The Potter’s Wheel & Anne Lamott

May 30, 2024. By Lori Brewer Collins

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Parallels to Leadership

One of my favorite essayists is Anne Lamott. If you don’t know her work, let me introduce you to her here. Transparent, witty and wise, she puts into writing truths about life that come straight from my heart. She’s inspired me in many ways, including with my pottery.

Let me explain.

I’m a novice potter. In my short tenure, I have produced multiple lumpy, tilting, collapsing structures out of clay. It’s a new love, in spite of the output. When I’m at my pottery wheel, I frequently enter a state of flow. And everything I thought I ever knew about bowls, plates and coffee mugs is up for grabs.

So what does any of this have to do with leadership? Actually, quite a lot. With Anne Lamott and my pottery wheel as inspiration, here are a few thoughts:

Embrace the Messy Beginnings

The secret to a beautifully thrown piece of pottery is centering the clay on the wheel. Real potters make this look easy. It’s not. Without the centering, the whole piece is either lopsided or collapses. This is how any beginner will feel about anything.

Anne reminds us that “perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.” Looking inept is the biggest hindrance to most of us trying something new. Yet it’s in our messy beginnings that our life is shaped and we are helped to grow.

Find Your Center

Knowing our core self, our values, and taking an honest inventory of how these are showing up in our world (or not showing up in our world) is at the heart of authentic leadership.

Anne writes frequently about the need for grounding as the centering anchor needed to navigate the chaos of competing demands. Teams look to their leaders for stability, confidence and clarity. This comes with a grounded knowing of yourself, and behavior that’s aligned with your inner values.

No Shortcuts

I’m frequently asked to shorten a team session by half, while the list of desired outcomes remains the same. If only for that magic wand.

For some reason, there’s an innate desire in most of us to abbreviate and accelerate what only time and focus can render. This is certainly true in my pottery throwing: the moment my mind wanders too far from what’s at hand, the heretofore mug is just another unrealized clumpy concept.

Know When to Let Go

There are many times I’ve tried to resurrect a piece I’ve thrown, especially if I’ve invested a lot of time on it. Have you ever had a project that was headed towards the ditch but you just didn’t have the heart to pull the plug? Yeah, it’s like that.

Anne writes often about the need to face “what is” and know when to accept it with compassion for yourself. And to know when to let go. It’s a hard-won lesson every leader I’ve ever worked with has experienced.

Adapt, Pivot and Try Again

Anne also writes about learning from what’s been handed to you, adapting, forging a new path, and starting over. And to put this on repeat.

As far as I can tell, this is a never-ending process throughout our lives, assuming we stay curious and are continuously learning. The trajectory tends to trend upward, but never in a straight line.

Leaders who are able to adapt, pivot, and persevere are ever-evolving and therefore, better equipped for the unexpected, complex challenges they face. Just like Anne, me. And you.

So, to Anne Lamott: thank you for helping me see the unexpected parallels between your work and mine – and for helping me stay patient with myself as I face that lump of clay on my potter’s wheel.

Questions to think about:

  • When was the last time you took on learning something totally new? At a time in your life that may contain a long list of achievements, what was it like to be an inexpert beginner again?
  • How do you recognize when you’ve found your center? What gets tilted or collapses when you try to move forward without it?
  • When have you had to let go of an idea? a project? a job? a person? How did you know it was time? and what has been the downstream impact or result?
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