh air. I can listen to my audiobook or some season or mood appropriate music to set me up for the day. Sometimes I blog as I walk (like I am now) with breaks, of course, to throw a stick or chase my playful not-quite-a-pup-anymore, or just to watch her revel in the general joy of being a dog off the lead. It’s lovely.

But…

Now we are getting into autumn proper and winter is creeping it’s way toward the northern hemisphere, our morning walks are happening in the pitch black. I’m not so much watching the pup playing as I I am watching a disembodied LED collar trace circles round the park. Now, don’t get me wrong, I LOVE this time of year – the boots! The scarves! The autumnal food and music! It’s my favourite. And I still enjoy stepping out into the crisp morning air. But, this morning, as I walked, I couldn’t help but pen a realistic portrait of how I felt…

Ode to Another Week

Monday yawns and

Lifts a lazy head.

Time for coffee…

Or five more in bed?

Tuesday insists that

It’s Thursday already –

I’m work worn and

Emails just might overwhelm me.

Wednesday declares that

The worst is behind us

But lengthening to-do lists

Push next order of business.

Thursday is buzzing –

The weekend’s in sight –

But then, deadline looming,

Works late through the night.

Friday arrives with

Dishevelled relief.

Just sod the unfinished

Let’s dance! (Or let’s sleep…)

Saturday stretches

With languorous delight

And hours to fill

However they like.

Sunday awakes,

Good intentions so steady.

With a smile and frown

Sighs ‘Nearly Monday, already.’

A Pause, A Ponder And Some Poetry

After a brief, unintentional hiatus, I’m back and trying to figure out how on Earth to balance a busy day job and a more-hectic-than-usual home life with the writing life I crave. During the summer lull, I had managed to start to create time during my days to write or at least play with ideas for writing. I had been posting regularly on the blog and creating regular content for my bookstagram account, both of which grew in followers and engagement. I was loving having the time to enjoy my creative life. And then the new term started. I was utterly snowed under within a matter of days and, even on the evenings when I wasn’t having to bring work home with me, I was so shattered and anxious from the accumulated stress of the work day and then the waiting housework that I had no energy for writing or taking photos, even when I could have found the time. So all of my creative pursuits fell by the wayside. My journal pages stayed empty. My notebook gathered dust. My latest blog post aged slowly in its corner of the internet. My bookstagram started to stagnate. And I felt guiltier and guiltier for not managing to summon the energy for these creative pursuits; for not managing to do it all.

I’ve still not managed to pull myself out of that particular guilt rut and I’m starting to realise it maybe runs a bit deeper than I’d thought.

It’s frustrating to feel I’ve lost the momentum that I had started to build – it all feels a bit ‘one step forwards and two steps back’. But I can’t deny that my brain – which is doing all sorts of unpleasant things right now – needed a break. Juggling all the many aspects of life (wonderful though most of them are) is exhausting sometimes. Occasionally, some balls are going to slip and fall. Sometimes it will take a while to recover them. And most of the time I know that’s ok.

I did manage a little flurry of bookstagram posts last week which I actually wanted to share here as well.

Last Thursday was National Poetry Day and, as I’m a huge poetry lover, I wanted to take the chance to share some of my favourite poets/poetry collections. So following my pause and my ponder, I present you with some poetry recommendations:

First up is the fabulous Nikita Gill whose poetry is a poignant reminder that though we may be inconsequential in the grand scheme of the universe we are each as miraculous as the stars. Beautiful, lyrical, empowering poetry.

Next up is Nocturnal by the oh so talented Wilder – I absolutely ADORE this collection. Not only is the poetry thought provoking, moving and beautifully written, but the book is exquisitely designed with accompanying illustrations by the author. I devoured this when I first got it and turned back to the first page for a reread as soon as I’d finished. Simply gorgeous.

Another favourite poetry collection of mine is Chasers Of The Light by Tyler Knott Gregson – simple and elegant, these appealingly presented typewriter poems show the power of poetry to capture poignancy in the smallest moments.

I fell in love with Amanda Lovelace’s poetry with her first collection – the princess saves herself in this one – but for me, her second collection – the witch doesn’t burn in this one – is something truly remarkable. Raw and empowering, Lovelace uses not just the words but the form of her poems to raise a call to arms at the same time as inviting you into the embrace of the sisterhood. This collection raised the hairs on my arms with its power and the connection it offers.

Last but certainly not least in my poetry favourites is this exquisite book from Robert MacFarlane and Jackie Morris – the illustrations are absolutely stunning, seeming to live right off the page, and combined with the wonderful collection of acrostic poetry celebrating the natural world bring back all the wonders of a childhood spent in the garden and exploring the woods. Filled with nostalgia, hope and marvel this collection is the antidote to our hectic digital lives. You’ll want to wander in the great outdoors from the first page.

Do you have a favourite poem, poet or collection of poetry? If so, I’d love to hear about it in the comments as I’m always on the look out for new poetry to enjoy.

