Eight Career-Changing Epiphanies

I’m a little arrogant. Sometimes. Okay…most times, I am highly arrogant. In spite of this, just when I think I’ve figured it all out, I discover something that humbles me. I call these little reality wisps my Epiphanies. I am used to them by now. I am, after all, a self-proclaimed “Epiphaniare”. This alone demonstrates my arrogance in more ways I care to admit.

My arrogance has hindered me, but it has also served me. Here’s how. I floundered in my early leadership roles. Those who knew me when, know of my humble — and humbling — beginnings. My inability to truly lead in the way I desired created some monumental career setbacks. I was just arrogant enough to think I had what it took to lead. Most times, I was just arrogant enough to think that I knew what the hell I was doing, and sometimes, I was just humble enough to see the truth behind my flubs.

I began my leadership journey twenty years ago. I wanted to announce it to the world, so I started with my notoriously non-supportive manager. “I am going to start my MBA.” He told me not to bother, and that I didn’t have what it took to be anything other than a regular work-jockey. This one brief, negative comment cut me to my self-esteem bone. “I’ll show him,” I exclaimed to my heart, and so it began. I am not known for my self-awareness, and at the time, I had no idea of the absolute beauty this journey would have in store for me. Like the sun shining on my face and shoulders, ir immediately gifted me with my first three career epiphanies:

Epiphany 1: Desire and ability are not enough. My natural desire to lead and my burgeoning leadership skills were simply not good enough to make me into a leader. Some believe leaders are natural born. Hogwash. It takes a hell-a-lot of learned skill, much trial and error, and many, many mistakes. I determined I was going to become a leader by learning as much as I could, and making many, many mistakes along the way. Okay, I didn’t plan on the mistake part, but it still happened, and I learned that it was part of my overall success.

Epiphany 2: Use naysayers as a pole vault to reach the next level. The “I’ll show you” attitude has been a great starting point for many successful people. At first, I felt guilty in my anger, but I soon let the general pissiness go. I refused to succumb to this manager’s small-minded viewpoint. I immediately garnered another position and promptly resigned. I started — and finished — my MBA. Not that this sorry manager would ever know, or even care. I cared, and that’s all that matters.

Epiphany 3: Learn lessons from bad examples. I had learned a big lesson in what not to do from my scary-clown manager. It is a lesson I have carried with me all this time. The best leaders believe in the talents of their staff. I have supported some employees right out the door into higher education and more glorious opportunities. It has never once failed me. The loyalty received while I worked alongside these employees was fantastic, and I still count many of them among my friends. Ultimately, the inept leadership this manager displayed demonstrated the truth behind something my father always said, “Some people serve well as a bad example.”

Epiphany 4: Never walk the journey to leadership in a vacuum. I started my personal quest to become the leader I envisioned. At first, I felt like I was wandering down an unmarked and treacherous path in a dark forest. Forks without signs were frequent, and I had my share of sharp thorns, slippery rocks, and thick overgrowth to fight through. There was a lot of misinformation to weed through, too. Much hype with little-to-no-substance. I made a lot of wrong turns and U-turns, but eventually found my footing when I learned to tap into mentors who had walked the path before me. Their guidance made all the difference. I credit them for their contribution, and I owe them profound gratitude.

Epiphany 5: Accentuate your strengths, and build a team to cover your weaknesses. As I settled into one of my favorite roles, I found I had a knack for teaching. I began to teach my colleagues to how to measure their existing leadership abilities and expand their growth with learned skills. In-house employee training grew into a national teaching and consulting position, where I taught burgeoning leaders from other organizations how to hone their leadership skills. Until this point, I had always focused on my deficits, thinking if I could just overcome those, I’d be a great leader. As I helped others, I realized the best results were when people looked at their greatest strengths and set about to improve those. Everyone has weaknesses, but the smartest leaders bring others into their circle to cover personal deficits. Teacher, learn from your students. I began to focus on the right and the strong in myself. I focused on what makes me the very best me I can be.

Epiphany 6: Give back what you have gained; otherwise you’ve gained nothing at all. I devoted myself to leadership education, under the formal tutelage of researchers and leadership experts. In the process, I earned my doctorate in organizational leadership. Scholarship now strengthened my leadership abilities and skillsets. I did this to give me something mysterious: I called it “clout.” Though I coined this idea and adopted it as my own, I never really understood what I meant by it. It most likely was another statement of my arrogance. The real reason I ventured into academia, however, was that I desired to bring my knowledge to those who wanted to grow their leadership abilities. I want to reach people who are being told by naysayers that their career goals are for naught. I want to point out the path, as my mentors had done for me, and make it less treacherous. I want to be the whisper in their ear, “One step in front of the other, child. Now, go!

Epiphany 7: The journey is never over, and that’s okay. My quest for leadership excellence is not over. The path I’ve chosen is a life-long adventure. When I was younger, I was an avid motorcyclist. I remember lunch hours where I would take a break and whir into the curves of southern California’s Santa Monica Mountains. It’s was never about the destination. It was always about the journey. Sometimes, I would pause long enough to look at the Pacific Ocean from a precipice, then turn around and head back. Other times, I’d go all the way to Malibu and stick my feet into the surf. Then I’d turn around and go back. I relished the road’s twists and turns just as much as the vista points and cool water. I am used to my chosen pathway now. I see most thorny situations before they scrape me, and I’ve learned to assess which fork will give me the biggest return. Sometimes it is the well-worn path of safety, but other times there is just a hint of a trail, and I step into new revelation with excitement.

Epiphany 8: The biggest failure is never starting. The number eight, turned sideways, is the symbol of infinity, indicating there is much more to come for you and me. You may have reservations about moving forward. The pathway transfixes you. You are frozen. You hold your breath. You stare into the darkness of this profound and unforgiving forest. You may even turn around and walk away. If you do, at a certain point in your future, you will look back and wonder what might have been. So now, while you are transfixed, see all those unmarked forks. Lock your eyes on those sharp thorns. Fear those slippery rocks. Wonder if you have what it takes to slash your way through the thick overgrowth. Then, find a mentor who will whisper in your ear, “One step in front of the other, child. Now, go!