Jan. 10, 2022

Why the Kind Leadership Challenge? An Origin Story

Learn about Sarah Clark, and why she launched the Kind Leadership Challenge.

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This episode was produced by Podcast Boutique .


Why would an every day ordinary university librarian at an every day Ordinary university decide to start her own leadership podcast? Stay Tuned to find out why.

Welcome to Episode 0 of the Kind Leadership Challenge! I’m Dr. Sarah Clark. I’m creating this show to empower educational leaders to heal workplace drama, defensiveness, and burnout. And at least for now, every episode will be 10 minutes or less. But before we start, you’d probably like to know a little about me, and why I’ve launched this challenge! 

I’ve always wanted to make the world a better place. That’s why I became a librarian, and then a library leader. I started out at the front desk of a small college library in Oklahoma. Over the next 12 years, I earned my masters and PhD, and ultimately became the associate director. In early 2018, I started my dream job, as Dean of an academic library in Philadelphia. It was a great college that was making the world a better place. I came in eager, fired up, and promptly made every newbie mistake in the book.

In fairness, the situation was more challenging than I expected. The leadership needed me to make some big changes as soon as I could. I wasn’t confident enough to push back and slow things down a bit. Things hadn't changed much for the library in decades. That made it even harder for my team to cope with everything changing at once. I’d never set foot in my new hometown before my interview. I was exhausted from relearning EVERYTHING, from purchase order processes to the best route to the supermarket. And did I mention we moved from Oklahoma to Philadelphia in the dead of winter?

But the real challenges were inside me. Deep down, I thought I'd never be good enough or smart enough to lead this library. So, like many an insecure leader, I tried fixing everything else because I was scared to look inward. I believed that my job was to make the library perfect. But I didn’t know how. All that pressure and anger left me lonely, scared, and guilty. I couldn't connect with my team. I was so terrified that we would get stuck in drama that I tried to smooth things over and keep us moving forward. We made progress, but we weren't solving the real problems.

Looking back there was plenty of blame to go around. However, I was my own worst enemy. I had been a confident, skilled, and caring leader in my past life. But I found myself overthinking every situation till we all felt cautious and defensive. I was overwhelming everyone with too much change in too short a time. That led to toxic drama instead of healthy conflict. And I was overworking myself, because burnout was preferable than reaching out for help. 

It all came crashing down at the end of that insane first year. A group of my team called a surprise meeting and read me the riot act. They brought receipts. They regaled me with every poor decision I made. Every time I held back information because decisions weren’t final yet and overthought whether I should share it yet. Every time I pushed through conflict that needed to be had because there was too much to do. It was the most brutal meeting I’ve been in since I became a librarian. A close second was the one with my supportive but concerned then-boss a few weeks later. He said less but it cut deeper. 

To be clear, none of us were perfect. But they were tired as being seen as something to be fixed, just like I was tired of being seen as the enemy. We were all overworking ourselves, overthinking every decision, and overwhelming each other. But I knew, it was my duty as leader to solve the deeper problem. I had to shift my library from a "me and them” into an US. 

But knowing what I needed to do didn’t tell me how to do it, much less give me the confidence to accomplish it. My spirit broke. I fell into waves of anxiety and depression so bad I didn’t get a full night’s sleep for almost a month. Because I didn’t think I failed. I thought I was a failure. 

I wasn’t sure if I’d ever recover from my burnout, but I knew I couldn’t keep living the way I had been. So I read. I Journaled. I agonized over what kind of leader I wanted to be and how to get there. I could see the pieces of the puzzle, I just couldn’t fit them together, and I was still too ashamed to ask for help. And then, one morning in early 2019, a month after it all blew up, a chance thought made it all clear.

“You don't have to be perfect to build a better world. You just need the desire to heal, the skills to and a community to work with.”

That insight shifted everything for me. Just as the villain had been inside me, so was the power to vanquish it. Especially if I found people who could help me fight the battle. 

I combined my PhD and my unexpected postdoc in the school of hard knocks. I soon realized that I needed to get away from the urge to fix my [or myself for that matter]. Instead, we needed to heal into something stronger and better, even if it wasn’t perfect. So I focused on three themes that became the heart of the kind leadership framework. Growing Humanely, Managing effectively, and partnering collaboratively. And as I did so, the magic started. 

We gradually shifted away from fixing our problems and toward healing our world. First as individuals, then as a team, and then beyond. I stopped beating myself up. I asked for and offered help. I set and enforced boundaries, while encouraging productive conflict and collaboration. And slowly but surely, my team followed suit! As 2019 turned into 2020 I trusted my skills again, and my team and I were increasingly trusting each other as well. COVID hit a little over a year after my epiphany. Even in those dark days we were still making our small corner of the world a more informed and educated place. We may not have fixed all our flaws, but we were healing ourselves and those we served. Drama, Defensiveness, and Burnout had given way to Trust, Creativity, and Confidence.

That’s when I started to wonder. Could what I’d done heal other educational and library leaders? More than that, could it help them heal their organizations and communities? I revived an old facebook group I’d started during my PhD, and renamed it after my new concept-- Kind Leadership. I started a free monthly zoom workshop series. A few months later, I found some library leaders to test a kind leadership coaching group. At the end, Sarah commented that it had been a real journey of discovery. She had taught some of the skills to her team too. Annie said, “Leadership is Leadership. The opportunity to face our issues together and discuss them with our peers is really useful.” Jennifer said “It’s a good opportunity to reflect on what you’re doing, how you’re doing it, and where you might improve in a guided context.” 

Encouraged by those early reviews. I turned the coaching group into a self-directed course and community. Leaders can join the moment they’re ready to stop fixing and start healing. I still offer free monthly leadership workshops. In addition, now I’m launching this podcast. Every week I'll share short, useful guidance you can use to heal your own drama, defensiveness, and burnout. 

4 years ago I set out to fix a library. We ended up healing ourselves and our university. I also learned that whatever my flaws are, I can make a kinder impact and build a better world. I still sometimes fear that I’m a failure. I expect I’ll always have to face that dragon from time to time. But kind leadership has taught me to catch those dark moments sooner, and heal from them in a way that will make us all stronger. If you want that same transformation for yourself and your organization, then this podcast is for you. Join us on the journey. Thanks for listening, and stay kind now!   

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