My recently published book, Hope for Recovery, is a book containing stories of incredibly brave women and men who have battled eating disorders and are actively choosing to live every day with hope and determination, including me.
So what does overcoming an eating disorder have to do with my professional world of helping individuals and organizations develop brave, bold leaders? What could it possibly have to do with being a leader capable of cultivating authentic and courageous organizational cultures?
The truth is that for many years I struggled with how this part of my story fit in with my work. There were many days when I even intentionally tried to hide this part of myself from those I am privileged to work with.
Sure, I’ve spoken openly for more than 10 years about my long and difficult battle with anorexia, bulimia, and crippling perfectionism. But it was always in the context of mental health advocacy or eating disorder awareness and education – never in my professional life!
The reality is that I was trying to keep my deepest, darkest truth in a box. Safe and secure, and completely separate from my professional world where I have long been referred to as a born leader; a top performer, a total bad a**.
And… this is what overcoming an eating disorder has to do with being a brave leader. Our most difficult battles are usually what bring about our courage. It’s in the battle to overcome that we discover our incredible resilience, internal strength, and will to be brave.
There’s a lot out there about the need to develop grit in our young people. Researchers and physicians alike feel that in an effort to protect our children, we too often deprive them of the opportunity to develop resilience and confidence in their ability to overcome challenges.
Well, one thing I know for sure is that children learn much more from watching what we do than they learn from listening to what we say. What’s even more confusing for a young person is to see a parent, teacher, or coach who says one thing but does another.
Is this really all that different for adults? Don’t we also hate the feeling of a friend who says, “You can trust me” and then turns around and tells others what we shared in confidence? Is there anything less motivating than working for a boss who says, “we’re in this thing together” and then throws us under the bus when things get hard?
Most of us can sniff out that kind of fraud. We may fall for it once, or even twice, but by the third time we listen to the words of a leader say one thing and then see their actions communicate a completely different message, we start to disengage.
Our natural human reaction to that kind of disingenuous communication is to put our back up and start smiling and nodding. “Sure I’ll still do my job and show up for work everyday, but I no longer trust you.”
So, that’s what my eating disorder recovery story has to do with being a brave leader. It’s about me showing up and telling you the truth. It’s about not hiding or pretending. It’s about being bold, authentic, and vulnerable enough to trust that you will find hope and courage in the story.
The old theories of great leadership love to focus on the hero’s journey. It feels better to focus on the greatness. It’s so much easier for us to believe that some people were just born brave. We want to hear about the great success at the end of the story, and “oh can’t we just skip over all the messy stuff that happened before the moment of glory?”
No! That messy middle is what built that leader. The battle is where that person found their strength and will to lead with a courageous heart. Their struggle is what gives them the capacity to have empathy for others, and those moments of despair are where they acquired their grit.
We may love to look only at the courage that comes from fighting real demons and dragons in life. But there is no courage without grit. The very definition of courage is mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty. Your battle may not have have been an eating disorder, but surely, you have fought your own demons and dragons in life.
Owning that part of your story is where you will find your greatness. Recognizing and fully owning the courage and determination your battle requires of you every single day is where you will discover your capacity to be a brave, bold, and authentic leader – a leader who can change the world, one heart at a time.