We have all heard more times than we can count how Pittsburgh can be its own worst enemy; how we as a region defeat ourselves through low self-esteem and low expectations, and how we just need to start believing in ourselves again.
Perhaps we should not be so quick to judge our community for struggling with the idea of its own potential, its own capacity to change and grow. The trap of self-limitation is universal, and we would be better off acknowledging that than trying to dismiss it as some meaningless and perverse obsession unique to Pittsburgh.
The meditation expert Sally Kempton once said, “It’s hard to fight an enemy who has outposts in your head.” The fact is, though, that we all fight such enemies. They come to us in the form of stories—narratives drawn from life and parents and culture — that tell us our place in the scheme of things.
Those narratives define the lines of our own power: what we personally can do and change and accomplish in this world, and what is beyond us. In my experience working with leaders of all types, the courage to challenge those lines in one’s own life — to cross them, erase them, push them back — is the hardest, yet truest test of leadership.
I know it was for me. For most of my life, the idea that I could one day lead a program devoted to cultivating engaged community leaders, as I am privileged now to do, would have been laughable, beyond imagining. The lines defining my place in the world were neat and narrow, and they allowed no room for crazy aspirations.
I was raised in the city of Bhopal, India. My father was a high-ranking government official, which in India meant that he was a successful and reasonably powerful man. My mother was a dutiful Indian wife, which meant that she had long ago set aside any personal dreams and ambitions and lived to support her husband and advance the lives of her three children.
I was sent to school and received a good education. My mother insisted I learn English, which was a great gift. But as a girl in the India of that time and place, my primary purpose was to be engaged and married off. And as a young girl of 20, I was — to a young man studying in America.
For my parents, America was important not only because of the lifestyle opportunities it offered compared with the “Third World” at that time but, perhaps more because my older brother lived and worked there. He suffered from a congenital heart defect, and they wanted me to be near him to care for him when the need arose.
In the ensuing years I finished my graduate studies, and then, like my mother before me, I set aside my own ambitions to assume my role as a devoted wife. I started working part time, but my primary duty was to support my husband’s career and his family, entertain his colleagues and our friends and raise our two boys, of whom I am immensely proud.
We had all the accoutrements of happiness, but for me, one was missing: a choice. I had no sense of my own power to make this more fully my life — or not.
When my husband’s wonderful and generous company transferred him to Pittsburgh from Philadelphia seven years ago, I didn’t want to come. Philadelphia had become home. I had friends there, I liked it there, and this place seemed like it would be the middle of nowhere.
Today, I like to tell people I came here “kicking and screaming,” because in America that’s how people are expected to react to being made to do something against their will: they fight it.
But I had no sense of that, no sense of my capacity to assert my own will. The truth is, I came here in the same spirit that I had been trained to adopt as a young girl growing up in a society where girls had little value and less voice: resignation.
I came to Pittsburgh because I had to, because I was expected to, because that’s what girls and women did.
But then, slowly, a change began. Sick of being lonely on the inside, sick of being bored, sick of playing a role that never completely seemed to suit me, I started meeting with people in the community and eventually took a job heading a small nonprofit organization.
Like most mothers, I believe that the best name I have ever been called, the best title I have ever been given, is “Mom.” But for a woman from my world to discover that she may be something else as well, to discover that untapped parts of her soul might also find voice, was for me nothing short of priceless.
I was given the opportunity to participate in a program called Leadership Pittsburgh, and for the first time in my life I began to understand the idea of personal efficacy. It is an idea that strikes me as quintessentially American and that I will forever associate with Pittsburgh, becauseI learned it here. It is the notion that we are each endowed with the power and capacity to shape not only our own lives but also our community and our country.
For most Americans, that’s part of the canon, part of the creed. For me, though,it was revolutionary. I began to look around at a community that I could actually influence, a place where I could make a difference.
Today, the resignation I felt as a young woman has become frighteningly characteristic of an America unsure of its role in an unsettled world. Many Americans are angry over the war in Iraq, concerned about the national economy and personal debt and worried about disasters half-a-world away or terrorism in our own backyards. And we feel increasingly uncertain about what we can do about it.
