For the past year, I’ve been saying to my nonprofit team: “I don’t want to slow you down. I want to lead—not get in your way.” Going from being the only team member to leading a crew of 7 in two years is no joke. And when much of the institutional knowledge lives inside you, it’s hard not to be the bottleneck.
But here’s what I’ve learned about institutional knowledge: If an answer is always available, you might as well forget about creativity and growth. Yes, it’s good to have systems. Yes, we want to build on the past. Yes, ready answers can save a whole lot of work.
They can also create a sturdy little box for all of your team’s ideas, actions, and experiments. And unless your team is untrustworthy, incompetent, or slightly insane, you probably don’t want to do that.
So sometimes, it works out better when you can’t get the same deal you got last year. Sometimes, it’s a good thing that you can’t find that old email. Sometimes, it helps if you are not in the room.
And, hey, that turns out to be true in family life, too. Surprise.
I was surprised. Or reminded. Or something between the two.
I drove our daughter and her two friends to this amazing outdoor farm and art camp, and it was her first time there. She was super excited and more than a little bit nervous. When she had chosen her activities for the day, they partnered her with a tweenage buddy, and she came over—as I now know—to tell me goodbye. I didn’t know the protocol, so I wasn’t sure if I was going with her down the path to the other kids or saying goodbye right then and there. She caught my hesitation, and she grabbed it like a lifeline.
“Come with me.”
And so I did. And then she didn't talk to the buddy except through me. Because I was there, and she didn’t have to yet. She didn’t recognize it, but I was in the way. In the way of creativity. In the way of growth. When I came back many hours later to pick her up, camp day got a 10 out of 10.
That was Monday.
Then on Tuesday, I didn’t leave the house for my usual night out. In fact, I haven’t left the house on my usual night out for most of the Tuesdays in the last few months. More than I’ve wanted a night out, I’ve wanted a night in. Snuggled in my bed, hot tea and macaroons, letters to write, and a book to fall asleep on. After all, I get up early, y’all. And I was not in a good mood.
But I will be going out next week. Even if it’s to walk aimlessly around Target. Or write my letters in a coffee shop. Or be in a bad mood while I drive around in my truck.
Because I heard my husband trying to soothe my daughter’s upset over something tiny with this: “Remember we planned to have a special dad-and-daughter night? Let’s play the game we talked about playing.”
And later, he said this to me: “I DO NOT NEED YOU TO HELP ME.” I may have been in the hallway about to go in her room when she was crying.
See, it’s not really a dad-and-daughter night when mama is in your space making tea, changing into her pajamas, hearing all the conversations you have getting ready for bed, or even trying to help when something goes wrong. The games are less fun; the solutions are all mama-influenced. And this week, I was in the way of their relationship. Of their creativity. Of their growth.
Sometimes, when it feels like helping, you’re actually in the way at work.
Sometimes, when it feels like helping, you’re totally in the way at home.
Sometimes, you don’t step away to get space; you step away to give it.