When I graduated from the University of Florida, my parents gave me a journal meant to keep the thoughts I felt so compelled to write down. I thought I’d never use it. Then I realized how quickly your memory could deteriorate after college.
Now, I use the journal often.
When I tried to figure out what to write for this piece, I went back to that journal. I’ve written in it for over two years now, and I am actually surprised at the pages I’ve filled. That journal certainly reflects the many ups and downs of someone finding herself in this industry. There are entries about inspiring talks I attended, little things someone said to me, and random quotes I ran across — and there are rants about why something wasn’t going the way I thought it should. But they all, in some way or another, boiled down to one thing.
At the end of the day, no matter how rewarding or trying, what kept me up at night? What has been at the core of all of my ups and downs thus far? What is likely to keep me going?
The answer to those questions, for me, is leadership.
I’m not here to tell you to make sure you find a mentor to guide you through your journey. I would hope that if you’re reading this, you’ve already found someone who fills that role for you. I’m here to help you when you find yourself in a position without your team leader, and your mentor can’t help you beyond moral support from miles away. I want to help you find a way to lead yourself through the trying times that lie ahead to the moment when you are lucky enough to have that leader again.
This is what I tell myself, and what has worked for me.
1. Take a deep breath. Reflect. Write.
It’s going to be okay. Think about where you are, why you’re there and what you want to do there. Write down how you’re feeling — whether it’s heartbroken, happy, overwhelmed, or all of the above. Challenge yourself to dig deep and get as specific as possible. If there’s a problem you’re anticipating, think about how you can solve it. Write it down. Think about what projects are in motion, and what needs to be done to finish on time. Write it down. Think about what you’re worried about most beyond the increased workload itself. Write that down.
Take another deep breath, and read what you just wrote. You may be surprised at how much easier it can be to listen to yourself when you read something you wrote, rather than sifting through a stream of consciousness in your head. When you look back (as I am now), you’ll realize how important it was to give yourself time to vent, time to reflect, and a time by which you want to recover in the form of fixing a problem, finishing a project or changing a working relationship.
Maybe write all that down, too.
2. Be patient.
Things will most likely not go your way immediately. (Life doesn’t tend to do this.) Without the leader of your team, a lot of people may be confused, upset, or unmotivated. You’ll hear, “That’s not my problem” and “That’s not in my job description” more times than you ever care to in your lifetime. My advice to you is to not get upset at anyone you work with. Use the way you feel when you hear those things to motivate you.
The reality is that a vacuum of leadership is everyone’s problem, since you’re all working toward the same goal. It’s easy to get caught in cycles of blame; don’t waste your time with them. Find out whose job it is to solve that problem. And if it’s no one’s job? Make it yours. There will likely be a lot of red tape you have to go through to get anything done that wasn’t normally your job to do, but don’t get upset. Figure out what barriers are in the way, and solve the problem instead.
3. Reach out to coworkers.
You may have started to develop a lone wolf attitude, but there are still people who want to help you. After all, you’re all working toward the same goal. Reach out to coworkers whom you may or may not work with on a regular basis: There’s a valuable diversity of experience that your department has accumulated over the years. Tap that well. Let them help you.
“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” I heard retiring Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley say this once, and (after giving up on finding the original source to credit), it has stuck with me ever since. People in athletics can be competitive and independent, often to a fault. It can be a challenge to let someone help you. But give it a try: Delegate duties if you have a team, students, or interns there to help you, or ask for advice even if you don’t think you really need it. It can be much easier to accomplish something when there’s more than one person getting it done.
4. Don’t lose sight of yourself.
In this industry, everyone is a leader. That doesn’t mean everyone is a good leader, but it’s important to know that no matter how young or old you are or how briefly or long you’ve been working in this industry, you’re constantly in a position to influence and be influenced.
Take some time to reflect on when your energy is highest and lowest, and around whom you’re most productive. Tailor your time to capitalize on your newfound emotional intelligence, and remember that you once entered this industry with a mission. Don’t ever forget why you do what you do. It’s easy to get bogged down in details, but it helps to think about what you do on a daily basis and relate your duties back to the big picture. Renew your faith in yourself.
Working in athletics is not for the faint of heart. If you’re reading this, you probably already know that. If you don’t, well, you will most likely encounter more turnover in this industry than you could have imagined. That’s just the nature of the business.
Losing the leader of your team is a trying experience, but it is also an opportunity, a chance to let your strengths shine and lay your weaknesses bare in hopes of improvement. And the worst thing you can do is nothing. Doing nothing is an act of complacency. It is a failure of leadership — of your personal leadership of yourself, if nothing else. Complacency will kill you, your team, and all of your dreams.
I hope that these words help anyone going through the loss of a team leader. If you ever have any questions or want to talk about a similar situation you’re going through, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me. You can find me on Twitter @nicolecbo.