We Cannot Be the Giving Tree

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I never knew why, but part of me always hated the story The Giving Tree. It’s not that I don’t understand love. I have three wonderful boys and I would do anything for them. And it’s not just that it’s a sad story because both the boy and the tree are even somewhat happy in the end.

Maybe it’s that the Giving Tree gave everything to the boy and then that’s all it had. What if the boy lived another 20 years and wanted to keep coming back to the Tree, but because the Tree had given too much, it couldn’t give anymore?

That’s the problem with sacrificing yourself. You lay yourself down at whatever alter you chose with the belief that your sacrifice will define you, but I say that’s hogwash. It’s not the loss of you that defines you. It’s you. It’s your love, your passion, your ideas, your effort, and your relationships.

If you sacrifice your whole being just to satisfy the whim of a short-sighted boy (even if you love them more than your life) then you cannot give him anything more, even if he needs you more in the future.

As a leader sometimes we need to be like a tree. Strong. Standing tall. Ready to support our followers , whether they’re our children, our employees, our friends, or our students. But unlike the Giving Tree, we need to take care of ourselves. We can’t give everything away without demanding new fertilizer and water for ourselves. To not do so is short-sighted. Then we can only give so much. If we take care of ourselves and continue growing, we can support more people. We can let them reach even greater heights.

We’ve all known people who just want to keep giving. They can’t say no, even as it eats them away. I’ve been in the headspace as well—feeling like my worth was defined only by what I could provide for my family. Then a very wise man pointed out that I would never want my children to feel that way. They are precious and worth far more than just a sacrifice for someone else. Then he pointed out that the best way to teach them that was to Lead By Example.

Talk about a mind shift that knocked me off my feet.

So, what can we do? How can we keep going, keep giving and giving while still holding onto our spark?

We are social animals and many things about our evolution supports our need for other people. Meditation and a day at the spa may help relax us and give us focus, but I think a critical part of the recharging process is a great set of friends. Like batteries that get used up every time we give something of ourselves to another person, we need people that will help recharge us.

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Feeling loved, feeling valued, feeling understood.  It involves someone giving something of them to us…their time, their ears, their patience, their effort or their silence. And that’s OK. We all need a group of people that we can call on to give us a bit of themselves, every once in a while. With friends, it’s give and take and it allows us to keep giving ourselves, over and over again.

The truly selfless act may be to be a little bit selfish, after all.

 

by Veronica Ciolfi

*Beautiful picture at the top by Jonathan Sammy.

I Human

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Picture by David Howell

Many of you who know me, know my crazy sister. There are many reasons why I call her crazy, but  I’d like to share one in particular. A few weeks ago, she  called me, all nonchalantly. When I asked her what was up, she replied that she was lying on the ground, in a forest. This led me to asking why she was lying on the ground, in a forest, and she replied that she had been thrown from her motorcycle while riding a trail and it hurt too much to get up. After a deep breath on my part (because if she’d been in danger of dying there probably would have been more shrill crying or at the very least, sarcasm), I asked her if she needed me to call someone. She said no, her husband had driven to the entrance of the trails so he could direct the ambulance to her. She just  didn’t feel like lying there alone, so she called me.

You can watch the Youtube video here. The crash happens around 3:30. The person she’s talking on the phone at the 6 minute mark is me.

All this reminded  me of a story she told me while giving me a motorcycle tour of Vancouver. She said that there was a belief that the gear that some motorcyclist wore (dark visor, full helmet, dark body armour) might actually increase motorcycle accidents because the rider looked less human and more robotic while wearing all the gear. As a result, other drivers weren’t as careful around motorcyclists that didn’t look human.

There is some research to support this. Monsters in Metal Caccoons discusses that when we are in the interior of a car, we feel protected and isolated. We are also in control of the car and so we become “enhanced humans”. Cyborgs. In turn, drivers start to dehumanize other drivers, seeing them as just the car. This is why road rage becomes easier. We are more likely to swear at the car in front of us than if a fellow pedestrian cuts us off on the sidewalk.

What does this have to do with leadership? My sister’s story got me wondering, what are other ways that we disguise people’s humanness? We may not have the distance provided by a car or a motorcyclist’s body armor, but I think everyone can probably identify a time when we treated someone as a thing, instead of a person. When it was easier to dismiss someone’s concerns as trivial rather than trying to address the problem.

To borrow Jessica Hagy’s style of illustration:

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For example, a problem employee offered up an idea and my first instinct was to shoot it down because I didn’t see any value to it. This employee consistently had trouble implementing useful solutions. I only realized my mistake when I looked him in the eyes. Looking at him forced me out of my head, out of the category I had shoved him in and forced me to consider the situation from his point of view.

The problem employee had been labelled as difficult and not having a clear understanding of the company’s mission. But really listening to his idea, understanding how he came to it, showed that he did understand what we were trying to accomplish, he was just going about it a different way. He needed guidance on how to evaluate his ideas, not someone to do the evaluation for him.

Some people might argue that if you spend all your time empathizing with your team members, then it becomes impossible to offer guidance or corrections because now you are their friend. The problem is that they see empathy and assertiveness like this:

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when instead, they could be seen like this:

empathy-assertion graph

Empathy and assertiveness are not mutually exclusive. Empathy is about perspective-taking, and understanding the issues from someone else’s point of view. It shows that the other person’s point of view has value whether you agree with it or not. It’s about respect,  which is probably one of the most important things a leader can give to their followers.

So whether we are driving in a car, working the reception desk or leading a team through a project, it’s important to recognize everyone’s humanness, the things that make them worth more than a just a robot.

At the same time, it’s important to watch out for logs lying on the path.