I looked at the people in the room and swallowed hard.

They were gathered to determine the priorities for the Illinois Chapter of the National Speakers Association in the coming year. I knew a few and had invited others for their reputation as insightful speakers with niche knowledge (like fundraising).

As the incoming chapter president, I was feeling woefully inadequate. The voice in my head kept repeating, “Don’t break the chapter!”

“Be Honest”

After a deep breath, that’s what I decided.

“A year ago, I was offered the honor of becoming your president. I didn’t know when it was time to step up, my mother would be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, I’d be selling my house of 29 years, and ending my marriage of the same. Had I known these things, chances are I would have made a different choice.

“But I’m like you. When we make a commitment, we find a way to make it work.

“There will be times when I won’t be the leader all of us wish I were. Let me apologize for that up front. And if you ever see me using my personal life as an excuse not to do the things I should, then call me on it. I’ll at least be honest enough to get that feedback.”

I sat down with relief—happy to get out of the spotlight—and turned the meeting over to a facilitator. What I didn’t know is how this risk would resonate throughout the year.

The Gift of Understanding

It’s true: people on the board (and others at the meeting) regularly checked in to see how I was doing. And volunteered to take over a task if it was too much for me in the moment. But they did more.

They told me about difficult things that had gone or were going on in their lives. Because I’d been vulnerable first, it became safe for them to let me know who they were. What a relief! Like most people going through trying times, I got awfully tired of living in my own story. It felt good to be there for them, too.

The Gift of Changing Myself

My leadership style before this had been, “Give it to me and I’ll get it done.” What a disaster that would have been as chapter president! I would have become a bottleneck and made people wait for me to make a decision or make something happen.

Each board member had chosen the “one thing” he or she wanted to accomplish during the year to advance the chapter. That’s because we were all responsible for one of the five association “M”s: money, management, meetings, membership and marketing.

At each board meeting, people reported on their progress. They created the actions and resources to make things happen. Consistent social media efforts that attracted more people to meetings. Monthly chapter meetings scheduled well in advance, so social media was more effective. Organizing our finances and helping us make more informed decisions on expenditures.

Chapter members began to notice the new energy and organization. More of them came to meetings. And more new people joined the chapter. Everything went much better than if I’d tried to control it.

The Gift of Improving a Culture

A year later, with a different president leading the chapter, I’m grateful to see improvements talking hold.

We’ve attracted more volunteers to join the “M” committees led by board members: sharing the work so no one burns out. Members are asking how they can join the board. We’re attracting great speakers to give programs of value to our members and guests. And those guests are seeing how members are welcoming and supportive, and deciding they want to be a part of this, too.

The lesson for me—and perhaps for you—is that none of this would have been possible if I’d tried to live the “perfect leader” image in my head. Clear vision. Large and in charge. Directing and delegating. Above the fray.

I’m so grateful to Allie PleiterAmy LemireBill GuertinCarl SeidmanChristy MooreHaydn Shaw, the late Col. Jill Morgenthaler, and Vickie Austin for who they are and what they taught me about themselves and leadership. And while I’ll always strive to be a better leader, I’ll no longer try to be perfect.