May 30, 2009

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Taking the Stage

My manager recommended me to the “Taking the Stage” workshop series, a leadership program that helps women develop a more powerful presence and good communication skills.

The first session was about choosing to take the stage. Many women are brought up to play supporting roles, but hesitate to be in the spotlight. Instead of talking about their individual accomplishments, they talk about their team’s. Instead of talking about what they’re interested in, they talk about their families. Even the way women sit shows a habit of self-minimization. While men might stretch over more than one chair, women can often be found perched on a corner of their chair, with legs crossed as if to minimize the physical space occupied. (I think wearing skirts has much to do with this!)

We watched a video by the leadership training group who developed the program. Then the facilitator asked us about our first impressions.

I told the group that the video was different from the way I’d grown up, and the part that interested me the most wasn’t the part about overcoming fears (which I recognize to still be useful), but about envisioning what kind of leader I wanted to grow into. In general, I prefer focusing on growing towards things rather than growing away from things. I wanted to think about this a bit further, because maybe something about what I’m learning can help other people develop their inner leaders too.

I’d never felt the need to blend into the background or to minimize my accomplishments. Perhaps it’s because I saw both of my parents achieve remarkable things, or because I saw my two older sisters establish themselves, or because I was in the spotlight at a young age. The first news article I remember my mom saving was when a local tabloid had an article on me as a child genius who uses computers. I remember my dad asking me to put the floppy disk into the computer so he could take a picture. I said, “But it’s not even on!” And the reporter spelled my name incorrectly, too. <laugh>

Yes, I was the kid who cried when her Grade 1 classmates made fun of her name, and I was also the kid who wrote down an explanation of what made her upset (on a half-sheet of intermediate pad paper – I still remember!) and figured out how to deal with it (I think I decided I needed a day off). I was the kid who was unafraid to raise her hand and try to answer a question, unafraid to get it wrong–or right!–in front of almost all the students in the entire grade school. The principal invented a whole new award for me in graduation. And yes, I still get those agh-I-don’t-know-if-I-can-pull-this-off moments, but I know that no matter what happens, I’m sure I’ll get a great story out of it.

So it had never been about whether or not I would take the stage, but about what I would take the stage for, what I would do with the opportunities that came up, and how I could share those opportunities with others–how I could help other people discover their own spotlights.

Taking the stage isn’t about being boastful or elbowing other people out of the way. I learned that from my parents, who always ended up with press attention when it
came to their major projects. They never did something just for the exposure. They
did whatever they wanted to do, and they made things happen.

I remember when my mom told me how difficult it was for her to encourage the employees to talk about their accomplishments, and how important it was for them to do so because otherwise, it was hard for her to find out about their strengths. Culturally, Filipinos look down on boastfulness, saying that boasting is like trying to lift your own boat. Many cultures have similar sayings that discourage people from sticking out, from distinguishing themselves. But my parents showed me that accomplishments don’t need to separate you from other people. It’s not about being superior or inferior. It’s about making things happen, inspiring other people, and teaching them about you and about themselves.

So there are a few interesting ways to look at this:

  • It’s not about telling other people you’re better than they are. It’s about teaching people how you can serve them, and learning more about your talents along the way.
  • It’s not about trying to grab a larger piece of the pie. It’s about making the pie bigger for everyone.

I believe that being female–or being a foreigner, or being Asian, or being young, or being a geek, or being Filipino, or being a person of many interests–doesn’t put me at a significant disadvantage when it comes to what I do and who I want to be. I’ve worried about this before, and every so often I think about work-life balance and other topics. Yes, these things may make some possibilities harder than others, but there are still so many that would be a terrific fit. I see more opportunities than most people think about. I don’t need to claw my way to the top and struggle with organizational politics so that I can enjoy a position of power. (Knowing me, I’d probably get bored along the way). I trust that I can find or shape a life where I’ll be happy along the way, and as I grow in skill and understanding, people will help me find ways to help more and more people.

So what would I like to learn from this program on Taking the Stage?

  • I’d like to meet other people interested in developing themselves and other people
  • I’d like to develop a good vision of the kind of person (or kinds of people!) I’d like to grow to be, and learn a little more about growing
  • I’d like to reflect on leadership, how I can grow, and how other people can grow