Foxglove is a beautiful flower that graces the most cultured gardens, shaming the more demure plants with its gorgeous trumpet shaped fuschia petals.
Or is It?
Actually foxglove is an invasive weed whose entire structure is poisonous. Digitalis, the chemical found in foxglove can kill children, pets and even adults. Children are drawn to the brightly colored petals and seed pods. Adults sometimes mistake the foxglove for the comfy plant which can be brewed into a calming tea. However, when ingested, foxglove is extremely toxic. Ironically, the same Digitalis is also a proven treatment for heart problems, but only when prescribed. An enticing, yet dangerous and sometimes life saving plant sounds pretty enigmatic. But despite its usefullness, in the wild it is deadly. The paradoxical foxglove illustrates the adage that a pleasant facade can be terribly deceiving: a beautiful lie.
We are sometimes just like the foxglove. We sometimes present such a carefully crafted facade as the portrait of our life that no one can guess the inside may be crumbling. Years ago, I learned a painful, but invaluable lesson about how important it was to understand that things aren’t always as they first appear.
When I was a very young investigation supervisor, I had a women in my unit that I will call Janice. Janice came to me right out of training. She demonstrated such passion and excitement for each family assigned to her: following every lead and thoroughly assessing each allegations before arriving at the disposition. Getting to know her. I could see that she loved her job. She laughed often, brought fresh baked cookies for the team and often worked late into the evening. I admired her. She seemed to have it all together. So, I made one of the biggest mistakes a supervisor could make. Because she seemed to handle pressure so well, I saw to it that she got the most complex high profile cases. I would assure her that she was getting the case because she was my best investigator. She would always smile and say, “i’ll do my best!” She was a natural! And I will admit it. I fell for the beautiful lie.
Janice did not complain when her caseload became stacked with difficult cases. She seemed to thrive on the complexities. She worked them with energy and gusto. I did notice she started eating lunch in her office instead of with her peers. I told myself that she was just too busy. She stopped bringing the cookies as well. And, I noticed, while still extremely pleasant, she didn’t laugh as much. But she had the best clearance rate of any other staff, so I contributed it to her focus.
After only a year, Janice came to me and handed me her resignation. I was stunned. I watched as tears streamed down her face when she told me she couldn’t do it anymore. She rarely slept at night thinking about the cases and had begun having panic attacks. The stress was contributing to high blood pressure and she decided that she had to take care of herself. I talked to her about taking a week off, about moving her out of cans and slowing her case assignments. She explained that she felt she had to leave for her physical and emotional health. She had taken months to come to the decision and would not change her mind. My solutions came too late.
When she left, I berated myself for not seeing signs that she was in trouble. Yet thinking back, I realized the signs were very subtle, easy to miss. For the most part, she was holding up her facade beautifully. I believed she was happy and fulfilled in her job. However, i also realized, in hindsight, that as her supervisor, I bore some responsibility for creating the environment that stunted her fulfillment and ultimately the joy she had In her job.
In this experience, I learned two valuable lessons that I carry with me always.
I learned, that as a leader, I needed to check in with my staff more. Even the high achievers should feel safe admitting when they were struggling, so that as a team we could offer support and assistance. By putting Janice on a pedestal, I unknowingly gave her the impression that she had to achieve the high expectations alone. She didn’t want to disappoint me by admitting that she was struggling. In any team, there should be a universal understanding that we are all human and therefore struggle at times. I should have reinforced with the team that to ask for help was a sign of strength not weakness. I learned that by creating a safe environment among our group, there would be no need for an impenetrable facade.
The second thing I learned was to examine my own facade. Was I, too, creating a beautiful lie? I recognized Jamie’s symptoms because I shared them. Insomnia was a frequent yet unwelcome guest in my home. I did not seek out support when I struggled, because I was expected to be a leader first and human being second. Instead I continued to make impossible demands on myself. I had to learn what I was trying to teach others. Reach out to peers for support, create a safe group to express my struggles and learn to give myself permission to make mistakes. By taking responsibility for my own need to connect, I was better equipped to check in on and offer support to my staff.
Over the years, especially when I felt the signs of exhaustion and burn out, I thought of Janice. Realizing that I contributed to her burn out still saddens me. She never returned to work in my agency. But I hope that she found a way to harness that passion for helping others in a way that allowed her to heal herself as well. I am grateful for the lesson. I think it made me a better leader and a better person.
All beautiful things are not what they seem. When things look perfect, thats when you have to look deeper. Don’t fall for the beautiful lie.