When I first started this venture. I knew all the things I didn’t want. (You can read “How Did We End Up Here?” for a refresher on some of the heartbreak I carried leaving my old school.) I knew from years of experience that toxic environments, abusive leaders, and a cycle of mismanagement did not work for clients who were already struggling. As an employee, I felt knocked down by those things, and as I drifted further and further from loving my work, I thought about my clients constantly. If I, someone who was financially stable, well-educated, and not dealing with any major turmoil in my life, was feeling defeated and burned out, how did my clients in crisis feel? I found myself becoming less and less asset-based in my thinking, focusing less on what strengths people brought to the table and more on obstacles. That’s not me. Finally, after many (MANY) conversations with friends, colleagues, and mentors, I took a step back from being in the thick of it and realized some things.
To borrow from an ancient Jewish teaching: “You are not obliged to finish the work, neither are you free to neglect it” (Pirkei Avot). I tend to think that I have to fix everything, succeed always, and have the answers for everyone else. My struggle lies not in neglecting the work, but remembering that it is not solely up to me to finish it. I was struggling under the weight of thinking “I can’t do this anymore,” feeling like a failure who was abandoning students, families, and colleagues whom I loved. But a wise friend pointed out to me that the “this” I couldn't do anymore didn’t mean working in education, social work, and advocacy; it meant struggling under shoddy leadership doing haphazard work that did not serve clients’ needs or goals.
So what do I want? I want clients and students and families to be seen first and foremost as complete, whole people who bring a variety of strengths to a situation. That is not to say that people don’t have real problems and struggles that need to be addressed. But by starting with the strengths, it is a lot easier to see solutions rather than additional barriers.
The way to make this happen is for leaders, particularly those in educational and social services settings, to truly understand emotional intelligence. Most people have heard of it, some know that they want to have it, and pretty much everyone wants others to have it. However, it can be difficult to pin down what emotional intelligence looks like in practice.
It starts with self-awareness. Do you really see the ways in which you interact with the world and the impact you have on it? And if you do, do you regulate that? People with emotional intelligence make changes based on the impact they have on others. They don't continue to do things their way, regardless of effect. Part of it is learning to listen without an agenda, to truly listen to what another person is saying and potentially adjust your opinion or response based on that. Part of it is practicing empathy, consciously putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and coming from their perspective. If you aren’t sure how to make any or all of those changes, ask for help. There is no weakness in trying to become better at what you do. That help may come from a colleague you think does this well, a leader who can dedicate professional time to supporting you, or an external leadership coach.
Through this journey, I have come back to a place where I can start by appreciating all of the courage it takes for a client to decide to make a change, instead of how many things we should get to work on changing. It’s a subtle shift, but I see it benefitting both me and those I work with.
So, what work are you afraid to start out of fear you won’t be able to finish it?