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“You, me and a plain chair”*

A personal experience on how leadership shaped my views.

Author: Joana Pereira

If there’s anything good about the current state of world affairs has brought to us all, that has been “a window”. A window of space, time and reflection. 

I’m a reflective person by very nature, but as of late my window has been filled with the past; the things I saw, the things I heard, the people I met, how they impacted me, the decisions I’ve taken throughout life and where they led me. 

There are two scenes in my head, that represent two very different leadership scenarios in my life, at two different points in time, with two very different people. The only thing connecting both of them is a chair.

I was a young professional on the first stand of my career – a Leadership program in a big multinational, designed for high-achievers and “born-to-be-leaders”. We were an elite group within the organization – smarter than most, faster than most, bigger achievers (and surely it wouldn’t hurt to get up at 5 a.m (CEO-style) and read all the books from Oprah and Obama’s list). We were the embodiment of what success looks like. 

I long lost count to the cancelled weekend getaways and holidays, the denied sleep, the energy and many times mental sanity poured into living up to such expectations for three full years. And I did manage it, and I was well-liked in the organization and a high achiever on request. Despite this all, I find myself sitting in a chair and facing the Managing Director of the company, a.k.a “The Boss of the Boss”. We sat in that room for almost 30 minutes, yet I remember nothing we talked about, apart from this single line: “you know, some people are not built for Leadership, and should be better off as just supportive parts”.

Ouch! I could have discarded that observation. Objectively, the person who sat on that chair knew nothing about me or my work, apart from a 1-hour presentation gone spectacularly wrong… His opinion shouldn’t represent ‘me’ in three rather good years, let alone define what I could or not become in life. Only he described the very thing I hoped to become one day. And what’s more, he was validated as such. Hence I had no escape route, but to listen to every single word he said. (Un)surprisingly, I started getting pitiful looks from my colleagues shortly after the event too. 

That one line has haunted me ever since, even in my sleep; it was like watching yourself in a broken mirror and seeing nothing but a fraud.

Fast-forwarding another three years, I find myself sitting on a different chair. 

This time around, I am the Line Manager of a team of 6 and off to my first ever ‘Performance Evaluation’. I sat leisurely shoulder by shoulder with each one, listening to an unfolding list of concerns, their faces looking down for most of the time. And then it hit me, the somewhat familiar scene I had in front of me. 

I had been given some papers from the HR Dept. on guiding these Performance sessions, which I pushed aside. And then, finally, I asked each of them a question, the very same question I wish the man on that chair had asked me back then: “How is this place going to help you in your life aspirations?”. Every single one of them gave the same reply - “I don’t know. No one has ever asked me that question before”. To which I said: “That’s ok. Go home and give it some thought because knowing the answer to this question at all times will be determinant to your success in life.”

Not long after, two of ‘my girls’ got promoted, while one of them left towards a different path. 

That conversation was perhaps the most significant legacy I have left behind at this latest job. This conversation has also taught me (finally) what leadership is about. Leadership understands the very essence of humanity, and instead of discarding it, uplifting it.

Our words and actions have a much profound impact on people’s lives than we give them credit. We all have a responsibility towards everyone’s journey through life, even more in the ‘workplace’ as we call it. 

Closing thoughts: 

Throughout that journey, we will be sitting on many chairs, and they will always remain just that – a chair. But we can decide who we are when we sit on it. 

*Originally published on April 2020


Joana Pereira

Brand Manager | Portfolio Strategy FMCG | Consultancy for Startups and Small Businesses

I am originally Portuguese, born at the Atlantic seaside. I’ve always been a bit of a rebel growing up, climbing (and often falling off!) trees used to be a hobby of mine. I’ve always loved story-telling, hence why I found myself leaning towards branding and marketing. I’ve spent most of my career working with the big giants in the FMCG industry, where I’ve gained much of my experience. Today, I’m in the startup bubble, connecting with business owners and helping them grow their businesses in any way I can. I’m passionate about People, Leadership and an advocate of continuous self-development.

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