In the summer of 2019, my husband and I adopted Jesi, a 15-year-old girl from Colombia. The day we received approval from the US government to adopt her, I felt numb. I got the phone call while walking through the Phoenix airport. I sat down and I cried. I’d worked for months to complete all the requirements for foreign adoption. And yet I felt so inadequate and unprepared for the road ahead. Adoption is scary. Teen adoption from another country is so scary. But I stood up and reminded myself that love isn’t scary.
Helping her integrate into a new culture, new language, new school, new neighborhood and find new friends was scary. But it was also fulfilling and fun. Then COVID-19 hit. The day the school district announced schools were closing and would be 100% remote felt like the walls were crashing down. How was I ever going to teach Jesi a new language, everything she needed to know for school and make sure she connected with other kids? How was I going to do this while leading my team through their own personal challenges and navigate a complete shift of our work? And then there was my ten-year-old son who also needed my help. And my husband. And my aging parents.
I felt totally buried.
So, I cried. And then I got busy.
The art of vulnerability
I got busy accepting help. Learning to accept help was new and unfamiliar to me. In the past, I’ve always been the one who could handle it all. COVID-19 rendered “doing it all” impossible. I had to map out our days, set our priorities, define what we needed, what we could do ourselves and where we needed help. Then I leaned on my friends and family, hard. I paid for help, I traded for help. I found the more I asked for help, the more opportunities came up for me to help others. Not only did we get help for Jesi with school and language classes, we also built some amazing friendships that will stand the test of time.
When I was 19 years old, my younger sister got diagnosed with cancer. After 5 long years of fighting, I was 24 and sitting at her bedside, feeling her slip away. It had been a long, sleepless and painful night for her. She was wrestling with getting up to go to a fundraising luncheon where she would be the keynote speaker. I put my hand on her arm and said, “It’s okay. They’ll understand, they know how sick you are. They can find another speaker. You don’t have to do it today.” She looked at me with her signature smile and said, “Especially today. Because I feel so bad, and I want to stay in bed, it’s especially important that I go today.”
Especially when it’s hard
The example she set for me, the example of getting out of bed, of doing good for others, of helping others, especially when it was so hard, changed my life. She knew instinctively that serving others was the best way to keep her mindset right. To keep herself from feeling self-pity, discouragement and hopelessness. She had the most optimistic outlook, despite a devastating reality. The lessons she taught me are with me every day. I draw on her example and know that my life is richer and fuller because she taught me to serve others, especially when things are hard. Especially today.
Leaving “tough” behind
Somewhere along the road, I learned that women in leadership positions need to be tough. That leaders can’t be soft, they certainly can’t lead with their hearts and that results matter most. While I know results matter, I know that people matter more. And when you really know your people, when you lean into them, when you really take care of them, results will follow. It’s an art to lead with your heart. It’s an art to be vulnerable and open, to build trust, and to love your team through the rough spots. And those behaviors will always outshine “toughness.”
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