Friday, August 16, 2019

Where You Lead... I Will Follow... & Then Eventually Lead...

"Who wants to be responsible? Whenever anything goes wrong, the first thing they ask is, 'Who's responsible for this?'" -- Jerry Seinfeld, Seinfeld S9 E4, The Blood


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"You're absolutely sure... 100% sure??"

Ryan's blue eyes were wide with concern and searching mine for any clue of hesitation. He found none.

"I'm sure! Seriously, I don't want to run for senior class president! Go for it!"

My friendship with Ryan Webb blossomed out of our mutual love of comedy during Spanish class early in our freshman year. After the previous two years of hell in junior high, my social radar was aimed towards kids for whom I didn't have to put up a front. From the minute Ryan and I met, I could totally be myself... my comedy-loving, awkward AF, just-trying-to-survive-high-school self.

From 9th grade on, we had fun inside jokes, shared a love for the Detroit Red Wings, and had plenty of great chats about our lives. When it came time to consider candidacy for our senior class officers during junior year, every reason I was friends with Ryan rose to the surface and sparkled when he considered my feelings before he made his decision.

Since I wasn't the typical "popular" kid in high school, I was nothing short of confused when the class of 1996 had some common opinion that I should be our senior class president. I may have mentioned something in passing about running and then it picked up steam... the memories are a bit fuzzy, but at any rate, I remember feeling some pressure to run.

"Sheevani, you'd TOTALLY win!"

"I'd vote for you, Sheevani!"

"Do it! You'd be so awesome as president!! And you'd definitely be on Homecoming Court!!"

However, every time I thought about both the election and serving as president, all the fear and trepidation of being on display in that realm made my stomach ache. The guaranteed Homecoming Court aspect was probably the most attractive part of it all, but even daydreaming about all that John Hughes Movie-esque celebrity didn't convince me.

We were standing in front of my locker when Ryan asked for confirmation that a Sheevani Desai for President campaign would never happen. After I said I wasn't running for about the 12th time, Ryan seemed satisfied, gave me a hug and walked away. I watched his tall frame get smaller as he strode down the hall and felt a huge weight lifted off my shoulders.... only, my vacated shoulders were quickly pushed back down with shame. Being our class president could have been an amazing learning experience... but I couldn't see myself in that role. I couldn't see myself having so much responsibility. I couldn't see myself as a leader...

24 years later... I see it clear as day.

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My father often told me he could see me as an executive. He'd tell me this from a very young age... maybe 10 or 11. My reaction was to lazily nod and shrug my shoulders... ya know, typical executive mannerisms. After college when I went business suit shopping for job interviews, he tagged along to JCPenney where my mom's associate discount eclipsed any consideration for my taste or actual style. My dad could always appreciate a suit. Just ask all the JCPenney suit salesmen at Oakland Mall... my dad was friends with all of them. When I came out of the badly lit dressing room in a drab skirt suit and stood in front of the 3-sided mirror, my dad had a goofy grin on his face.

"Sheevu, you look so professional! You'll be an executive in no time!"

Well, unfortunately there was a lot more to working your way up the corporate ladder than looking nice in a Le Suit from JCPenney. For one thing, you have to actually want to be in charge. At the age of 22 when he said that, I felt a twinge of guilt because deep down I knew I would never reach such heights in my career. I was more comfortable being a follower.

My Confederate Defeat
In my 8th grade history class, we spent an entire semester on the Civil War. I was really surprised with how much I enjoyed learning about that war, and that was 100% attributed to my teacher, Mr. Wasen, and his engaging lessons.

For the last week of that unit, the class was divided up into the North and South and we had to compete against each other in various challenges; decorating a bulletin board in the classroom, making a traditional dish from our region, performing famous speeches, etc. Mr. Wasen also chose the leaders of each side... this wasn't voluntary, he chose the highest scoring students of the unit. So, I ended up being Robert E. Lee in charge of the "southern" half of the class. I had to come up with concepts for each challenge, organize my students, select our content and speeches... I was in charge. It was terrifying.

