On Bees and Leadership

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I was three years old, playing outside on a hot summer’s day, when I looked down and saw a fuzzy little black and white heap on the sidewalk… about the size of a quarter. I knew right away what it was. “Bee! Bee!” I said. Then I poked it with my fat little index finger. And that is when I got stung. And that is also when I became bee-phobic. And wasp phobic. And yellow-jacket phobic. For years afterwards, I ran screaming in the other direction anytime anything black and yellow with wings and a stinger flew at me or near me. It didn’t matter where I was, or who I was with. If there was a bee, I ran away. Period.

I was still deathly afraid of bees when I moved to New York City at the age of 22 to be a professional actress. One beautiful Spring day, I decided to take a stroll through Central Park to enjoy the budding flowers and trees. There were couples making out in the grass, kids playing ball, families picnicking…. I made my way up to the top of a small, grassy hill just to get a better all-around view.

That’s when I heard it.

I turned and saw a wide eyed girl of no more than seven years old running straight at me as fast as her feet could carry her. She slammed headlong into my legs, and held on for dear life. “Bee Bee Bee,” she yelled.

And that’s when I saw it. Right at her heels, a buzzing sphere of yellow and black stinging scariness.

And in that moment, all I wanted to do was Run! Run as fast as I could, and as far I could. But I couldn’t. Because this little girl’s arms were wrapped like a vize around my legs.She looked up at me with big, pleading eyes, eyes that said “Save me.” And in that moment, I realized that even if I were able run away.I couldn’t.

I had to be the grown-up.The one in charge.The one willing to take action. The one willing to face down fear. The one willing to do what was right.

And not just for me. But for the little girl squeezing the life out of my legs.

So I bent over and wrapped my arms her and I said “Honey, you’re safe with me. Just do what I say. Let’s both be very, very still, and the bee will get bored and fly away.”

And then we clung to each other in total stillness, our hearts pounding loud in our chests, while the bee slowly circled us, once… twice… three times…and finally, finally flew away.

“Thank you, Miss,” the little girl said. Then she scampered happily away.

That’s when I noticed my knees were shaking. And I could breathe again.

When I look back at that moment, at what I now call “the bee moment,” I realize it taught me everything I believe today about what leadership is:

Leadership is when you are willing to take charge and take action on behalf of something greater than yourself. To do what needs to be done. Even and especially when your knees knock at the thought of it and all you want to do is run screaming in the other direction.

As I tell the women I coach, train or speak to, we are all leaders… No matter our job title, or whether we even HAVE a job, we all have the potential to take charge and take action in our work and lives. In fact, the world desperately needs us to take greater leadership now, not later… It needs us not just to lean in, but to leap in to leadership with both feet. Even if it scares us, or we’d rather have somebody else do it.

Because, as I realized looking into the frightened eyes of a young girl clinging to me like a life preserver on that long-ago day in Central Park, If WE don’t take charge someone or something else – like a scary ‘ol bee- will.

The world is full of wide-eyed little girls, looking up to grown, capable women like us for guidance. If we want to teach them how to overcome THEIR fears so they can make THEIR difference on this planet, we have to first do it for OURSELVES. We have to face down our own fears, and take charge of our own lives. We have to be willing to be leaders.

We owe it to those little girls.

We owe it to ourselves.

And we owe it to Mother Earth.

(Note: This is a speech I gave at the Ann Arbor City Club, where I was honored as an Athena Award Nominee by the Women's Council of Washtenaw County)