What transitioning from male to female taught me about leadership
This last 18 months has been quite a ride for me. I’ve been struggling with gender dysphoria (a debilitating sense of disconnect from the gender assigned to someone at birth) for decades, but it took me until not so long ago to realize what it was, and how it could be treated. Nothing has been the same since. Transitioning and the events leading up to it changed my life, and the experiences I had during my transition changed me as a person, and as a leader.
It’s hard for me to open up about this period in my life, not just because it comes with tremendous vulnerability, not just because it’s very personal, but also because it has been the hardest few months in my life. The decisions I faced were far more consequential and way harder to grapple than any decisions I had to make as a leader or any time during my professional career. However I feel that other people — people who will never go through anything like I did — can learn from my story a lot exactly because it has been a very unusual and difficult problem to solve.
A common reaction to my coming out was people telling me that they envy my courage. At the time I didn’t understand why they were telling me that. It’s not like having gender dysphoria is a value statement against society or an act of provocation. Transitioning was simply the only known cure to a condition that I had suffered from. I felt there wasn’t anything more courageous about it than going through chemotherapy when someone has cancer. It sucks, it’s painful, it comes with a host of side effects, but if you want to survive you do it anyway.
However looking back now, I realize that transitioning did teach me something about courage. By the time I realized what was going on I already had a wife, a life with plans for the future. We were on track to becoming parents. It took tremendous courage to come out to her knowing that it might trigger the end of our relationship. I’ve been procrastinating for weeks, before sitting down with her. I planned every little detail of how I will explain it to her, and kept going through one scenario after the other in my head, to prepare myself for them. Once I did come out, she made it clear that there was no way she would stay my partner in life if I were to transition which broke my heart. About 6 month of struggle begun on that fateful day, where I’ve been looking for ways to avoid transitioning, until eventually I had to let her go.
Courage to be honest
It is hard to be honest when you know that the truth is going to be painful. It doesn’t matter if it’s about giving an unpleasant feedback to a colleague or telling your spouse about something that will change your relationship forever. The only difference is that the former isn’t as personal and has far less consequences.
Before having gone through this experience I was prone to delaying constructive feedback out of fear that I will hurt the other person. That has adverse effects for several reasons.
First, while you are delaying the feedback the persons behavior isn’t going to change. If the feedback you are about to give is on something that is adversely affecting the team, every minute you procrastinate will add to the erosion of team values.
Second, the later you give a feedback, the more painful it becomes to both you and your peer and leads to an erosion of trust. It’s more painful to you, because by now you are annoyed and need a lot more self control to stay professional with your feedback, and because you feel shame for not having brought up the topic sooner. It’s more painful for your peer, because you are likely to be less gentle with your feedback, and they will have the sense, that all this time you were dishonest with them. Realizing that a teammate or team lead isn’t honest with you is a painful experience and naturally leads to a lack of trust.
Late feedback is also less effective. As humans we are hard wired to learn from immediate consequences, and delayed feedback is less likely to affect one’s habits. The person receiving the feedback may even rationalize this. “If it hasn’t been a problem until now how could it be a problem now?”
Having had to come out to my wife broke down a barrier in me. Ever since I did, I find it much easier to live up to my value of giving instant and honest feedback. It definitely had its positive effects. However it’s also important to make your feedback not only honest, but also gentle and well grounded in facts. Because of that, it’s definitely worth to take a moment to think about what and how you are going to say. Make sure you are in the right headspace for giving feedback, and that it’s not coming from a place of anger.
Courage to make consequential decisions
A wrong or sub-optimal decision is better than no decision at all. That’s a mantra that many leadership coaches will keep repeating to their clients, and it is rooted in the belief that all incorrect decisions can be corrected for once we have gathered more data. When we make a decision based on incomplete data we are essentially setting up a hypothesis that that decision is the right one, and run an experiment to see if that is in fact the case.
That theory breaks down though when a decision has immediate and irreversible side effects. In my case starting hormone replacement therapy had several such immediate and irreversible effects: I would lose my wife and the ability for natural conception of my future child. In fact both of those things would be irreversible before gender dysphoria starts to fade.
The whole thing is just exacerbated if the decision is between the status quo and an alternative that comes with those irreversible side effects. We have a natural tendency to stick to the status quo. If there is no deadline to the decision this can lead to indefinite procrastination.
