For February book club we read The Light We Carry by Michelle Obama. At its heart this book is a call to action and a message of hope in times of uncertainty, and while it isn’t necessarily the prototypical choice for a book club on leadership in technology, I have historically found biographies and autobiographies of leaders managing turbulent times to be incredibly inspiring. This book was no exception. The book isn’t really memoir, but it is autobiographical in the sense of the stories she shares. Here are the nuggets that particularly resonated with me and the group, and might be lessons leaders in technology want to reflect upon as well:
- Build your “kitchen table”. Mrs. Obama talks about the kitchen table of her youth: how many people were gathered there with love and support for one another, not just family, but also friends, and that was particularly poignant to me. With Covid19 lockdowns, increased remote work, the age and associated obligations of my children, and other factors, my “kitchen table” is not as full as I personally would like. The de facto friendships I used to get at work are much harder to create remotely and without the regular touchpoints of work travel making it easier to say “yes” to grabbing dinner or drinks with friends. I try to stay in touch with friends when they happen to be in town, or if I happen to be traveling to their towns, but it is far more sporadic, and the friends and colleagues I once spoke with constantly, of course have less frequent touch points with me now that we are dispersed to other companies. Mrs. Obama shares wonderful stories about her “bootcamp” weekends with her best friends (at Camp David no less) and I have to admit that it was a personal inspiration to remember that we can choose to continue our friendships, and it has immense dividends to us personally and professionally. We need a village, and it begins by picking up the phone, texting to check in, or just sending a little virtual love on social media to the folks we care about. The limiter here is time of course, but a book club, email/text thread with besties, running/gym club/buddy, etc. can be good life hacks to keep folks in touch on a semi-regular basis. There is a great book called Multipliers, which changed my life on this topic, and I know lots of other folks refer to Never Eat Alone. There is never enough time to do all the things, but if you combine objectives with friendship, there absolutely can and will be a multiplier effect, and increased accountability that results in far greater dividends throughout life.
- Gladness is nourishing. Mrs. Obama refers to a Toni Morrison quotation about how she looks upon her children that particularly resonated with me, “Let your face speak what’s in your heart. When they walk in the room my face says I’m glad to see them.” So much of the time when we see our children (or our partners, coworkers, friends even!) we likely reflect what needs to be done “where are your shoes? Do you have your water bottle? Where are those TPS reports?” but children (and in fact all of us) look to see that that the person on the other side of the table is genuinely glad to see them. That is what fills up their hearts and allows them to flourish. So think about how you show up. Bring your gladness and watch how people thrive.
- The feeling of not belonging carries a mental load. Mrs. Obama shares her experiences being an “only”: the only black woman at the law firm, the only black woman in a class at Princeton, and how exhausting it is to not be in the “club”. I definitely cannot claim those same “only” distinctions, but I have definitely been the only woman in my class or in many decision forums and discussions and it is a different load to bear (particularly earlier in my career before I became more comfortable with myself.) I took the stories she shared as a reminder and a call to action to continue to remember the value of inclusiveness, welcoming all, seeking input regardless of communication style, and to be the change we want to see.
- Competency is the other side of fear. The book contains a fabulous discussion around decoding one’s fear and advice for how to manage one’s need to step up in difficult situations. Don’t be afraid; find ways to be prepared. This advice was also given with the recommendation “don’t make decisions in a period of fear; make decisions from strength.” I have always tried to ensure I’m running toward an outcome I seek when making my decisions versus running away from situations I don’t like. When you choose a path (even if it is difficult along the way) you are far more engaged and likely to succeed.
For me, the lessons the book reinforced were fundamentally about self-awareness and self-care. Your emotional state and your bias effect your decision making, and you cannot show up for others when your cup is empty. This book club session was particularly rewarding because 90% of the participants said they likely wouldn’t have picked up the book if it weren’t for the book club. I like when we have an excuse to get out of our comfort zones, so that made me particularly happy. We ended making a commitment to each other about what we would like to focus upon to fill our cups: friendship, parenting with joy, self-care in times of difficulty, making decisions from a good place, having empathy for one’s self, speaking up when you are not the majority, and being the change we want to see while holding ourselves with grace. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. The book is like a big warm hug, and a kick in the pants to be your best self all at once.