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How to live—and lead—in the mess

I’ve been thinking about how hard it is to lead in transition.

Indeed, what we now call “hard” would have been deemed “impossible” even two short years ago—pre-pandemic.

Most of my 1:1 clients are senior leaders in organizations and are at the helm, steering across vast oceans with what feels like gale-force winds and class 4 rapids. They are reaching their limits—of exhaustion, patience, and even hope—as resources dwindle, demands increase, and tempers flare.

  • How do we keep going when it’s such a fucking mess?
  • How can we lead when we don’t know where we’re going?
  • How much longer will we be in these uncertain times?

These are the questions I hear daily from leaders. And if you’re reading this now—maybe you relate.

Sometimes people are not the best inspiration in these times—because maybe we don’t know as much as we think we know. I mean look at us now, right? We’re flailing about.

Do you know where I look for clues on how best to navigate? Nature and animals. If you’ve read any of my stuff, this is not news to you.

So hang with me a moment, and I’ll tell you about a little bird I used to know that gave me some thoughts about leading in these times.

My grandmother used to have a parakeet named Cheery. He had a bright blue chest and a fancy cage. My mom also had a parakeet named Happy. He had a turquoise chest. I could expound on the significance of these two women needing birds as placeholders for key emotions that were most likely missing in their lives at that moment, but that would be another post…

Back in the day, we were obsessed with teaching these birds to speak. Happy was clocking about 32 words before he met his demise one night when our cat finally found a way to tip the cage so the tray slid out…and the bird escaped. What an ironic end, given his name.

But my grandmother’s bird swore, which was even better. You would walk into the room, and Cheery would yell from his cage (in a raspy voice like my Grandmother’s that sounded like he’d been smoking for, I dunno, say 50 years..): GOD DAMNIT!

Now that I’m thinking about it, we also never questioned why my grandmother, who had lived in New Jersey most of her life, spoke with a haughty, British accent. She would elongate vowels on words like “bath”, “potato” and “tomato” as if she grew up in Cotswold, England, but we never questioned it—neither did Cherry, it seemed, as he imitated her.

But by far the BEST phrase in Cheery’s repertoire was this one:

“I’ve got a dirty perch.”

For the full effect of this, I need you to imagine this is coming out of a little blue bird, sounding like a throaty Lauren Bacall, said in a long and drawn-out manner with a completely haughty, British accent.

“I’ve got a duuuuuhhhtey peurrrtch.” You with me?

So what does this little bird on a dirty perch have to do with living—and leading—in these times? A lot, it seems.

Because god damnit we’re all sitting on a dirty perch right now.

What do I mean by a dirty perch?

Well, think about it. What makes a perch dirty?

COVID numbers are on the rise, hospitals are over-capacity, and staffing issues are taking a toll—which makes it really hard to get a grip on whatever perch you happen to be sitting on.

It’s almost impossible to get shit done—we’re up to our ankles in it.

My phone and inbox have been full of requests from leaders like this:

  • What do you have on resistance, Lael?
  • How do you lead people when it’s $#*&% messy?
  • How much longer do you think we’ll be here?
  • How do you support people in the discomfort?
  • How much longer do you think we’ll be here?
  • How do I hold this together for people when I feel like I’m falling apart myself?
  • How do you say no to work/client requests when that doesn’t feel like an option?
  • How can I set a boundary for myself, but also be compassionate?
  • How much longer do you think we’ll be here?

This is life—and leading—on a dirty perch.

You probably know these questions all too well over there, doncha?

Are you feeling the dirty perch of these times under your birdie feet? Maybe even as you take in plenty of sparkles of joy and moments of serendipity that give you hope for humanity and better times ahead.

It can be a lot to hold in one body while sitting on the perch.

So I will share with you here what I’ve been talking about all week in my one-on-one conversations—be it with my clients, friends, husband, kids, neighbors, or parents.

Naming what we’re feeling. Offering validation. BEING WITH the mess of it all. This is the best “doing” we can do right now.

Think of a hospice worker, sitting with a bereft family at the bedside of a loved one. Do they “fix”, soothe with lies or offer solutions to make it better? No, they do not.

They hold space to grieve, normalize the feelings, and speak the truth—even if it’s hard or unwelcome.

Think of the first responders and rescue workers like those on the ground after the tornados hit last week. Do they tell you it’s not that bad, offer you reasons why “you’re lucky”, or minimize what you’re feeling? No, they do not.

They wrap warm blankets around your shoulders, listen and nod, and quietly hold your hand or rub your back.

This is what leading looks like from the messy perch—not on the extraordinary days when the reporters are circling, but on the quiet ordinary moments when no one is looking.

Presence. Humility. Grace. Connection. Compassion. Community.

Truth in the mess. Courage to be with big feelings. Strength to be with the unknown.

This is hard—to resist the urge to fix, rescue someone from the feelings they’re feeling, or distract people with shiny things like hope, possibilities, or the future.

The perch is the present moment. It just so happens that ours happens to be a little—or a lot—dirty right now.

We don’t have a tremendous amount of training and tolerance (massive understatement) for staying in the present moment—we favor future, forward, growth, more, better, faster.

But you know what needs to happen on the dirty perch before we take flight and get to work? Rest. Witnessing.

Holding a reverent pause to acknowledge the other birds in the chaos, like someone lighting the first candle at a vigil.

This week, I listened to the song This Woman’s Work by Kate Bush and it reminded me to not abandon the perch too hastily. It slooooooowwwed me down enough to meet people—and myself—in the present.

Maybe your perch is squeaky clean and spit-shined new over there, and if that’s the case, sing your heart out loud and proud.

But if you’re feeling some lumps and bumps between your parakeet feet as we head into year two of this pandemic, know that you’re not alone.

Imagine me over here with my bright blue chest, snuggled up next to you, sending you lots of love, dirty perch and all.


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