How one book made me a better leader

At the 2015 Mass Conference for Women, one of the interactive booths included an artist storyteller.  She asked the question “What advice do you wish you had as a college freshman?”

Since then, I’ve thought long and hard about that question.  I spent a lot of time struggling, during college and in the decades since, with interpersonal interactions.

I wish someone had been able to help me see myself accurately.  Ultimately, to share one book, which made me a better leader and better human being.

Advice I wish I'd known as a college freshman

An artful collection of advice at Mass Conference for Women

The Curse

I have spent much of my life feeling like Cassandra.  Cassandra was the daughter of the King of Troy, who predicted their fall to the Greeks.  She was cursed by Apollo to know the future, but not to be believed.

I have an ability to see patterns in seemingly unrelated events or objects.  I can use those patterns to navigate the chaos and determine the best way forward in a project or endeavor.

Unfortunately, like Cassandra, I felt fated to know what was going to happen, or what needed to happen, but cursed with disbelief.

When I started learning about project management, I knew I’d use those skills for the rest of my life.  It gave me a language that I could use to explain what I inherently knew, but in a way that could be understood by others.

For many years, it was enough.

My ability to know the path of a project could now be reflected in a project plan.  Risk management processes could be used to address concerns that others may not have identified.

The tools and language of my trade allowed me to communicate with others and work progressively more complex assignments.  I could communicate, but on some level I still made people nervous.  I had difficulty connecting with them.

While my results were lauded and celebrated, I felt out of step with those around me. Though my abilities were desired, most could do without the package they came in.

The Realization

I was in one role for several years, with new senior leadership every few months.  At one point, one of those senior leaders took an interest in my development and pushed for something to change.

That change was an executive coach.

Early on, we spent a lot of time talking about what was happening, my perceptions, and the perceptions of those around me.  I was heavily biased by my experiences to date, and it came out in the way I spoke.

One day, my coach looked at me and said “You are the warrior.”

I paused, with my head cocked to one side.  She didn’t pose it as a question, but I provided a response anyway.  “Of course I am.”

We both chuckled and she explained that she didn’t mean it literally (or at least not entirely).  She was referring to one of Carol Pearson’s archetypes in The Hero Within.

The years spent engaging a coach have been invaluable.  She understands how I learn, and has aligned her approach to how I best consume information.  I love to read, taking the time to take in the information and then apply what resonates best.

Once she told me about the book, I consumed it.  Later, once I had a chance to reflect on what I had read, we met again to talk through my learnings and how I might apply them to my situation.

The Lessons

The Hero Within outlines 6 archetypes that we all carry within us, able to call on them as we navigate our respective journeys.  Think of them as characters in a story – different types of heroes, depending on the nature of the challenge we must overcome.

The Warrior is one of those heroes, with inherent strengths.  As with any hero, some of those strengths, when taken to extreme or negative places, can become challenges.  If pursued, one can quickly become the antithesis of a hero (think Genghis Khan).

While I consider myself a warrior, I always thought of myself as a shield for my team, ready to defend them at all costs.  However, others’ experience with warriors may be that of aggressors, leading with a spear.

With my shields up, and high-energy, I unintentionally put others on the defensive as soon as I met them,  I also wasted a lot of time recovering from that first-impression (assuming I could).

Reading the book, I finally understood how easily I could be misperceived by others.  I also realized that I identify more with the Magician than the Warrior.

The Magician is someone who transforms the world around them, which is exactly what I do for a living.  What does it say that everyone – including me – saw the Warrior, and completely missed the Magician in me?

This realization allowed me to lead with a different foot.  To bring my Magician skills to the table first, and keep the Warrior in reserve unless she’s really needed.  Honestly, how many Warriors are really needed in Insurance?  This one could take a break.

I learned how to moderate my energy and consider others from a place of compassion.  When getting to know new individuals and teams, I tone down the energy, drop my shields, and allow the space and time to connect.

Through my learnings – and a whole lot of trial and error – I discovered that vulnerability and compassion were the most critical components of a successful leadership style.

The Gift

Now my leadership style and abilities are in sync.  The curse that left me out of step, unable to connect with others, has been transformed into a powerful gift.

I still struggle – who doesn’t?  Sometimes what I know – or strongly suspect – I have to keep to myself.  However, once I figured out how to share my insights with compassion, they were more likely to be accepted by those around me.

I no longer see my abilities as a curse.  They are a gift – one I try to use for good, every chance I get.

Ultimately all of us have gifts, possibly ones we haven’t yet realized.  That which makes us feel different, or out of step, could very well be the thing that allows us transform the world.

Sometimes, it just takes one person – or one book – to help adjust our thinking and turn a frustration into a powerful gift.


What advice do you wish you could go back and give yourself as a college freshman?  Is there a person or book that helped you on your journey?  Please share your thoughts in the comments below.