For a while now, I’ve had this quote from Brené Brown’s book “Dare to Lead” as my laptop wallpaper: ‘Who we are is how we lead’. Every day when I open my computer to start my job, it acts as a reminder.
For over 10 years now, I’ve been an environmental activist. Five years ago, I left Paris to come to Brussels and work for the European Zero Waste network, and the next thing I knew I was participating in the creation of a global movement to tackle plastic pollution and was put in charge of building and coordinating the European chapter. Without it ever being on my agenda, I became a leader. Today, I coordinate a movement of over 100 organisations in Europe and I directly manage a team of three wonderful and talented women. But to become the happy and confident leader I am today (most of the time), I had to choose it, work hard and show up for myself every damn day.
Brené Brown defines a leader as ‘anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes and has the courage to develop this potential’. To be honest, I had never really thought about leadership at all until I started building and coordinating the Break Free From Plastic movement in Europe. The reasons for that lie probably somewhere between the fact that our patriarchal society doesn’t raise young girls with the idea that they can be leaders just as much as men, and the fact that I had digested many personal life experiences into many insecurities about my own self-worth. Nevertheless, I embarked on this journey head first, in the most challenging context that I’ve experienced so far. Personally, I was grieving the sudden death of my mum, I was going through a painful divorce, and I had just relocated my whole life to a new city and country where I barely knew anyone. Professionally, the workplace atmosphere I found myself in was quite gloomy at times and the financial health of the organisation was in poor shape. I was also considered, by most of the people I worked with, a fairly young and inexperienced woman, a newcomer in the Brussels Bubble and the world of International NGOs.
I sometimes wonder if all these challenges were not just stars aligning, allowing me to get to another level of self-awareness and emotional literacy, embrace my leadership potential, and contribute to a movement that will continue to have an impact long after it stops being my job. At the time it certainly filled a hole, the one left by my mum’s death and the loss of my relationship and the identity that came with it. I threw myself into work, and through it found a new identity, met new friends, built a new family, and discovered a new me. Still, it was hard, very hard. Because I cared a lot, because I confused my job with who I truly was. I had never learned to stand up for myself against abusive colleagues or unfair situations. I had to learn how to be a warrior in the Dojo rather than in battle, taking every challenge as an opportunity to learn and grow, and not as an opportunity to question my self-worth.
In the process, I discovered who I am, and made a conscious choice to show up exactly as that: openhearted, vulnerable, impatient, perfectionist, and most importantly loving. I learned not to ask for legitimacy, but to take it like men tend to do, and own it through deep integrity and honesty, and hard and good work. I learned how to navigate uncertainty with an open mind and open heart, how to be ok with not being loved by everyone or pissing off certain people because who you are and how you show up brings them back to their own limitations and insecurities. I learned how to manage and resolve conflicts thanks to a curiosity mindset. And I learned to navigate a lot of ego: other people’s ego, and mine, first and foremost. I’m clear on the fact that as much as my insecure ego was an interesting driver at first (it brought an energy and a labour force to building this movement that would not have happened with healthy boundaries) in order to go further and build true resilience within myself and for the movement I was helping to create, this ego had to be healed. It had to be healed in order for the work to no longer be about me, but about the movement we were creating and the people with whom I was creating it.
All along the way, I have been supported by amazing, loving and caring human beings, those people who see your potential and believe in you when you don’t, who celebrate your achievements while you are still focused on what could have gone better. Some of them may have suffered because of my insecurities, but granted me the patience and the faith that I could overcome them. I also had to learn how to love and take care of myself to keep going, in order to have more impact and to support my team at my best. That came with working on my body, a lot, and spirit, and cultivating the relationship to my femininity and the wisdom of my womb, my creativity and power center. Only with that and a strong connection to nature and its invisible forces, was I able to come to this deep intuition and trust that I was just in the right place doing what I was meant to do (read more in my post about sacred activism).
And no matter how difficult it can still be some days, I keep going because this is all about love: love for this beautiful Earth, for the people I work with and what we work for together. Love is how I lead, how I support my colleagues and friends in realising their full potential. Love is why I share my experience in a very raw and vulnerable way with colleagues or students when I give lectures. Love is why I’ve worked so hard to become the unapologetic female leader that I am today, because as Marianne Williamson says beautifully: ‘as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.’
So shine my love, to make this world a brighter place,