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  • Writer's pictureJenn Donahue

The Moment I Realized I Was Part of the Problem

scrabble board pieces spells out "learn from failure"

Have you ever had a moment during your time as a leader that you’re not so proud of?

I certainly have. And what I’ve learned is that it is these moments that we must be grateful for because they are what wakes us up to ourselves and shows us how to be a better leader moving forward. There was a moment in particular in my career that I am often reminded of because it was such a pivotal moment in shaping my leadership style. The truth is, as leaders, we don’t always know what we are doing. And when we haven’t yet developed a skill in a certain area, we tend to resort to doing things the way others in our lives have (think: your peers, bosses, or parents). In my particular case, I adopted the tactics of my male superiors who repeatedly treated me with disrespect and in a moment of weakness, I did what they did. It was not my proudest moment and in fact, I was filled with so much shame that I changed my leadership style completely and became a much more authentic leader because of it. When we lead in a way that is unlike ourselves, it doesn’t feel right. It feels gross, icky, shameful or downright embarrassing. It doesn’t have to be this way. We can use our stories of failure (like the one I’m about to share with you) to change the trajectory of your path. These moments of feedback are what shapes us as leaders and it depends more on how we choose to move forward than how we reacted.

How Inauthenticity Became Part of Me

In one of my leadership positions in the military, I was placed at the head of an Administrative Department that acted much like the HR department of our battalion. I was twenty-five years old and put directly in charge of fifteen others. At twenty-five, my leadership skills were largely under-developed and I relied heavily on the training I received from Marine Corps drill sergeants and senior officers for inspiration. This is to say that I learned how to “lead like a man” full of yelling so close to your face that you are spit on as they get their point across. Because this was all I knew, it seemed like all I could do sometimes, too. This Admin Department was where all correspondence, awards, and yearly evaluations for all members of the 600-person battalion went through. It was a lot of paperwork. My first responsibility was to do ninety evaluations for the first class petty officers. This was a big deal because this evaluation played a huge role in determining if they would be promoted to the rank of chief. In doing these evaluations, it was my job to make sure they were accurate and hand them off to the Executive Officer. When I would give these evaluations to the Executive Officer, he was harsh. Although it was typical for there to be several drafts of these evaluations, this particular officer was especially critical. The evaluations he would hand back looked like a bloody massacre had taken place due to his endless markups.

My Moment of Weakness

Each round of drafts, I would get yelled at.

“Make them better!” he would scream (along with a long slew of other degrading verbiage). And I would leave the room feeling frustrated, hurt, and like a failure.

After a few rounds of this, I decided that my team must be doing something wrong.

So, on the next draft I received, I took it back to my team and what did I do?

I yelled at them. Just like I had been yelled at.

I called them worthless, lazy, and incompetent at their jobs.

“Do better!” I screamed. And walked out.

Redemption and a Way Forward

To this day I am ashamed. I know we're supposed to be tough in the military, but in my perspective, there's no place for this type of leadership. That leadership style was not authentic to me and I knew that’s not the type of leader I wanted to be. And, not to mention, my team saw right through me. They knew I was trying to be something that I wasn’t.

And I knew that I had to change. A few months later, I was given an opportunity that allowed me to change in a big way. After learning my lesson as the Administrative Officer, I was chosen to be the Officer-in-Charge of a detachment of eighteen personnel on a tiny little island off Alaska. This time I was partnered up with a seasoned Navy Chief, Chief Willis. He had served in the Navy for almost 20 years and he knew how to lead people, authentically. I knew this was my chance to learn how to lead differently otherwise I would not be able to stay in the Navy and lead in the way I knew I was meant to. Chief Willis became a great mentor to me. Young officers are usually linked with seasoned chiefs that help them become better leaders and through this sacred mentorship, he helped me understand that I did not need to be a yeller to lead. He taught me the essence of a team. Here are three major takeaways Chief Willis taught me:

  1. Each member of the team has ideas that can make the team stronger as a whole. And it's up to the leader to listen to them and implement them when needed.

  2. The leader has to give direction. And there are ways to do this by being firm and not necessarily needing to yell all the time.

  3. Servant leadership is an effective leadership style that feels authentic to me.

I learned to be comfortable in my leadership style, and this in turn brought on additional confidence.

I owe everything to Chief Willis.

From this experience on, I have uncovered who I am as a leader and chosen to lead in a way that feels aligned to me.

I am a quiet, assertive, empathetic, and encouraging leader. I know how to motivate a team and lead by example. I understand my communication style and can flex to fit the needs of other communication styles, too.

In my authentic leadership journey, I’ve found that the best leaders aren’t doing what others are doing but instead doing what they know how to do. If you’ve ever made a mistake in leadership, it’s okay. What did you learn from it? How are you going to change and adapt moving forward? If you’d like to hear more stories of transformation and truth like this one, my keynote speech is full of them. I will teach your team, audience, or organization how they can turn moments of weakness into ways to lead authentically.


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