Are you waiting for someone to give you permission to lead, grow, or move in your organization? What if you already have all the permission you need?
I was recently invited to sit on a board and observed something there I’ve seen countless times in other settings. Some people around the table had no trouble making themselves heard, while others seemed hesitant, withdrawn, even sheepish.
It was as if the quiet people were waiting for someone to give them permission to speak. But the truth is that their presence on the board was all the permission they needed.
The scene reminded me of a story Aesop told about a farmer who rented a donkey to take some produce to market. Along the way, a traveler joined the farmer and the donkey, and when they got tired the three stopped for a rest.
Unfortunately there were no trees around so the traveler reclined in the donkey’s shadow. The farmer protested that he’d only rented the donkey, not the donkey’s shadow.
The traveler insisted that use of the donkey assumed use of the donkey’s shadow too. It wasn’t a perk, it was part of the deal.
It’s the same on a board or in a company. Unless you’ve been told only to observe, speak up! Act. Play your part. Whether it’s a seat on a board or a cube in the corner, the permission you need is assumed by your invitation. If it’s not, that’s a good sign you’re in the wrong organization.
It’s easy to retreat behind a kind of phony humility, as if not speaking were really a virtue. Some religious people might even twist a few Scripture verses to validate their sheepishness.
But not speaking up, not acting, not leading cheats everyone in at least three ways:
- It cheats your superiors. It’s a disappointment to the people who wanted you there to contribute. No one gets invited to suck up the room’s oxygen.
- It cheats the group. Important learning is on the line. If you speak up and your ideas are good, everyone benefits. If you speak up and you get corrected, there’s still a benefit for everyone. The truly humble are capable of serving the team regardless of the outcome.
- It cheats you. Holding back might feel like a benefit to you, but it’s a cheap win: The only thing you buy is your comfort. No personal improvement. No esteem in the eyes of your colleagues. No contribution to the organization.
I’ve been at this a long time, and so I’ve developed some confidence. But the only way to develop that confidence is to step out and speak up. Assume permission and go.
The traveler was right. If you’ve got the donkey, you’ve got permission to use his shadow. If an organization has entrusted you with a position, assume you have permission to use it.
If you’ve been invited, that’s all the permission you need. Just go.
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