Nowhere is that uncertainty more poignant than here. In a place brought low three decades ago by the brutally impersonal forces of globalization, in a place that had grown accustomed overits history to being taken care of by big companies and wealthy families, the ideaof personal agency can still at times seem almost alien.
What can one person do, after all, to change the world?
But history is full of people who have answered that question by overcoming the disempowering stories that held them back. One of my heroes is the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. As we were remindedon the anniversary of his assassination, he has inspired generations of Americans to overcome the stories that defined them based on race, which told them they were powerless, that change was impossible.
I know intimately the power that can be unleashed in just one life when we learn to stop spinning our stories of personallimitation. I also know, personally, whypeople hesitate to embrace that power and even go to great lengths to avoid acknowledging it as a possibility.
Challenging those stories and vanquishing them can be painful and costly. Mymarriage ultimately ended, and for years after my brother’s heart condition had sent him to a tragically early grave, I still cried bitter, helpless tears over the way my life had been second to his, second to my husband’s, second always to the dictatesof family and custom.
But as I have learned over the years to tell myself a new story — a story ofpossibility — that resentment has faded. I no longer need or want it. Today when I cry over my brother it is simply because I miss him and because I will never get to share with him the woman I have become. ButI am able to, and will, share that woman with my two sons.
No one in my life was to blame for the parts of my life I came to resent so much. We were all just playing roles assigned for us, living out a story that had been handed down to us through generations andculture. And now, as I am living out a new one, they are learning to live out new ones as well, all of us struggling to craft a new narrative and, in the process, growing.
The price of change and growth —which is to say, the price of leadership —is to accept the terrible, exacting cost of agency in one’s own life. We have choices; we can make them or not. They have consequences; we can face them or not. That is perhaps the hardest thing of all for us to do in this world: to step fully, honestly and openly into our own power.
That is why, for me, leadership isnot about jobs or titles or roles. It is an intensely personal journey. The would-be leader must travel deep into the heart of herself, stare down the stories that hold her back and discover the power she never knew existed.
Without that, there would be no Martin Luther Kings, no Gandhis, nopeople challenging the supposed tide of destiny and daring to change the world.
And for that matter, there would have been no America, no pioneers, no Pittsburgh.
Pittsburgh, this region of ours, thisspecial place, is no different than the millions of us who proudly call it home. Like each of us, it has a story that it must overcome — a compelling story of trauma and loss, of dreams dashed and families scattered.
We should not scorn it for dwellingon that tale any more than we shouldscorn ourselves for sometimes dwellingtoo long on our own stories of diminishment and loss. That is part of being human, and of being a humancommunity. But we must have the courage to ask whether that collective regional story serves us anymore, or whether we are willing to leave it behind at last, a part of our history we acknowledge but no longer need.
I believe Pittsburgh has that courage.A new generation of corporate, nonprofit and government leaders is emerging at all levels, and we see signs of their optimism everywhere: in new development andconstruction downtown, in the growth of our universities, in city school reform, in the investments along our riverfronts and in our neighborhoods, in the generosity of the Pittsburgh Promise, in the willingness to consider bold ideas such as city-county consolidation, and the list goes on.
Without beating ourselves up any more about the skepticism of the past, which is a way of holding onto it, we must accept that a new day has already arrived. Our task now is to embrace it with all the conviction a community of bold, courageous people can muster.
In the ancient Hindu philosophyof Vedanta, there is a prayer urging,“Let those who are free help others to become free.”
I believe that is the true leader’s mission, the true leader’s creed. Having broken free of one’s own diminishingstories, the leader is tasked with helping others to break free of theirs. My wish for Pittsburgh is that we will be a community of such leaders, generous in our desire and willingness to uplift others, free at last of that sad and cautious enemy in our heads, free at last to embrace a world of infinite possibility.Aradhna M. Dhanda is the director of Leadership Pittsburgh.
Summer 2008 subscribe