In her Washington Post column on Wednesday, Sally Jenkins attributes Gabby Douglasʻ bad fall on the balancing beam to demoralization. The attacks on her hair, and the “racial narrative, the rags-to-riches narrative” imposed on her combined to reduce her “from gleaming to grim.”
Itʻs a powerful argument, that a small story imposed on someone in the lead can shrink their confidence. Iʻve seen it happen before, over and over, as leaders learn to claim their own narrative and identity, no matter what. In some ways, that stubborn attention to knowing who we are is at the heart of authentic leadership. At the same time, our most effective leaders know that our public roles, the stories that are told about us, have a function that we need to acknowledge, and sometimes perform in a shapeshifting negotiation.
Thatʻs a paradox Gabby Douglas is facing very young. When she won the gold medal, she won both a place in history and the burden of becoming the dayʻs story. She is African American, a woman, an athlete, from a working class family, from the USA, from Virginia, from a racist culture, and a million other qualifying stories that can be spun in different ways. She has to learn to hold her own center, and perform — her own way — the roles she needs to take in order to hold her leadership position.
Iʻm not sure the pressure from her celebrity was the cause of her mis-step. Thereʻs such a tiny margin between winning and losing, landing and falling. This is, after all, the Olympics. Winners are marked by tenths of a second. Others can land on their butts and gain a silver medal. Itʻs all shades of perfection, shaped by discipline and practice and luck. Maybe, as she said, “it wasnʻt her day to shine.”
Once she comes back to the states, a hero for the nation, she gets to practice a new skill — shapeshifter diplomacy. She must never forget she must be herself (and so young, she is also creating her future self!). And therefore she must participate in an inauthentic celebrity as authentically as she can — taking on many stories and roles as part of the new, negotiated script as a leader athlete. It will be quite a learning curve, a whole new discipline.
Itʻs a role our heros who come from the cultural margins find very familiar. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “A man canʻt ride your back unless itʻs bent.” It takes a clever leader to stand straight and master the stereotypes flung at them from the mainstream.
Racism, sexism and ageism are going to be powerful story-shapers that frame Gabby Douglasʻ public identity. Sheʻs already shown a great deal of resilience and authenticity — now she needs to learn a little bit of shapeshifting to help her navigate and direct those oppressive scripts. Shapeshifter resistance activates the trickster, the world-changer. With fame, she inherits a heavy responsibility. With the tricksterʻs light touch, she will be able to transform those stereotypes, just by her willingness to play a little with the script imposed on her.
We can all do that with our lives, if we wanted. Sometimes, all we need is to learn by example. Gabby Douglas could be more than a gifted leader among athletes, an important enough role. She might just lead us on to live a better story as a nation.