The problem with that is that procrastination rarely comes without costs. In my case the cost was mostly emotional, but in a business setting cost will most likely come in the form of missed opportunities. One such example would be to pivot the company towards a new market segment at the price of losing a large part of your customer base. It could be a change in the UI or your business model that makes early adopters (typically power users) unhappy but is inevitable to cross the chasm and reach the next phase of adoption: early majority. Another might be to let go of a developer who is the sole expert of a part of your product, but has an inherently toxic personality.
Making decisions like this is a balancing act between collecting enough evidence and minimizing the cost of delaying the decision at the same time. Remember though that you can never be a 100% sure with most difficult decisions. The very reason they are difficult is that neither option is clearly better than the other. The really hard ones remain difficult even if an oracle tells the answer to any questions we might ask. Even if we can ask about future consequences.
I have bad news: there is no blueprint for handling situations like this, but there are a number strategies that I found useful during my 6 month long struggle to make up my mind about transitioning.
Think of the advantages instead of the disadvantages. When you think about both options as something that takes away from you or the company it will make you feel like you are about to shoot yourself in the leg and you are only contemplating which leg you can do without for a while. When you think in terms of the positive traits of each decision it will definitely make you less prone to self pity.
Lean into your values. Another important advantage of looking at advantages over disadvantages is that it’s easier to relate advantages to your values. Since there is no option that is clearly better than the other, when a hard decision is being made we must lean on our values to guide us. With every hard decision you ever made in your life you have defined who you are as a person. For example you may have chosen a career path that pays well, over another one that you had real passion for. A higher salary is not inherently better or worse than following your passion. You are making a trade off between the two, and that trade off should be based on the values you care about the most.
Put your trust into the scientific method. The fact that making the decision without irreversible consequences is not possible doesn’t mean that you can’t run experiments. Verbalize the risks and your fears related both options. How can you mitigate those risks? Is there any localized experiment that can provide you with valuable data without making the decision irreversible? Usually you will be able to dissect the problem into a bunch of smaller experiments that you can run without committing to either option.
Know when it’s time to make up your mind. Either way eventually you will have to make a decision, and keep in mind that you will never be a 100% sure about this. All you are looking for, is the sense, that you have done everything to assess both options that you humanly could before you committed to either option. The decision may still turn out to be wrong, but you should be confident that even if that happened you won’t have regrets, because at the time of the decision it was grounded in facts and in your values. There is no way you could have made a better decision based on the data available to you at the time.
Realizing that someone is transgender can be a long and and emotionally draining process. Although some trans people are clear about their gender identity issue early on for many of us — including me — it takes time. It feels like you have to visit the deepest pits of hell before you come back as someone who is reborn from their ashes. I have memories related to a sense of gender dysphoria going back to my childhood, but it wasn’t until the last few years, that it started to eat away at my soul pushing me into ever deeper cycles of depression. Eventually at the end of 2017 I started to listen to psychology audiobooks in a search for a solution. It was the Power of Vulnerability talk series by Brené Brown that eventually gave me the key to unlock the real reason behind my problems. It still took several month of thinking and a good therapist for me to get back on my feet though.
During this process I wasn’t emotionally fit to lead. Not by a long shot. And here is where the importance of humility comes into play. I love leading, I love when I can have a huge impact on the company by being a good leader, but I didn’t have the humility or the self awareness to realize that this is not a good time for me to lead. I should have asked my superiors to give me a break from leading, instead I begged them to keep me in my position.
That came with its own adverse consequences. First of all the teams I lead failed miserably. Both my team mates and the people I reported to started to lose confidence in me. What’s more, I started to question my own ability to lead.
Ever since I realized that I made that mistake I’m paying a lot of attention to my own psychological health, as well as other factors that may impact my ability to lead. Right now I’m not a team lead because I decided myself that I wasn’t ready to lead a team at the company I work for. I didn’t have the necessary credibility yet, and I disagree with the prevalent engineering practices at the company on so many points that any team I lead would be a rogue team. I don’t think that’s productive in any way, so I decided to step back, despite the fact that I can not wait to lead again.
Diversity and inclusion is kind of a hot topic these days. We know that a diverse workforce is a significant competitive advantage, so many companies strive to attract all sorts of minorities. However diversity won’t work without inclusion. What I mean by inclusion is that each and every person in the organisation should feel they belong. This is not only important to keep minorities from churning off early on, but also because humans are hard wired to crave a sense of belonging. That is why we organize into social groups around almost everything from a shared passion for fishing to a shared cultural background. When someone feels that they belong they will be more creative, they will stick around for longer. On the other hand if someone does not feel welcome in a company, they will inevitably leave and they won’t be particularly motivated while they stay.