That week was intense and by far the most challenging school project I had ever done up until that point. I remember feeling so uncomfortable telling kids what to do and making sure they were getting their jobs done. The boys, especially, weren't very receptive. There were many scoffs and shrugs when I would ask about their progress on assigned tasks, and most of the time I ended up doing them myself. At the end of the week, my team lost even though I had worked so hard. With a lump in my throat, Mr. Wasen took me into the hallway and told me I did a great job and it was a very close decision. He also added that the northern leader, "just seemed to be more of a natural leader." I don't think he meant to be insulting at all, it was something that slipped out at the end of his comforting chat. And if you're wondering, the class Abraham Lincoln was also a girl, so this wasn't a gender bias thing at all. I just... wasn't a good leader.

Horrible Boss
During my career as a Merchandise Planner (calm down), I was a boss to one person for about a year. Oh, and I was the worst. Just ask the woman who reported to me... easily her worst boss. Not because I was mean or unfair, but purely because I had zero confidence in my skills as both a Merchandise Planner and a boss. I really wanted to be great, my dad's words about my "natural executive" abilities were rebounding all around my brain, but I failed at every turn. It got so bad that eventually my direct report would just go over my head to my boss for advice and direction. Ugh. I cringe when I think about it.

As I've written about before, I had zero passion about Merchandise Planning. And even though I appreciated my boss believing in me enough to give me a managerial role, I did not care enough about the work to be a person from whom someone else should seek guidance. The shame I felt about that for so long was brought on by that Should Burden; I should want to move up, I should be a boss, I should make the most of this opportunity. But, as much as I thought I should swallow all my boredom for that job and dive into a facade of loving my career, I couldn't deny that everyday was just a performance of going through the motions.

I preferred being under the radar and just doing my work. I didn't want any decision-making power. There was no occasion where I felt I knew how to improve processes or increase efficiency. I followed what was already in place, accepted the status quo and collected my paychecks. There are leaders and followers... and I had accepted my fate as a follower. It was just so warm and comfy.

Um, I Could Do This Better
Turns out, I am a damn leader. I just needed to find my passion and where I can add value.

A few years ago I was acting in a web series about a team of female superheroes. Eh, it's not as empowering as it sounds. The director/creator was this young guy who used every hot girl cliche in the book to make a campy comedy series. Us ladies in the cast were all talented and capable of so much, yet we were being used as objects to satisfy this dude's penchant to utilize our bodies more than our minds. And yeah, I did it. I wanted more acting experience, especially on-camera experience, and this director had recently gotten some national press for being this young movie-making prodigy.

During the filming, the ladies and I would discuss how the material wasn't very funny, the jokes were pretty low-brow and sexist and how so many elements of the episodes weren't making sense. We'd be doing our make-up and sharing specific ideas that would absolutely make the series 1000x better. When those suggestions were met with a tepid response time and time again, we all shook our heads at the power of the male ego and decided not to push it any further. After all, it was just a frivolous project for this guy and really a distraction from his recent network rejection of his sketch show.

Since that experience, I've been on many other projects from commercials to sketch shows where my mind doesn't stop thinking about how to improve what's going on around me. It's been only recently where I've stepped up and taken the reigns on a few projects so that I'm part of something I can be proud of. I've seen a glimpse of what I can contribute as a leader and it's really f*cking exciting! As I forge a path in my creative career, I'm so thirsty to expand my resume with titles like producer and director.

So much of this is about caring about the work. As a follower who used to go along for the ride, I was at the mercy of others for the end result... and quite frankly, in my old life in the corporate world, I was fine with that. My purpose wasn't to set the Merch Planning world on fire with some kick-ass replenishment system (stop drooling), so in that universe I just towed the line. But in the world of creating stories through acting and comedy, I believe so much in myself and feel an aggressive urge to make my own unique contributions. Because I love that world and always have.

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My desire to become a leader feels almost accidental... and quite frankly, one of the most delicious surprises in my life. I wasted a lot of time writing myself off as a weak, unmotivated, lazy follower who could never really make a difference. Turns out I was just in the wrong place thinking there was only a certain echelon where being a leader was worth any acclaim. Along with finding my self-worth and passion, so did I find my inner leader. I may not wear a business suit while doing it... but I think my father would still say, "I told you so."

President Ryan Webb and myself at our 20 year high school reunion