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By Elizabeth Handover
I recently came across a quote by Martha Graham: “You are unique, and if that is not fulfilled, then something has been lost.”
Graham (1894–1991) was a highly influential American modern dancer and choreographer.
The theme of uniqueness and women’s leadership had been on my mind, so the quote resonated. Further, I connected on a personal level, since the three-year acting course I attended at the Dartington College of Arts in Devon, United Kingdom, also included dance classes.
My teacher was a formidably tough top dancer from the Martha Graham Dance Company in the United States. She mercilessly drove us to deliver the technique she demanded.
But, despite the exhaustion and sweat, I loved the presence it gave me; I felt uniquely and powerfully me during dance performances.
It is easy to see that performers are rewarded by fame and fortune for being individually themselves. When we apply the concept to other spheres of life, however, it may not be so easy to express our uniqueness, since to be unique also means revealing personal differences and diversity.
No matter what culture we are from, we have probably all experienced the pain and fear of being ridiculed, bullied, or shunned for being even slightly different from others.
So, no wonder that it’s easier for some of us to pay lip service to the value of uniqueness and, in reality, prefer to hide our light under a bushel.
Evidence shows that, while growing up, girls are more focused on fitting in than standing out and thus tend to have a greater fear of being portrayed as different.
During the past few years in my women’s leadership work, I have come across too many women, young and old, who still have this fear.
Despite knowing that if we “show up” as our unique selves we will be better recognized for leadership positions. We cannot rid ourselves of the fear that perhaps we are “showing off” rather than “showing up,” and that we will be looked at disapprovingly and then rejected. Rather than find a solution to the dichotomy, too many choose to hold back and stay hidden.
Clearly, we are never going to increase our numbers in leadership roles if we continue to give in to these fears. So, perhaps it’s time for a change of mindset.
What if we stopped perceiving our uniqueness as a Pandora’s box that, once opened, will drive our behavior grotesquely out of control? What if we didn’t just see the options as to be or not to be unique but, rather, as when, where, and how much to be unique? What if we looked on our unique strengths as special personal resources that we can use at the right time, in the right place, and in the right amount?
As a junior member of an organization, flaunting uniqueness is likely to just irritate those above and around us. But we can consider how we might use or adapt our special strengths to support our managers’ needs.
We can thereby become uniquely indispensable, while taking care to ensure they are aware of our contributions.
Working on team projects where collaboration is vital, we can prepare so we bring up our unique point of view, our special advice, or our highly accurate evidence when it will be the most compelling and present it in the way that will be the most convincing.
By taking each small opportunity to demonstrate and communicate what makes us special we increase our ability to show our uniqueness with grace. We will start to feel the rightness of “showing up” and we will no longer fear that we might be “showing off.”
And each step will be moving us up that ladder and closer to the leadership positions, where we can enjoy bringing our uniqueness out even more.
So, let’s start to craft, utilize, and express our unique qualities so that we can say, “I am unique. It is fulfilled and nothing is lost.”
(February 2014, ACCJ Journal)