The Gift of Struggle

By Emily Tracy, IPLI Mentor, Superintendent of Brown County Schools

A leader’s responsibility is to tell their story of struggle and allow the narrative and the significance to work their magic and give greater meaning to the work we all do. As a new superintendent, there have been times during this semester I felt as though I had to be the lady at the top of the organizational chart that always had her act together. I thought, at times, I needed to cultivate the facade of “executive detachment.” I was also reminded weekly of sacrifice and humility. I have learned that the latter gifts much deeper and more often in such a short amount of time.

The most important question I can ask myself, ourselves, is, “Who am I becoming?”

So here is a gift of one of my struggles this semester: I get to tell my own story. Each week I get to tell my narrative of growth, reflection, and vision to the staff. You see, if I don’t share that story, that purpose, that identity, others will be left on their own to figure it out. They will try to guess what matters to me and why it matters. They will make assumptions about my mission or lack thereof.

YOU, yes, all of you out there leading, teaching, supporting, creating, doing are helping me achieve my biggest dream: to leave an impact on kids, on adults, on the community, on educational leadership.

I got the opportunity to meet with a teacher this week. Off-campus. For coffee. Out of the blue. Again, I know I crusade at times about positive intent and seeking to understand, but I instantly thought again, “What did I do, or say or not do or not say?” “Did I mess up . . . again?

Nope. It turns out just a kind, a really kind gesture wanting to know how I am doing simply. Nothing attached, nothing expected nothing in return. Humility. I was nervous, like sweating nervous. I spoke about my struggles and challenges this semester. I talked about the great people who surrounded me from day 1. And I listened too. I listened for the same vulnerability, the same nervousness, and the same reflective voice. I listened for connections, opportunities to honor her story, for grace in our field.

I have struggled this semester by being “the outsider,” by being a rookie, by feeling as though I have to have it all together all of the time. The gifts keep coming, however. Those gifts are confidence, courage, and compassion. I have been given a slice of confidence with every hard thing I have tackled and come out on the other end okay. With every failure, every misstep, every judgment, I have been able to see myself on the other side. And the gift of courage seems to get bigger and bigger with each struggle. Total honesty — courage comes much larger than confidence, but I will take what I can get:) But compassion brings perhaps the most significant gift. I am not confident or courageous enough to get through the struggle without compassion.

I heard this week someone talk about being lonely in this job. I used to think it was pretty lonely, especially as an “outsider.” But it isn’t. Not if I am doing things right. If I am doing what a true leader does, I am surrounded by people who genuinely care, trust, and support each other, including me — no matter what title I or anyone else holds. Indeed, a leader can walk alongside the team and open up, be vulnerable, see the real human in everyone. It is humility, sacrifice, and encouragement. Someone did that for me this week. I did that for someone else this week.

I want my gift of struggle to help you tell your stories, share how your story is embedded in everything you do, and inspire you to encourage others. I want to honor the stories shared with me, celebrate milestones, and at the end of the day, I want people to feel worthy. I want to feel worthy.

I hope you discover something in this message that resonates with you. If you feel compelled to share a story with me — please send your story my way and know I want nothing more than to walk alongside you. And if not me, how about a colleague? Take pride in being part of something greater than yourself. That something is your gift.

The arena awaits . . .