Confessions of a new board chair

Can I be honest? Sometimes a new leadership opportunity doesn’t feel like a thrilling adventure, or a great next step in your career path. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like a long-awaited chance to use your skills.

Sometimes it feels just, well, scary.

Maybe it’s unexpected. Maybe you don’t feel prepared. But there you find yourself and you have a choice. Say no, or face your fears and accept the challenge.

A few months after joining the board of directors at Rainbow Rumpus. I was asked to be board chair. I said no. I must not have been very convincing because they asked again. This time, I said I’d think about it.

Let’s face it—I was afraid.

I have been afraid many times in my life. Anyone that knows me will not be surprised to hear I am not an adrenaline junky. I tend to be a planner and take calculated risks. From time to time I decide to trust the encouragement of those around me, swallow my fear, and move forward with something that really scares me. So, that’s what I did. I swallowed my fear, doubts, and insecurities and became chair of the board last spring. 

I thought I’d share with you what scared me the most about taking on this new role and how I’ve faced those fears in the past eight months. 

The sources of my fears:

  • I’m an introvert. Can an introvert be a board chair? Can an introvert be a leader? Of course. But certain aspects of the role were very intimidating. I am fairly comfortable facilitating small group discussions, so leading board meetings felt like something I could handle. Public speaking—now that is scary. The thought of being a public face of the organization, expected to speak at events, made my stomach churn.
  • Asking for money. Okay, now couple being an introvert with having to ask strangers for money, potentially in front of large groups of people. I often find meeting and talking to new people exhausting. I wouldn’t call myself socially awkward, correct me if I’m wrong here, but let’s just say I’m still refining the art and joy of small talk. And I happened to have zero experience asking people for money. Gulp.
  • Knowing it all. You are supposed to “know it all” when you are board chair, right? You’re supposed to sweep in and take action, bettering things left and right. At least, it seemed you were supposed to know more than I did. This is my first board experience, and I had been on the board for less than a year. People would be turning to me and counting on me. What if I let them down?

How I continue to face my fears:

  • Trusting my support network. I have learned to trust that people are often asking and encouraging me to take on new challenges for a reason. Perhaps they see something in me I don’t see, or are just encouraging my professional growth. Either way, I am learning to trust them and so far I have not been led astray. My decisions to go to graduate school, become a nonprofit consultant, and join a nonprofit board were all carefully weighed and considered by me after receiving encouragement from people I trust. These are the same people I then turn to when I need advice.
  • Making room for other leaders. I don’t want to, and don’t think I have to, lead alone. By helping to identify and build the leadership capacity of every other member of the board of directors, I not only help others to grow, but I help ensure sustainability of leadership in the organization. I am a strong leader in some ways. I am thoughtful and organized. I can keep us on track and am able to bring everyone into the conversation. Others on my board help us expand the conversation to big picture thinking, or ask strategic questions in areas where I am not an expert. They have even stepped up to do a lot of public speaking for the organization. We fill in each other’s blind spots and make up for each other’s weaknesses.
  • Doing things differently. Sometimes I am able to find creative ways of fulfilling my duties that feel right for me. This has been especially true when fulfilling my fundraising duties. When asked to host a fundraiser I asked another board member to co-host it with me. It ended up being both fun and successful. I still had to speak in front of everyone but I survived. For Give to the Max Day, I happily took a dorky picture of myself in my pajamas to help with our fundraising campaign. Thank you phone calls to donors…. Well, I’ve had to just commit to doing that one. But I talk about my nervousness at board meetings and together we have made sure everyone has the support they need. Let me tell you, the phone calls just get easier with practice.
  • Being honest. I have decided it’s easier to be honest with my fellow board members. I don’t pretend to be fearless, or heroic, or an expert in everything. I tell them what I know and don’t know. I ask them for input or help when I’m not sure what step to take next. I’m honest about what scares me and when I’m willing to just do it anyway. I’m willing to step up to the task or make room for others when it’s needed. As a leader, I work with my strengths and try to find support for my weaknesses—and I try to do the same for others.

Fear is not necessarily a rational emotion. Some of my fears are not founded, or really come from my own expectations rather than those of others. But owning up to what I’m afraid of, knowing the ways I’m going to seek support, and reflecting on past challenges helps me move forward despite my fears, rational or not.

Have you ever been asked to take on a new role that scared you? What scared you the most about this new challenge? How did you work through your fears?

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