A couple of years ago--about six months into my leadership role at an arts nonprofit--I didn't show up for something big.
It was, in fact, the biggest event of the year, a particularly unique and amazing kids' folk art festival--held on a local ballfield and beloved by pretty much everyone who's ever been. I had been working with our team on it for months. It's a huge deal for us, budget-wise, brand-wise, and mission-wise.
Since the festival is two counties over from where I live, my family and I were staying the weekend with awesome friends who live near the field. I was out there from morning until dark for set-up on Friday with a whole crew of kind folks who were helping out. That night, back at our friends' house, I had a lovely drink, laughed a lot, and went to bed for an early start the next day.
The start was earlier than I predicted.
I woke up at about 3AM and spent the next four hours curled up on our friends' bathroom floor, dragging myself between there and the bed to nurse my daughter when she woke up. The flu.
I'm no wimp. I've performed kids' shows with bronchitis, an entire run of a show with a horrible stomach virus, and Shakespeare less than two weeks after my dad died. But, dude. I could not do this.
My husband took the petty cash I had on hand for the festival up to the field and let everyone know I was out.
And I didn't show up.
And here's what happened: We had record attendance. Everyone worked their butts off. The kids had an amazing day. I was totally embarrassed. And the world continued to revolve.
Fast forward to last week.
I was preparing for our annual Board retreat. I kept thinking about the parts of the prep I wasn't going to get to, the things I hadn't done ahead of time, the exact timing I wasn't sure would work out.
And then, in a moment of overwhelm, this occurred to me: What would happen if I just didn't show up? If I couldn't show up? If I wasn't there at all?
And the answer was that they could have had a valuable day without me. They had the agenda. I had asked folks to lead the discussions. They are smart people.
Would it have been just like I drew it up? No. Would they have had questions they had to put on hold for my feedback? Yes. But it would have been okay. Better than okay. It would have still been good.
Even though I knew I would indeed be showing up, just acknowledging that it would be okay if I didn't show up gave me the space I needed to finish preparing--without getting paralyzed by all the things I hadn't done.
So: If you're getting overwhelmed by something you're leading, something big and important, try just asking yourself the question: What would happen if I couldn't show up?
I'm not suggesting that we actually not show up--though that might be the right choice in some cases.
I'm just suggesting that we ask the question.
We may just find a little opening of space in our answer.