The Sacred Everyday

Some time ago, I discovered the Harry Potter And The Sacred Text podcast. This was a wonderful discovery. HP and the Sacred Text takes one of my (and the world’s) most beloved series of books, and engaged with them in a thoughtful and inquisitive way, exploring the lessons and ideas the story has to offer us and providing tools for treating any text – and I would argue any part of life – as sacred.

Here’s how the founders and hosts, Vanessa and Casper, explain what they are trying to do with the podcast:

This podcast creates time in your week to think about life’s big questions. Because reading fiction doesn’t help us escape the world, it helps us live in it.

On this podcast, we ask: What if we read the books we love as if they were sacred texts? 

Each week, we explore a central theme through which to explore the characters and context, always grounding ourselves in the text. We’ll engage in traditional forms of sacred reading to unearth the hidden gifts within even the most mundane sentences.

Vanessa and Casper are so thoughtful and engaging in their exploration of Harry Potter and I have taken great joy and great comfort in approaching these much loved books in a new way.

I am also intrigued by the idea of viewing those things that might be considered ‘everyday’ as sacred, especially in light of my recent musings on my experience of religion and the church. When I was actively involved in the Christian church, one of the things I loved most about it was the chance to take a more considered approach to reading a text. I enjoyed the opportunity to explore deeper meanings and ideas and desperately wanted the change to question those ideas. The sacred practices shared on Harry Potter and the Sacred Text allow me to do just that.

On a recent episode, Vanessa beautifully broke down the elements they believe are necessary for applying this kind of sacred practice to wider contexts – not just the reading of any text but to things like writing or running – and I loved the simple clarity of it so much that I wanted to share it with you today.

  1. Faith – you must have faith that the more you do or engage with something the more gifts you will receive from it. If I persistently dedicate time to reading, writing, running, cooking or any other thing, then those things will reward me more and more.
  2. Rigour – the time you give to these things will be more rewarding still if you approach them with rigour. By ritualising the processes you use, the time you spend will be more focused and valuable. If I want to approach the reading of a text in a rigorous way, I can take notes and I can research or discuss the ideas that arise. If I want to approach my writing in a rigorous and sacred way, I can switch off my phone and focus my attention, I can carry out a mindfulness meditation before I begin.
  3. Community – find others to share the process with. By engaging in these practices alongside like-minded individuals – or even very un-like-minded individuals – you open up more opportunities for questioning, exploring and sharing ideas. If I share ideas about a text with people in my community, their ideas further enrich my own and open my mind to new perspectives. If I share my writing with other writers and readers, I will better understand the impact of my words and will be able to share the struggles and triumphs of the process.
  • I love the possibility that anything in life can be treated as sacred if we only give it the right attention and approach it with intention to do so. This is something I hope to explore and experiment with, especially with regards to writing.
  • I’d love to hear if you decide to give it a go (or decide to listen to the podcast!) too.
  • In This Moment

    Outside my window… the sky stretches wide and blue overhead, streaked with wisps of white. The air is warm and still. The street is quiet. A summer weekday morning lull has settled over the neighbourhood. There is a white butterfly flutter past, stark against the red brick of the house across the road.

    I am thinking… that I should probably get on with the work I have to do but I’m enjoying taking a moment to relax so I’m going to ignore that nagging should, just for a little while.

    I am thankful… for the school holidays and the opportunities they give me. For the incredible friends and family I have around me. For the opportunities that are presenting themselves and the support from those around me to take them.

    In the kitchen… there is currently complete chaos as the whole room is about to be ripped out and rebuilt! That’s the work I should be doing…finishing packing it up…just a little bit more lazy time first.

    I am wearing… black treggings and a rust t-shirt – comfy clothes for a mooching round the house kind of day.

    I am creating… a novel, a blog series, a collection of poetry and short stories, bookstagram content – so much of my creating these days is in writing form. It feels new and exciting and I love it.

    I am going… to get around to packing up the kitchen…really soon…honest…

    I am wondering… if I can squeeze a nap in somewhere today.

    I am reading… Notes On A Nervous Planet, The Summer That Melted Everything, A Wrinkle In Time, Harry Potter And The Half Blood Prince…this list goes on and on.

    I am praying for… for calm.

    I am hoping… for a smooth kitchen installation over the next couple of weeks.

    I am looking forward to… a trip to Gladstone’s library with my mum in a few weeks time.

    I am learning… that sometimes we have to accept uncomfortable truths and unpleasant feelings in order to deal with them and move on.

    Around the house… it’s all very chaotic! The kitchen is in disarray, the dining room is piled high with boxes containing the new kitchen, the lounge currently has old furniture we’re getting rid of waiting to be collected later today, the main bathroom is tile-less and covered in plaster dust ready for its own makeover…I’m trying to focus on how fabulous it will all be when the work is done.

    I am pondering… the direction I want to take.

    A favourite quote for today… (I’m cheating and using a whole poem…)

    One of my favourite things… is curling up under a blanket with a good book or a good film and forgetting the world for a bit.

    A few plans for the rest of the week:

    Finish packing up the kitchen.

    Take some photos for bookstagram.

    Watch some TV.

    Read some books.

    Nap.

    A peek into my day…