After coming out to my colleagues everyone seemed super nice at first. Well… for a few exceptions who started avoiding contact with me, but I didn’t give that much thought at first. I didn’t even realize, it’s a 200+ people organisation. However soon things changed, and about 5 month after coming out I left. I won’t go into the details of what happened but by the end I’ve felt like I didn’t belong anymore, I wasn’t valued for who I am, and I felt humiliated. I still haven’t processed the trauma caused by the last few days at the company. I joined another company that had a diversity and inclusiveness initiative and the difference between the two cultures was astonishing.
Both companies have their engineering head quarters in cities that have little to no diversity. Both Budapest and Salt Lake City are cities with little ethnic or religious diversity and a right leaning populace. As expected, at my previous employer diversity was almost nonexistent among engineers, unless you call a handful of women and a few gay men who mostly pro-actively avoid sharing things about their partners diversity. At my current employer it’s an entirely different story. The city might have almost no diversity, but once you are in the office it’s all about people from different backgrounds. I’m not even the only trans person at the company which is pretty amazing given how rare it is for someone to transition.
I’m not an HR expert, not by a long shot. I do not know what HR at my current company did to achieve the inclusive culture that just seems to be there so naturally. At the same time I’m sure they put a lot of effort into this. However there are a couple of things I noticed as differences, and these are things I’ll strive to uphold in the future as a leader.
For me there are two things in general that stand out: there is a certain pro-activity in trying to uphold an inclusive culture and it’s not only the minorities who educate others, instead there is a culture of lending privilege.
Before transitioning I always thought that it’s enough to have good intentions, you can always apologize, and correct yourself. I don’t think I was the only person to believe that, and I was wrong. Oh, I was so wrong! I wasn’t a bad person at all, I just had all the privileges of a middle age cis white male, so I never had to endure any discrimination, negative stereotyping or the ill effects of other peoples ignorance.
Here is the problem with that attitude: when you are a member of a minority — especially if there are a lot of stereotypes involving that minority — you’ll constantly come across situations where people say something hurtful. It becomes extremely emotionally draining to call out those things, and most of the time it won’t even trigger an apology. Instead you’ll be faced with criticism that comes from a place of ignorance and in most cases your experiences will be called into question. You are just too whiny, too emotional, a snowflake, you should keep it positive, or you are even called an agent pushing the agenda of the liberal lobby sponsored by Soros. So minorities slowly fall silent about their problems. I know countless LGBTQ people who deny their support of Pride marches and related events when talking to unsupportive colleagues and friends, but will come to every single one, and wouldn’t miss it.
Ever since I came out I spend a considerable amount of my free time teaching people about trans issues and helping trans people on their own journeys. It’s a choice I made and no one can expect every single member of a minority to also be an activist… it takes a lot of effort. At the same time, I do not want to be an activist at my workplace. There I want to feel like I’m home, and that I can concentrate on my work. Minorities are just people… we get exhausted. You can’t expect all of us to be superhero activists.
At my current employer people are standing up for each other, and giving instant feedback when someone is not being inclusive with a coworker. At my previous company I rarely saw anyone voice their concerns when someone said something sexist, not even the girls, not even when it was really sexist. Here even the mildest of everyday sexism is called out. It is also important that it’s not done in a shaming manner, it’s more about calling attention to something the other person might not have been aware of.
That doesn’t mean that minorities don’t need to do anything. Everyone should stand up for themselves, but there is only so much weight one person carry alone. When someone feels that they are emotionally drained to a point where they don’t feel like they belong anymore, that’s a red flag to me. Because someone who doesn’t feel like they belong will inevitably underperform and eventually leave.
Another huge problem with the reactive apologies approach is that it normalizes undesirable behaviors. When someone gives constructive feedback it is preferably done in private. That means that everyone who heard the person saying something demeaning, derogatory, sexist or just plain ignorant will think that there was no consequence.
