The Muse, COO: Being a Leader Means Being Uncomfortable

The Muse
By Alex Cavoulacos
August 1, 2016

The night of July 6, 2016, I could­n’t sleep. I’d just wit­nessed, via social media, the vio­lent and unjust death of Phi­lan­do Castile, just 24 hours after Alton Ster­ling was shot to death in Baton Rouge. They were not the first, and I feel a con­stant pain in my heart know­ing that they won’t be the last. But for me, they were a cat­a­lyst. I lay awake in bed in a sad­ness-fueled insom­nia pep­pered with so many oth­er emo­tions besides grief.

I didn’t fall asleep think­ing about work, about upcom­ing meet­ings, or if we’d hit our quar­ter­ly goals. Instead, I thought about my team, and how these inci­dents and injus­tices must be affect­ing them too. How, like me, it must be get­ting increas­ing­ly hard­er to absorb these head­lines, these injus­tices after leav­ing work, and then come in the next day, sit down at their com­put­ers, and focus on their typ­i­cal routine.

So, as I head­ed into the office the next morn­ing, bleary-eyed and still in a state of shock, I decid­ed that I could not and should not start my day with busi­ness as usu­al. I wrote my heart into an email to my team. When I pre­pared to hit send, I was scared. I felt uncom­fort­able and vul­ner­a­ble. Was this the right thing to do? Was I the right per­son to say it? How would the team react? Was I going too far? Or not far enough? There wasn’t a clear answer and there wasn’t a “career expert” who’d weighed in yet on the prop­er man­age­r­i­al response.

But my need to talk about this with the 100-plus Musers who work with me every day pushed me through that and I sent this out:

Sub­ject: On the News This Week and Being a Whole Human

Hi Musers,

I write to you this morn­ing with a heavy heart. Hav­ing trou­ble with our world and the sense­less killings of Alton Ster­ling and Phi­lan­do Castile by the police—in the past 48 hours alone.  I also think about the hate­ful mur­ders in Orlan­do, the Stan­ford Rapist, and acts of ter­ror in Bagh­dad, Istan­bul and my home, Paris. Each of these acts, and so many oth­ers, cut so deeply, pro­vok­ing fear, anger, help­less­ness, sad­ness and so many oth­er emotions—affecting each of us differently.

Talk­ing about pain and fear and race and big­otry and ter­ror are not easy things to do at work. They’re messy, per­son­al con­ver­sa­tions, loaded with our own expe­ri­ences and iden­ti­ties. Many of you may not be inter­est­ed in hav­ing those con­ver­sa­tions here, and that’s some­thing I absolute­ly respect and under­stand. But we all process these events dif­fer­ent­ly, and I know that for oth­ers it may be impos­si­ble not to bring that bur­den with you some days into the office. Kathryn and I talk to you, our Musers, about us all being “whole humans” with lives out­side the office, fam­i­lies and pas­sions, marathons and trav­els. But part of being a whole human is also, occa­sion­al­ly, hav­ing the pain and shock of what our world is capa­ble of.

I write you today not with any sort of answer—but with an acknowl­edg­ment of my own chal­lenge this morn­ing to put my head in the game 100%. Last night was a sleep­less night for me, as I lay there pro­cess­ing the break­ing news of the killing of Phi­lan­do Castile in Fal­con Heights. And I also write to you with an open door, and an open heart; with a promise that if any of you ever want to talk, you can come to me. Even if it’s just to get a cof­fee or walk around the block. Or just to be able to acknowl­edge some­thing dif­fi­cult that’s affect­ing you that day. Kathryn, Lind­say, and Shan­non are also here and have made that same promise to you. We live in dif­fi­cult and tur­bu­lent times, and some days, that can real­ly be hard.

Respons­es came flood­ing in. Email after email, grate­ful for words of sup­port and affir­ma­tion. Emails with per­son­al sto­ries, and per­son­al strug­gles. Emails with sad­ness, and with hope. Col­leagues who were incred­i­bly affect­ed feel­ing val­i­dat­ed, and some that were less so, pushed to think and feel more empa­thy. The wall had come down, and in that moment, our human­ness unit­ed us more than our work.

In those respons­es was also an ask, from sev­er­al peo­ple on my team, to write about this. And imme­di­ate­ly, I felt uncom­fort­able. I did­n’t write this for the out­side world. I didn’t spend hours draft­ing it or send it to a PR con­sul­tant for approval. How would I explain the con­text? What would peo­ple think of my inten­tions? How could I pos­si­bly get the words right to com­mu­ni­cate my thoughts and feel­ings to the world, to peo­ple who did­n’t know me?

It took a few weeks to digest, but I real­ized that I need­ed to be uncom­fort­able. To share this. Because none of this is about me, and how I feel; but what I do and how I react impacts the world around me.  I’m a white woman in New York City, who grew up in France, and I know that there is much I can­not speak to, and many I should not speak for.

But that does not remove my respon­si­bil­i­ty to speak at all, and to use my expe­ri­ence, my posi­tion, and my priv­i­lege. Maybe by shar­ing, I can show just one way of being more open and com­pas­sion­ate at work and encour­age just one more per­son to act or speak up. And per­haps man­agers and team­mates will think about their col­leagues with more compassion—and start being and see­ing whole humans too.

I didn’t send the email with the intent of solv­ing a prob­lem. Or to put myself on a lead­er­ship pedestal—but rather to remind my team that I’m aware of what’s hap­pen­ing in the world, I’m aware that it might be affect­ing them, I’m aware that it’s a dif­fi­cult top­ic to dis­cuss, and I’m aware that just because they’re at work, it does­n’t make it easy to bury or ignore.

Even though it was uncom­fort­able to put myself out there, I want­ed the team to know that I’m here to talk, and here to lis­ten, and here to sup­port every­one to the fullest of my abil­i­ties, even when that sup­port falls out­side their job descrip­tions. And that’s what being a leader is all about. At the end of the day, there is strength in action, and it is a leader’s duty to act in the face of discomfort.