“My mother said to me, 'If you become a soldier you'll be a general; if you become a monk you'll end up as the Pope.' Instead, I became a painter and wound up as Picasso.” Pablo Picasso
Recently, I saw a beautiful monarch butterfly, desperately trying to lift itself off the pavement to fly away. The butterfly was laying on the concrete walkway flapping its wings rapidly and this caused it to spin in a circle. Once tired, it rested for a few moments and began to do it again. Occasionally, it lifted itself off the ground, and moved a few inches, but it never gave up. The site of this caught my attention and I stopped to investigate this matter further.
As I stood there, a little girl came over and began to ask me questions concerning the butterfly’s inability to achieve its goal. She was saddened by the creature’s current condition, because the butterfly was not able to do what it was designed to do. She asked inquisitively, “What’s wrong with him?” I couldn’t answer her question, but I thought about how many times I had asked that question as I watched people. How many times have you as a leader asked the same question concerning your co-workers? How often are others asking that question concerning you? We expected the butterfly to fly and were not accustomed to seeing it stranded on a sidewalk in a weakened state. We expected to see its beauty on full display.
As I bent down to get a closer look, I saw that the butterfly had a broken wing. Despite the injury or the deformity, its beauty was unmistakable to the people who gathered to watch its struggle. It is rare that a butterfly is not seen in flight or at least able to take flight. The realization that the butterfly was unable to get off the ground, despite how hard it was trying caused me to think about my past leadership experiences. In many ways, I can relate with that butterfly. There were several times in leadership that regardless of how hard I tried to get projects and people off the ground, I only seemed to be spinning in circles and barely advancing my agenda.
Several months ago I had an opportunity to uncover and begin to heal some old leadership wounds while attending the Leadership for a Democratic Society. It provided a safe environment to evaluate my past and current experiences. It gave me time to process that little girl’s question concerning what was wrong with my wings. Why was I not able to do what I was created to at this season in life? In what ways had I been grounded? What were my deformities? Several of us have, had, or will have metaphorical broken wings while leading and yet others gather around us gazing at our beauty. This is because brokenness does not prevent you from contributing beauty to your environment. The men and women I met in the leadership course motivated me to pursue new goals and helped me to embrace the beauty and brokenness concerning my wings as I studied the beauty of their wings.
I don’t know specifically what caused the butterflies injury, but I do want to provide a brief explanation of three possible causes of broken leadership wings.
When you were younger, what did you hope to achieve as an adult? While some of us have surpassed that marker, some of us have not. Often, it’s not the markers we set for ourselves that trouble us; it’s the expectations others had for us that haunt us. It’s the onlookers of our lives that seem to cause us to measure ourselves in ways that leave many of us unsatisfied, even when we are highly successful. When I was a little girl, my grandparents painted a portrait of what success would look like for me. It was a lovely picture, because it was broad enough for me to design the colors, lines, textures, and scenery. I never felt bound to someone else’s ideals or that I must hold a specific occupation to be successful. Thanks to their insight and wisdom, I have enjoyed painting my own portrait of success.
Even though, I had this freedom, I too have experienced broken wings from unmet expectations. At times, I set very high expectations for myself and when I was unable to meet them, it led to great disappointment, even when the circumstances were beyond my control. If this is true of you, I will share how I am overcoming this. I have learned to use “washable” paints, markers and even crayons when I design my future portraits of success. I have learned that life is too unpredictable to always safely color in the lines or only create with permanent markers. You have to leave room for errors, omissions, course corrections, additions and changes. You can also politely thank others for their hopes and dreams for you, but they are only providing secondary colors in your color palette, your hopes and dreams are the primary colors that you have creative license to begin painting with.
Leadership can be full of disappointment, in particular if you are innovative and invest in trying new things. Failing publicly is never easy to do, but when it happens it can take a toll on your willingness to try again. This can lead to broken wings and the experience of being grounded when you were created to fly. Leaders will fail, because leaders are people of action. We are expected to try and failure is one possible result of taking action. Thomas Edison, the inventor of the lightbulb had a unique perspective on disappointment and failure. He stated, “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.”
Mr. Edison held over 1,000 patents to various products, many of which failed during his lifetime. Despite numerous failures, he went on to achieve great success, which I believe was directly due to his attitude. If we adopt his mentality, it will help us as we continue to pursue our goals and dreams. As you reflect on your life’s disappointments, be encouraged that you are merely discovering what won’t work for you. So, cross what didn’t work off the list and get excited about finding out what does work. Watching the butterfly reminded me that even in times of struggle, I can move forward.
Over the years, I have worked in a variety of settings and agencies to include public, private and non-profit organizations. While I was successful in different ways in those environments, there were times when I experienced what I like to refer to as “position misalignment.” This is when the skills I possessed matched the job description, but the position was not a good fit for me personally. In my case it was often due to personality, desire, demographics, or team dynamics. This happens to the best of us and while most of us stay and try to fit in, staying can cause damage to your wings. There’s nothing worse than having to get up early in the morning and report to a job, boss, or team you don’t like. As a responsible adult many of us have done it and damaged our wings in the process.
You won’t like every assignment you’re given in life, but you can learn from it. You can harvest the seeds of knowledge lodged inside of it for the time you are there and use them to make yourself and others better. You may call me naïve, but I believe the time we have been given on this earth is precious and how we spend that time is important. Personally, I don’t believe it wise to intentionally stay in a situation where you are unable to achieve alignment. Alignment is critical to mission success and teambuilding and if your current position does not align with your values, strengths, and passions it will be difficult for you to perform optimally. I have found my tolerance for working in this condition was much higher when I was younger. These days I am unwilling to compromise what I have to offer and I have begun to seek balance in all aspects of my life. I am actively pursuing the best use of my skills, talent, and knowledge and you should too. There are many leadership shoes, and one size does not fit all.
Attending the federal executive leadership course was a turning point for me and I am thankful for the opportunity. I have attended numerous leadership courses throughout my career, but rarely was I encouraged to focus time and energy on introspective assignments. This course leveraged self-awareness as a strategic means of improving leadership capabilities. While, this is not within itself a new concept, it was often left out of the leadership course curricula. Centuries ago, the philosopher Socrates was quoted as saying “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Self-examination is often met with personal and professional resistance and competing priorities, yet it is a critical step towards preparing leaders to face the complex challenges of leadership.
As I got to know my fellow executives, I saw reflections of myself in many of them. I also saw areas to expand my leadership and growth areas to reach towards. I walked away with new friends and a stronger network. Honestly, I entered that course as a monarch with beautiful, yet broken wings. All of us have beautiful wings that are uniquely ours and all of us have suffered some degree of brokenness. My wings had been badly injured from previous personal and professional experiences.
All was not lost though, after my encounter with the butterfly, I wondered what could be done to assist. After a little research concerning broken butterfly wings, I discovered that butterfly wings can be repaired or replaced depending on the size of the tear using a little bit of glue, cardboard or new wings and baby powder. Through self - reflection, I currently have a renewed faith in the work I have chosen to do and have a clearer path of where I am headed. I guess you could say that my leadership wings were repaired and as a direct result, I have begun to fly again.
Antoinette Allen, Ph.D., PHR, is a retired Air Force officer and has served as a senior leader, mediator, trainer, adjunct faculty, and coach in the Federal Government. She recently earned a Ph.D. in Occupational and Technical Studies from Old Dominion University. Her published works focus on resilience of Black women leaders in the Federal Government, forgiveness, and leadership.