I’m rarely one to cruise Instagram. In fact, I have been encouraged, cajoled and otherwise persuaded to post snippets of my blog on my e3 account. Yet another area of noncompliance for me. However, in a quiet and empty moment a few days ago I came across a passage taken from a poetry book that landed with the weight of a deep inner knowing that I wished wasn’t there. Four lines of raw truth.

how do I shake this envy

when I see you doing well

sister how do I love myself enough to know

your accomplishments are not my failure

We are not each other’s competition – rupi kaur, home body

For as far back as my memory will take me, I was in a hurry. As the youngest and only girl in our family, keeping up so that I wouldn’t be left behind or forgotten was an unconscious driver in me. It wasn’t so that I could be first. It was so that I wouldn’t be last. They might leave me behind.

In the school yard, dotted with clusters of little girls; boys running around pushing and tagging each other, the chain link fence keeping us safe, I wanted just one special friend. One ally.  I assumed that everyone who had a sister already had that. Instead, there were groupings with a hierarchy of role and inclusion. What a struggle it was to be in the middle of the anointed, however the shame of being on the outside was even worse. We learn early that our worth comes from the appraisal by others.

The process of assembling into groups is part of human nature. In our childhood and adolescence there is a Darwinian undercurrent to the exercise. Thrown together by our age and address, we jockey for position, measure ourselves against the desk mates around us, and strive to be with the cool kids. By high school we know the rules though the bar is raised, and the competition is stiffer. The risk of not persevering is too great.

Entering into the work arena opened my eyes to the possibility of working together without the tension of competition between each other. And to the reality that in many organizations, adhering to antagonistic energy was nurtured – often rewarded.

The gentlest and most favourable work environment for me was as a member of a team led by a woman  ten years my senior. She engineered a climate of different yet equal contributors. She championed creative ideas – showcased individual accomplishments. We were empowered to challenge and assume ownership. She was a facilitator, supporter, and back stop. We owned our success, she felt responsible for our failures.

The harshest settings I endured exemplified the win/lose corporate culture. They cultivated the survival of the fittest mentality. Purposeful and stringent hierarchies championed power over knowledge. While many thrive in that climate, the playing field still favoured people who looked like the CEO, or the actors in an early era Kraft mayonnaise commercial.

It seems to me that for women in particular, the lessons on the playground and high school hallways tend to show up in many aspects of our lives, including our leadership style. I see it in the protective tendency to singularly own accomplishments, even stretching to take credit from others. I see it the undercurrent of discomfort with another strong female. David Attenborough’s calm dialogue describing the dance for supremacy to lead the pride of lions plays in my head.  I see it in the lack of generosity of energy and spirit. A hard-fought battle to the top is a prize to hold close.

Thankfully I am also witnessing the emergence of a new generation of leaders not so battle weary. Not so tolerant of toxic leadership conduct. Reaching out to other women, calling out those who fail to pull others up behind them. They are using their voice constructively. They are taking ownership for their path to success. They are striving for a collective of equals.

What a relief. I’m told that the lessons of childhood become part of our hardwiring. And yet they need not become our destiny. We can heal, learn, grow and overcome the experiences that undermine our relationships and confidence. We have the potential to be inclusive, compassionate and empowering to ourselves and those around us.

At least, that is my experience.