The danger of being you

The fall of 2023 brought incredible trepidation; eventually, that dread turned into my worries vibrating to life. My daughter MacKenzie was turning 13, and along with that came her transition into seventh grade. I remember that school year vividly. It was one of the worst years of my life. The consequence of that painful seventh-grade year took a toll. I retreated to a very protected and dimmer version of myself. I laughed quietly. I thought deeply about what I might say and shared only what I felt might be received well. I worked hard to fit in and not stand out. I perfected the art of deprivation to ensure my physical appearance met expectations. I studied hard and earned good grades. I was careful around acquaintances and only opened up fully around a very small group of trusted family members and friends.

I frequently ruminated about the impact that potential bullying might have on my daughter as she, too, entered seventh grade last September. Before my eyes, my once confident, vibrant, exuberant daughter started to ask about multiple wardrobe changes, obsess over conversations and what she might have said differently, and shift from following her instincts to people-pleasing. As much as we parents give to our children, certain moments harness us back to our own realities, fears, and foibles. I felt empathy for her, and simultaneously, I felt the gut-wrenching fear of my seventh-grade self.

Throughout my professional career, I continued to craft a carefully constructed persona. While I learned over time to trust my voice with matters firmly grounded in the business of credit unions, I stayed poised and polished and firmly on message. If asked about my political opinions, I joked, “That’s so funny!” I dressed professionally and cautiously. I gained the courage to challenge professional perspectives but walked a tightrope to maintain a demeanor that always stopped before getting too strong.

As I matured and the days between those seventh-grade hallway nightmares grew more and more distant, I observed people in my life who truly were fully themselves. My dear friend Mollie Bell, who never shied away from sharing her opinions and yet rarely alienated someone who saw the world differently, inspired me. My colleague George Hofheimer did not desire the spotlight, yet he captured rooms around the globe through his brilliance, poise, and sharp sense of humor. My colleague Danielle Milner leaped into an entrepreneurial co-founder role and started wearing her hair curly.

When I got to Canvas, Todd Marksberry led with a cultural expectation that team members bring their whole selves to work. For my first six months, I felt the power of dynamic and distinct personalities and perspectives coming to life in rooms and the positive impact that had on the business. As I let my guard down a bit more, I stopped memorizing what I might share when I spoke in front of a room. I became better at responding in the moment because I wasn’t crafting what I’d say next. I was allowing myself to be present. I gained confidence.

In June of 2022, I started my dream job. I’d worked for more than 25 years to earn an opportunity to be the president & CEO of a credit union. As I moved back to Michigan, there was a homecoming that I expected. After traveling the country to gain experience, the full-circle nature of arriving back in my home state felt exhilarating.

And just over 18 months later, the seventh-grade hallways are closing in on this 47-year-old woman yet again.

The great news is that I have all the experience of having lived through and found a path beyond that year of bullying. I have an intellectualized sense that hard years teach us lessons and help us gain empathy. However, knowing something in our heads doesn’t mean we don’t feel it in our hearts and feel it deeply. And after years of feeling “less,” I’m confident that a life full of rich and powerful emotion is one that is worth living.

As organizations implement essential changes, you expect to see the cycle of grief, denial, resistance, skepticism, tolerance, and acceptance exist. There is often a chasm between passionate advocates of impossible dreams and those supporting the status quo.

These two ends, one marked with grief and the other with growth, are hard for people. I know that. I have been through this before. Diverse viewpoints on business approaches make us all better. Extremely personal and damaging attacks tear organizations apart and weaponize shame and fear.

The mantle of leadership is heavy. As a passionate believer in the power of the cooperative model, I love credit unions and their potential. I also know that in a world that is changing as rapidly as ours, for that model to survive, sustain, and provide value to all those who helped us become who we are, we must build robust and relevant strategies that shape our future. Our time is now, and it only happens if we take bold action, embrace our differences, and stand confidently in the pursuit of the unknown.

As I share advice with MacKenzie on the nights when she’s open to hearing it, I often get stuck as words come out of my mouth because this 47-year-old needs to listen as intently as my 13-year-old. In the face of this reality, I’m tempted to soften my laugh, straighten my hair, quiet my voice, dream less and fall back to people-pleasing. I yearn for a time when the attacks weren’t so personal. And yet, Michiganders deserve better. The leaders in the organization I serve deserve to see bright, shining examples of what it means to belong fully and have someone stand for that on their behalf.

It’s risky to be fully you.

There will be those who wish to dim your light.

They’ll take a hammer to the bulb when you’ve flipped the switch back on too many times.

Instead of slipping into the dark, laugh as loudly as you can, light a candle, and watch the room glow in your radiance. I’ll light another right behind you. Huzzah.

Tansley Stearns

Tansley Stearns

Tansley Stearns is the president & ceo at Community Financial Credit Union. “No” is not a word in Tansley’s vocabulary. If there is an opportunity to bolster Community Financial Credit ... Web: Details