Failing Publicly, a Lesson in Leadership

Katherine Berdy Leadership Lab, Leadership Programs, Pedagogy of Leadership Interview, Pedagogy Of Leadership®, Student Leadership

By Katherine Berdy, Faculty, gcLi, Director of the C. Kyser Ethical Leadership Center, Altamont School, Birmingham (AL)

I’m 49 years old and can’t recall a single time in my life when I have very publicly learned something brand new, like training wheels still on, brand new. Yet, I ask my students to make themselves vulnerable as they learn new skills and material…Every. Single. Day. So, when approached about hosting the gcLi Podcast, I had the choice of saying yes and confronting some significant personal fears or saying no and jeopardizing my personal integrity as a teacher and leadership educator.

With a heart filled with reluctant excitement and a head filled with raging self-doubt, I said yes. 

Take One: Too many fillers. 

Take Two: Voice too high. 

Take Three: Sound too Southern. 

Take Four: That makes zero sense. 

Takes Five through Twenty-five…The familiar voice of my fifteen-year-old self tells me I can’t, I shouldn’t, I’m a fraud…

There it was…Imposter Syndrome. According to Stanford’s Dr. Dena M. Bravata, M.D., M.S., imposter syndrome involves “a persistent self-doubt and fear of being exposed as a fraud or imposter.” While I had certainly heard the phrase “Imposter Syndrome” and noted some other times in my life I possibly struggled with it, I rarely associated the word “fraud” with my daily tasks simply because it had been such a long time since I had tried something completely new. Yet, with the podcast, I truly felt fraud-like and utterly exposed. At this point, it was still my little secret…until I found myself recounting the importance of a growth mindset to my 9th-grade students.

The scene: A few minutes after class, a student returned in tears to talk about a recent test grade. They had misread the instructions and in that moment their entire identity and self-worth was wrapped up in mistakes and assumptions. As we talked, it occurred to me that my student’s assumptions about the test were exactly the same as my own about the podcast, and I would never tell a student the things I was telling myself. So, I shared my podcast struggles with my student, and almost out of nowhere, a much gentler voice whispered from deep inside, “You’ve got this! “You go, girl!”

Here are a few unexpected outcomes that have happened since I said yes to learning something brand new in public. I’ve learned to laugh at myself a little more. I’ve met truly wonderful people. I’m not only learning about all sorts of new topics, but also about technology and cool communication strategies. I feel like I’m beginning to shed years of perfectionist tendencies in my quest to become a so-called expert at anything and everything; being a novice is so much more fun! I’ve even gotten a few job offers! I have at least one new 9th grade podcast listener who is now my partner in cross-checking the stories we tell ourselves. 

I’m also seeing others in new ways. I find myself yearning to hear the stories of fellow-strugglers and I greatly appreciate the raw humanity that flows out of authentic learning and discovery. Recently, I was reflecting on the similarities of my own experience with one some of you may be familiar with: first recitals. Perhaps you’re a performance artist, or you’ve survived a first recital yourself or as a parent. As painful as they can be, there is palpable hope and energy in every performance. Now, I may be naive, but I don’t think it’s because audience members expect greatness out of a first recital performance. Rather, I think the glory stems from the courage, effort, and potential that the novice brings to a public performance. Missed notes or arrhythmic movements are right there on stage for everyone to see. While we may call them mistakes, they symbolize a stage in the learning process that’s vital for growth. We praise the children who are bold enough to put themselves out there, but it’s rare to see adults willfully step into that same knee-knocking, new spotlight. 

So, next time you are feeling fraudulent or fearful of diving into something new, and perhaps even more daringly, doing so in public, consider the benefit!  You are modeling critical leadership skills for your students and those who support you in your endeavor.  While you may want to seek it out, or you may want to wait for it to come to you, the next time you are asked to step outside of your comfort zone, do it, and do it for all to see…and proudly call it Leadership with a capital “L.” 

Katherine Berdy, M.Ed, is the director of The C. Kyser Miree Ethical Leadership Center at The Altamont School in Birmingham, AL, where she creates community partnerships and experiential educational opportunities for Altamont’s students. Katherine’s career and pedagogical foundations began in the mid 1990’s while working as an outdoor educator in the Rockies and Pacific Northwest. Since then, she has worked as a teacher, photographer, leadership and academic coach, mentor, and facilitator. Katherine has presented at SAIS (Southern Association of Independent Schools) and NNSP (National Network of Independent Schools) with gcLi. She holds a B.A. in Communication Studies and an M.Ed. from the University of Montevallo. Her teaching portfolio includes classes in English, theater, creative writing, leadership studies, public speaking, and debate. In her spare time, Katherine enjoys traveling, reading, knitting, photography, and spending time with friends and her husband and two children.