PinkOn October 5th, 2014, I attended my very first live professional football game, between San Diego’s Chargers and the New York Jets. At the time, I had pink extensions in my hair—a gift from an exceptional service provider. Earlier this month, I chose to “go pink” again, sparking a recent conversation on the ways we empower ourselves. Do you want to live your leadership? There’s a takeaway here for you.

The month of October celebrates Breast Cancer Awareness. As a survivor, I appreciate the National Football League’s commitment to promoting this cause. According to statistics, over 220,000 women (and approximately 2,150 men) are diagnosed annually, with deaths exceeding 40,000 (about 410 for men).

When I attended the Chargers game last year, I knew the team supported Breast Cancer Awareness through events, free mammogram screenings, and other activities. I did not know this support extended throughout the league.

On being pre-pink

I’d been diagnosed earlier in the year. There’s little dignity available to patients. Early on, either the surgeon or the oncologist (both women) quipped, “Before you’re done, people will ask to see your boob a thousand times.” From the moment of the first call, I’d made a decision: I didn’t choose to have the cancer, but I could certainly choose how to respond.

Every person takes his or her own path through a cancer journey. I showed up at every appointment armed with the latest in medical research and questions. I steeled myself at the ever-increasing number of perfect strangers in the medical community who began a conversation with, “lets just take a look.” Very few people knew; I’d elected to not share broadly.

The root of the words patient and patience are the same. The first is “one who suffers.” The second deals with “one who endures suffering” or “stays calm in adversity.” Patients must demonstrate patience. We wait on scheduling. We wait on surgical outcomes. We wait on labs and test results. We wait on face-to-face sessions because we can’t just be told over the phone. Having a core of endurance and calm under pressure isn’t unique to being a patient—these are also helpful attributes of leadership in life and work.

We balance the actions we can take with the waiting. High school seniors write essays and complete applications, and then wait on responses from colleges and universities. House hunters tour properties and then wait on owners to agree on a deal for purchase. Job seekers submit applications and interview, and wait at each phase to see if an offer is extended. Newly hired leaders work a plan for their “first 90 days” to see if their efforts to create a good fit and generate positive momentum results in successful assimilation. Executives engage in collective vision, innovation, and strategies and wait on shared stakeholder benefits and desired outcomes to come to fruition.

Owning my power, and coloring it pink

In this space between doing our part—investigating, engaging, acting, submitting, investing—and the actual outcome, we have another choice: how to “be” within the uncertainty. One option is to consider ourselves at the chance of fate or to perceive ourselves in the hands of others. The second involves owning our power. Yes, we may be waiting, but we have done what we can and perhaps even more. We “stand tall,” so to speak. And hence, we circle back to my choosing pink.

The first time, I awaited the results of genome testing that would define my next treatment options. The passage of time weighed heavily, and I battled an internal voice that intermittently whispered what “might” be. Determined to “own” this space in strength, I called Sara Chamberlin, a supremely talented hair whisperer and owner at Split Ends Studio in Oceanside, California. I asked for a recommendation for adding a “subtle but flashy” streak of magenta to my hair. What I received was so much more. Sara offered hugs and encouragement. I was given a giant bouquet of awesome pink flowers. And I received my first ever set of hot pink extensions. These were, indeed, simultaneously subtle and flashy. I could choose how obvious the hints of pink would appear to others, depending on my whim. I kept them from August to November, during treatment and radiation therapy.

Anyone who’s walked the halls of corporate conservatism knows this is a pretty significant act of positive deviance. Yet, this year, when October rolled around, I joyfully embraced the opportunity to make a donation and once again temporarily sport a couple flashes of color. As a professional who partners with executives, I understand my choice is a bit risky. When I wear the color overtly, that makes a certain statement—and I don’t control how others interpret how I present myself.

Rocking our pink

At a recent alumni brunch, a colleague exclaimed, “You rock that pink, Kathryn!” It turns out she had added a tiny shock of purple to her own locks throughout the interview process for her new role at a local university. Our conversation explored how we each can own our power, present ourselves authentically, invite inquiry, and empower ourselves and others within conventional constraints. These are largely internal decisions, and we then choose the extent to which we will offer our strengths in public ways.

A person does not have to “go pink” to lead authentically. I love working with highly motivated, highly talented individuals who seek to elevate their leadership through executive coaching. Just like a strand or two of pink hair invites a certain amount of potential judgment or commentary, the leaders I work with enter a safe space to explore the ways they are leading. This vulnerability can actually be empowering. For example, when I share feedback with a senior executive that he or she is operating from a blind spot, I find that only a very few reject an honest observation. Most leaders draw from their own well of courage and strength to increase their capacity to lead with influence and impact.

So this month—and, I hope, until mid-November—you’ll see me with pink. I see myself with the strength of a survivor, a life’s-too-short-not-to incorporate joy and creativity into the “serious business” of leadership development attitude, and a powerful commitment to change the world one leader at a time. What do you see?

In what ways do you offer yourself as unique and distinctive? Is this obvious to others? Please share a thought or comment on our Facebook community.

Are you looking for ways to elevate your leadership? If you haven’t already, access the Leadership Essentials report or take the coaching quiz to explore your readiness and compatibility for an executive coach.

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