Recently, a person I admire asked me to tell another person some of the lessons I’ve learned from my leadership experiences. I wanted to come up with a better answer than:
To stop saying, “I’m sorry” all the time.
But as soon as the words were out of my mouth, I realized the truth of them. Apology is as reflexive as breathing for me. If someone bumps into me, I’m immediately apologizing. When someone robbed my house, I apologized to the investigating officer for inconveniencing him by making him fill out paperwork.
When I became a team leader, one of my first leadership experiences, I spent most meetings as a mute, afraid to say anything that might upset people. As a department chair, I found myself prefacing a lot of meetings with: I’m sorry to take up your time… From my office at the district, many of my emails begin: “I’m sorry for the delay in responding…”
I’m aware that this constant atonement on my part is as annoying as the smell of cheap perfume. Some of the mea culpas, I’m sure, are due to my own neuroses, but I wonder how much is society’s conditioning? Research shows that we respond more favorably to women who exhibit their gender stereotype of empathy or behaving more emotionally. How much of my internal pressure to ask for constant forgiveness is a form of benevolent sexism? This is often perceived as a tacit demand that women with even the smallest amount of positional power be hypervigilant of the moods and reactions of others.
If you don’t believe me about that last part, try this experiment that I’ve found replicates the same results over and over: The next time you’re at dinner with a mixed gender group, notice the body language of the men and women. Especially when someone is speaking. Men tend to lean back in their chairs, their comments directed to one other man at the table. Women on the other hand, lean forward, looking at everyone seated, scanning faces to gauge reactions. It’s present in vocal tone, as well. Men tend to make flat statements; women tend to put imaginary question marks at the ends of their sentences, as if they are asking permission to have the thought or opinion.
I’m not saying this always happens, but it happens enough in my experience that it’s noticeable.
As an antidote to the river of guilt that issues from me, I’ve begun trying to reframe my ideas around the concept of responsibility. I want to broaden my own understanding of the links between it and freedom. Constant apologizing creates a prison of my own making, every sorry is a brick of my own repression. So after five decades of feeling bad about breathing other people’s air and encroaching on other people’s space, it’s high time I choose to shut my damn mouth. It’s time to own my choices – the ones that gave me a profession, titles, respect, and accomplishment.
And I’m not a damn bit sorry for any of it.
Day 6: What I’ve Learned About Responsibility, Choice & Strength
- “In a very real sense, by the time we are adult, we are the sum total of the choices we have made…One’s philosophy is not best expressed in words; it is expressed in the choices one makes…in the long run, we shape our lives and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our responsibility.” Eleanor Roosevelt
- “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” Soren Kierkegaard
- “It is not only for what we do that we are held responsible, but also for what we do not do.” Moliere
- “Before his death, Rabbi Zusya said “In the coming world, they will not ask me: ‘Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: ‘Why were you not Zusya?” Martin Buber
- “Choice of attention – to pay attention to this and ignore that – is to the inner life what choice of action is to the outer. In both cases, a man is responsible for his choice and must accept the consequences, whatever they may be.” W.H. Auden
- “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves.” William Shakespeare
- “Mankind’s greatest gift, also its greatest curse, is that we have free choice. We can make our choices built from love or from fear.” Elisabeth Kubler-Ross