I ran away from home once when I was six. It didn’t go as planned.
It started as a normal Saturday for me… a lot of noise and activity in a large family with one brother (the first born) and five sisters. My spot was somewhere in the middle. I often felt very different from my siblings who were more athletic. They played football and tennis and did cheerleading. Athletics was a strong suit in the family. Our father lettered in four sports in college (not a typo – back in the day, you could play multiple sports because coaches didn’t expect year-round commitments). Most Saturdays, my siblings were out the door and off to play on some team or gather with friends for a sporting event. I felt left out, somehow inadequate because I didn’t have the athletic prowess they all seemed to have been born with.
On my Saturdays, I would set up a makeshift “office,” pretending to be a manager, or pull out my paints or pencils for an art project. Art brought me joy, allowing me to work on my own. I asked for art lessons as a present for every birthday and Christmas, and even at the age of six, I demonstrated some budding talent.
That day, my siblings all raced off to their various sporting activities, and I felt like I did each Saturday: left out. That feeling of exclusion weighed on me, and it hurt. The morning was quiet, and I wandered the house with nothing to do. Thoughts went through my head that my siblings didn’t want me around, and I began to wonder if they would even notice if I wasn’t at the dinner table. And that is when I decided to run away.
It was a scary thought, yet the idea of taking matters into my own hands felt good at the time. I emptied my book bag and replaced my school items with three pairs of clean underwear, my toothbrush, and a snack. I waited until my mom was on the phone, then I walked out the back-screen door, making my getaway. The property line in our backyard was marked by a 6-foot-tall, slatted, wooden fence. I slipped behind it and hid among some bushes that I decided would be my runaway spot. I could look through the spaces in the slats and see any activity in my backyard, but no one could see me.
I waited. Nothing happened. I waited longer, and still nothing happened. No one came looking for me; I wasn’t missed. My first feeling of independence was gone, my courage was slipping away, and I felt isolated.
Then I heard a noise, but it came from behind me. I could see my neighbor, Mrs. Walters, coming out to water her plants. She saw me easily. I felt silly being caught, but the truth was I didn’t want to hide any longer if no one even cared that I was missing.
Mrs. Walters was very pleasant and seemed to easily size up what I was doing, but she never once asked why I had my bookbag or why I was hiding in the bushes behind the fence. Instead, she invited me inside for lemonade. Once inside the kitchen, she pointed to a small painting hanging by her back door. It was one I had painted for her.
“This is my favorite sunny spot, and your painting makes it extra special,” she said. “You have a gift Carol, and I hope you keep painting so others can hang your paintings in their houses, too.”
With just those words, Mrs. Walters gave value to my differences. She made me focus on what I had versus what I didn’t have.
Mrs. Walters is a great role model for leaders. The act of inclusion isn’t hard. It requires listening, understanding, empathy, and valuing others’ gifts. As a leader, we can’t hope that someone else will create this environment. We should constantly be looking to include the person who feels left out before she feels she must run away. How will you make sure your people feel valued and included?