Lessons & Struggles in Leadership

Gut Check

Everyone has a story of a time when they listened to their gut and things turned out beautifully….or they didn’t listen and narrowly survived certain death. I want to take a few moments to share my tale, and the simple but meaningful lessons I learned from it.

About a year ago an interesting position opened at my place of employment. The job would’ve given me an opportunity to lead a promising program, put my mark on it, have 2 direct reports, and make significantly more than my current salary. It seemed that I’d be foolish to not give it a shot, despite the fact that I was (and still am) very content in my job and enjoy a number of perks that make it a pretty sweet position within the agency. I told myself there was no harm in dusting off the old resume, and if granted an interview it would be a great opportunity to sharpen my skills.

I was given an interview, and in the weeks leading up to it the few people who knew I’d applied for the position strongly encouraged me to really go after it. They were rather convincing in their assertions that I wanted this job, even if my gut wasn’t so sure. While I knew I had a pretty good shot at getting the job I wasn’t so sure I wanted it.

Every time I thought about it I felt a little uneasy. The mere thought of leaving my position unsettled me and there were several question marks hovering around the position I had applied for: would I still be on an upward path within the organization? In a place where knowledge is power, just how much power would I be giving up to take this other position? And most importantly, had the person I’d be reporting to really changed her management style enough to where I wouldn’t be miserable in 6 weeks? All good questions that swung around in my mind without definitive answers but with a definite reaction from my gut. It told me this wasn’t the right move, but my head, thinking of the money, said who knows, maybe it is….full steam ahead.

By the time the interview rolled around I was leaning to not wanting the position. I thought of backing out but was told (by the same people insisting I wanted this job) that backing out at this point would be political suicide. So I went along for the ride–afterall, using them to practice my interview skills and really go through the whole process could be seen as a professional development opportunity. The interview went well; I wasn’t nervous, I felt good about my responses and honestly thought I had a shot at the job.

And then I got worried. What if I were offered the position? Now that we were reaching final jeopardy my gut found its loud voice and was loud and clear about the fact that I absolutely, positively couldn’t take the job no matter how much money I was offered. It shouldn’t have taken me this long to get dialed into my gut–it was quite clear from the beginning that I was chasing the dollars and not a position I was passionate about or one that would allow me to fully play to my strengths. Submitting that application had been a mistake from the get-go. But alas here I was torn between disappointing management if they selected me and I turned them down and accepting a position that was all wrong. I resolved that despite the political consequences I could not, would not accept the position if offered.

When judgment day finally arrived and I was gently taken into a private space and sat down and given the “bad news” that I was a top candidate but not the panel’s final pick I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. WHEW!! Thank God!! I’d dodged a bullet and learned a valuable lesson or two. The reality is that my gut knew the answer all along, and when I checked it in those still quiet moments I knew what it was saying. I let my drive for dollars muddy the waters and give the illusion that this was an uncertain picture but if I’m honest with myself (as I should’ve been all along) this was a no-brainer.

The leadership lesson I’ve carried from this experience is this: your head will lie to you but your heart never will. When the two are in a struggle turn off the thinking–shut that little guy up–and go with the mushy, “I get no respect” fella in your gut. Knowing how to tune into your gut, and more importantly how to really be still and hear what it’s saying to you, is a learned skill; it takes practice but any leader worth her salt better put in the time to develop it. Instead of listening to the office chatter and well-meaning friends I should’ve hunkered down and looked inward. There’s a time for everything and certainly there are times when you need to hear others. But when people are “should-ing” on you (you should go for it….you should have this job, etc) it’s time to tune out and check in with your gut.

I also carry with me the age-old adage of never doing something just for the money. It’s never worth it. Never, ever, never, never, ever worth it. From my year-later perspective I am so deeply grateful I wasn’t offered the job. If I had, I know without a shadow of a doubt I would be miserable today and more than likely planning an exit from a place I love. So lesson #2: do what you love, do what makes you happy, do whatever makes Monday mornings not so bad and slowly but surely the money will come. And if for whatever reason the money never comes, do what you love anyways. You’ll be infinitely happier and there’s nothing worth more than that.

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