By M. A. Melby, read her blog at Sinmantyx

During the last few weeks many of us have been talking about speeches. From Ron Lindsay's Speech at the Women in Secularism 2 Convention to the young man who tore up his approved speech and recited the Lord's Prayer counter to the rules of his school, the concept of standing up and being a representative and a leader is on our minds.

I joke that my high school administration would have changed my grade to avoid the awkward situation of allowing me to give a commencement speech. Let's just say, in high school I was a bit of a character. I certainly spoke my mind and wasn't always adequately respectful of authority. High school was not a pleasant place for me, and I wasn't always pleasant back at it. Among so many other things, such as asking the English teacher if he wanted me to start writing in crayon, complaining to the next English teacher that perhaps we should be covering dangling participles instead of going over "nouns" for the fourth year in a row, quitting Art because I didn't appreciate us being used as cheap labor, writing an essay *against* the flag-burning amendment, refusing to go to Baccalaureate because we were taken out of class to plan it, and exiting Choir in diva-like fashion because I hated the music that was being picked out for me (Bach or NOTHING! Romantic period sucks!), I had gained a bit of a reputation.

The principle had artfully avoided the possibility of me singing, "Planned Obsolescence" by 10,000 Maniacs at the talent show, so they dodged that bullet. I sincerely don't know if there would have been a little creative bookkeeping.

In retrospect, I'm glad it wasn't me. I have no idea how I would have handled the responsibility because, like a lot of people that age, I was painfully self-absorbed. The commencement was for everyone. It was no place to air my grievances. However much I would have been tempted to stick an epic, "Remember when you replaced the theater's dressing room with a weight room for the football team over the summer and threw all our stuff in a closet over there? Yeah, that one, right there, with the sewer pipe running through it!" speech, it would have been extremely inappropriate.

When you have an audience that you are there to serve and you are acting as a representative, it's not about you. It's not about what divides, but what unites.

Perhaps I don't give myself enough credit. Perhaps I could have written something that would have brought us together. We had grown up together. We meant a lot to each other when it really came down to it. Maybe I would have cobbled together something that everyone found meaningful. Maybe I would have been humble enough to listen to my classmates and think about our larger experience together instead of providing a speech only from my limited perspective.

That was a long time ago. More-and-more as I gain authority and position in my career, I find myself in situations where my primary function is to facilitate the growth and expression of others. It may be tempting to think that the person who is standing in front of the audience or the class is the center of attention, but that is far from the truth.

The first lesson is to know your audience and to find out what they need from you and how you can provide it. You need to meet them where they are at, not somewhere else entirely. Ron Lindsay's speech, for example, was akin to describing how to cross the street to a group of women and men who run marathons, and implying that they may not be putting one foot in front of the other correctly.

It is selfless work to lead. More is expected of you. It's stressful. People are less forgiving. The necessity to be diplomatic and professional can be infuriating when your filters are on maximum expletive deletion. I absolutely empathize with anyone in leadership who has put their foot squarely into their mouth. When people are depending on you and have entrusted you with responsibility though, living up to those responsibilities is the primary concern, not what's going on in your own head. I am confident that Ron Lindsay understands this.

It's easy to think of people in authority as little gods, and not real people with their own challenges. The "perfect person" for the job is fantasy. Leaders are not born, but develop in time. A good leader learns as much as they can from both success and failure. They take criticism, even if it upsets them, as information useful in making future decisions and being better at what they do.

There is a time to fight your fights; to have unpleasant discussions; to stand up for yourself; to fall flat on your face and learn from it; and even to tell someone you think they are full of *it. When acting as a representative, is not one of those times. In front of an audience who yearns for solidarity and a voice, is not one of those places.
That is the lesson that may still need to be learned.


M. A. Melby is a physics instructor, blogger, and sometimes poet, artist, and musician.  Her work appears in Atheist Voices of Minnesota: An anthology of personal stories as well as her blog “Sinmantyx”.

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