Opinions are the writer’s own and not those of Blavity’s.
Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll and I have a podcast. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be where I’m at today. We started this podcast with the idea to have real conversations from the heart. To create a space for people to share their humanity. We’re calling it Amplify Voices.
It has been an honor to witness genuine acts of courage — for guests to stop all the noise in their head, locate themselves in their heart and share whatever is there for them. It is likely one of the most vulnerable acts a human can do and a generous contribution for a human to give to others. It has taken me my entire life to arrive at a point where nothing matters more than to be completely myself, in this moment.
But, it was not long ago that I truly believed, “People of color can’t afford to be vulnerable or humble.” Let me explain.
About six years ago I was sitting in the Four Seasons lobby next to Larry Ellison’s right-hand guy, whom we affectionately referred to as “Ninja.” This guy was stealth in his dealings, managing one of the largest portfolios in the world, and his focused approach to every detail was awe-inspiring. So when we met, which was often, I sat upright and listened to every word like a good student. That day we were doing a run-through on the latest details of a project I was tasked with by Ellison — an island. I was to help revitalize the island he purchased into one of the top destinations in the world.
Ninja was explaining to me how to navigate some shark-infested waters — sharks being a group of executives and the waters being a particular company I had to deal with. I interrupted him and said, “Yeah I got it. I know how to handle that.” He looked at me, shook his head and said emphatically, “You need to go to Humble College.” I laughed uncomfortably and replied, “Oh, come on. I am not that bad.” But what I wanted to say was, “People of color cannot afford to be humble! We have to be our own billboard. We not only don’t get what we deserve, we have to work 10 times harder to get what we’ve already earned!”
I was angry. But like that old saying goes, “The truth will piss you off at first but then it will set you free.”
From that day forward his words sat on my shoulder like an annoying parrot—chirping at me to examine the unexamined nuances in my leadership, in my self-worth, in my story. You see, humility was just one of many words that had no home in my vocabulary. Others were words like vulnerable, submissive, hope and faith. How can I be outspoken and vulnerable at the same time? How can I be a fierce competitor and submissive? How can I believe in hope and have faith that good fortune will lean in my favor when everything I have has required me to fight for it?
This inquiry led me to take an entire year off and just think. Truly examine my life, my beliefs and how I came to think and act the way I do. What I unpacked was this: my power was built on a foundation of shame. From my earliest memories I have had shame forced upon me.
As a little girl, I was shamed for my chubby brown arms and legs. As a young girl, I was shamed for my unruly hair. As a teen, I was shamed for not fitting in. As a woman I have been shamed for being too loud, not speaking up, speaking too much, being quiet, not being quiet, being too aggressive, not aggressively handling the situation and the conflicting list goes on.
The message was simple and clear: The world around me had voted and they agreed that I was not what I am supposed to be, and shame on me. And in response, I built an impenetrable armor to defend myself. “I’ll show you!”
But that armor had left me incapable of ever being vulnerable. It left me with the inability to believe that anything good could ever happen in my life without applied force. It cut me off from the realm of the miraculous. I was a woman who couldn’t even pray. And if I did, let’s be honest, I didn’t believe anything would happen anyway. I could finally see how much pain and suffering my life was given by how much I was overcompensating and defending.
It was at that moment I got humility. What I realized was that being humble is not about self-deprecation or being less-than, it is about being in the presence of the magnificence that is us. That human beings can accomplish the impossible by simply believing it to be possible and surrendering to the journey. That there is nothing to be ashamed of. That there is abundance in surrendering to the truth that we are all created to be creators. I was so moved by this realization that I wept. I wept and, for the first time I could recall, I felt what it was to have faith.
I realized that being vulnerable, being humble, is likely the greatest untapped resource in leadership today. Being vulnerable lets people in. It allows you to truly see someone for who they are. It gives you access to be nimble, open, creative and innovative. It connects people and it allows people to help you on your journey. It is an accelerator of truth. It is a teacher. It removes the barriers between you and miracles. Humility helps you listen to what you need to hear to grow and thrive.
I believe in my heart this realization came at the perfect time. As we see the world standing up — holding the abuse of power accountable for the lies and manipulation, the authoritarian fear-based tactics — we are seeing a new model of leadership emerging. One that is given by the most powerful force in humanity: love. And that indeed humbles me.
Audrey Cavenecia is the Chief Content Officer at Amplify Voices, a media production company that aims to spotlight and empower some of today’s most inspiring leaders.