Finally it’s important to keep in mind, that disadvantaged groups usually have less credibility among the people who disadvantage them. When a female is trying to talk about her issues she might be labeled a feminazi, when an LGBTQ person raises his or her voice about an issue they are usually criticized for demanding the majority to conform to them. Most of the time those concerns are ignored unless backed up by a leader who belongs to the majority or is otherwise respected. This is called lending privilege, and should be integral part of any diversity and inclusion initiative.
Paradox of tolerance
Another difference is that at my current employer diversity and inclusion training is mandatory for all employees, while at my previous employer mandatory trainings were frowned upon. I understand the sentiment, in most cases forcing people to listen to something they are not interested in is pointless.
However when it comes to inclusion a single person can destroy the company culture. You do not need to have an armada of nazis at your company to make it hostile towards a minority. All it takes is one person who keeps slowly wearing down people around them. These people are toxic, and not just in terms of driving out people with diverse backgrounds, but usually they are horrible people in general and are happy to back stab anyone.
It is important to make sure you don’t have these toxic people around, and one of the ways to make sure they don’t stay around, is letting them know that intolerance is not tolerated. They either conform to the norm of tolerance or they are free to leave. You don’t want them around anyway.
Now you may complain, that by driving out people who are not inclusive we are pro-actively being intolerant and non-inclusive. That is true, but that brings us to the “Paradox of tolerance” described by Karl Popper. When your tolerance has no limits, and you allow intolerance to thrive it will drive out everyone who is not part of the majority. By tolerating intolerance you inevitably destroy tolerance in general. When you include people who don’t value diversity and inclusion, you destroy inclusion and with it diversity.
That also means there is no middle ground here. You either build an inclusive culture for everybody but those who don’t fit that culture or your company will lack diversity in the long run. It’s a simple trade off: you either have a diverse set of minorities at your company, or you have a single minority that upholds the status quo of them being the privileged ones. Which group is more important for you is your decision. However once you went down either path, it’s really hard turn the company culture around. Once you lose the trust of minorities, it’s extremely hard to rebuild that trust.
I understand the desire for finding middle ground. It’s well intentioned, but it’s wrong. Some people whose intolerance stems from ignorance, it is possible to convince them without involving the minority in question. However do not try to win over every person. Some people are too strongly rooted in their beliefs, and can not be convinced within a short enough time frame to avoid damaging your culture. Most importantly do not ask minorities to conform to intolerance, because that will erode trust towards you as a leader in an instant, especially if you do not tell who is the one complaining. You’ll be seen as someone protecting an intolerant person. What’s worse, complaining to HR or a leader and not going directly to the person in question is a form of backstabbing, and you are facilitating that. You are building a culture where it is okay not to give feedback openly and face to face, but complain anonymously via backchannels.
At the same time you also destroy the sense of belonging for the person you asked to conform and may traumatize them. Just imagine being told that someone in the office does not tolerate you for who you are as a person, and you don’t know who. Suddenly you walk back into the office, and everyone is potentially that person. Maybe you have some friends you trust beyond doubt, but for most people, you don’t know if they were the ones stabbing you in the back. When that happened to me, I couldn’t spend another day at that company.
The trans perspective
Being trans isn’t easy, it isn’t fun, but by now I made my peace with who I am. Easy is not the kind of life that I’d want to live anyway, because most of the time those who have it easy can’t appreciate what they have. When you climb from the deepest pits of Hell up to the top of Mount Everest you will get exhausted and along the way you will wish a thousand times you didn’t have to, but once you are up there, the view is just staggering and makes the trip worth it.
Most women are unhappy with their bodies, and mine isn’t perfect at all, but at least finally it’s a feminine body and that makes me happy. Most people have no idea what it feels like when others see you for something you are not, so I can enjoy every little gesture that implies that people around me see me as female. Most women don’t spend decades looking at shop windows longing for dresses they can’t have, don’t look at other women and think “I wish that could be me”. For me every single day is a celebration of what I achieved over the past year.
Still I did lose something in the process. A lesbian white trans woman will always have a unique perspective on the world because we start out with all the privileges of a cis-hetero white male, and lose almost all of those privileges with the notable exception of white privilege. We don’t just see the difference, we lived both sides of the coin. Oddly enough I’m thankful for that, because that unique experience makes it much easier to spot the differences, to stand up for myself and others. For women, for gays and lesbians, for trans people… and even for people of color. I might not live their experience, but I have huge empathy for them.
On one hand I wish I was born a cis woman, on the other hand, I’m lucky to be the unique me that I’ve become by having gone through all of it.