Connor Yuzwenko-Martin: Leading With Your Heart

Connor sits in front of a spiked light glowing white with his head turned upward and arms by his sides. His shadow is cast against the wall behind. He wears a simple blue acid-dyed short sleeve shirt
A photo of Connor from Nextfest 2020 online performance.

On February 9, 2021, around 6 p.m., I was lying on the couch half-asleep and on my third episode of Disenchanted when I suddenly bolted upright, aghast.

A few hours previously, I had walked into my workplace of nearly 11 years and handed in my notice of resignation. It was the end of my full-time job, the end of benefits and discounts and stock options and free lunches. I had given up all of it – during a pandemic – and it was just hitting me. Much like Disenchanted’s Princess Tiabeanie, I was setting out in search of better futures despite the advice of so many to stay with what was comfortable, reliable, and known.

Had I gone mad? Part of me was already thinking about how I could walk this back – “He was in a fugue state, your Honour,” – but a few minutes later my heart stopped pounding and I had reminded myself of all the reasons I’d left. I was fortunate enough to receive some student and arts grants to pay the bills for the next few months, plus have a small freelance contract for communications work, and a few one- off consulting and acting engagements. In just a couple of months I would be starting a practicum to cap off my public relations diploma, after which I’d hopefully secure a job in the arts sector. It was simply time. But why now in particular?

What I had just done was lead with my heart. This had been a long time coming.

So long, in fact, that I can trace it all the way back to the first day of my final year of high school when I stubbornly sat in the vice-principal’s office. That morning, I and my class had realized there was no ASL interpreter booked. At all. For an entire year before I was supposed to start university. I was the sole Deaf student in the mainstream school, but most of my peers cared very much about what this meant for me. I had slowly risen from my classroom seat, taken a notebook and a pen, and walked down to the office where I sat and refused to leave until the vice-principal made specific promises to fix the situation.

That was my first real moment of self-advocacy – my parents didn’t even know until I got home that evening – and also my first run-in with a blunt truth:

Some people simply won’t have your best interests at heart.

This isn’t to imply that my “vice-principals” at Apple – the managers – didn’t care about me. They certainly did, but just as that sweating school administrator had been bound up in the hectic rush of school year prep, so my managers were bound up by the relentless push of corporate-retail work. This seems par for the course in most industries. Even the arts can fall victim to a numbers-driven cycle of cultural input and output.

I believe that managers and administrators should continue to be responsible for everyday accountability. We need that if we want to make any coherent progess as a society. However, I understand now that leaders are and must be different.

Leaders must be responsible for the longer arcs of accountability. They must be the heart-driven custodians of the beliefs and values that shape an environment and influence the amorphous formations of identity, motivation, and even trauma.

Our workplaces and institutions conflate management and leadership far too often. Perhaps there’s no way around the nature of consumerism, seeing how it is so deeply tied to the idea of capitalistic labour where inclusion is only valued for its productive output rather than its intrinsic humanity. Perhaps I’m calling for a revival of the town philosopher as a paid position on the executive board. But is that really such an outrageous suggestion in our information economy where we constantly bring in consultants to make sense of our scattered human movements?

That’s where I come in. The idea of a Deaf consultant is fairly new and still mostly contained to the arts sector where there are many efforts to meaningfully re- engage intersections of experience and marginalization in equitable ways. I believe there is a role for the Deaf consultant in the boardrooms of organizations that are looking toward sustainable ways of doing business: sustainable in the sense of treating each human body and internal world just as preciously as each of the million trees being planted or cubic metres of water being conserved.

We, the ones who so often witness and feel the death of empathy, are exceptionally well-suited to revive it.

I hope that my reflections on leading with the heart have been enough to nudge a few key decision-makers out there to shift gears, or at least inspire a new conversation at the next team meeting.

What do you think about this?

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