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Written by JJ Barnes
I interviewed author Wendy Ryan about her career, what motivates her, and her latest book, Learn Lead Lift.
When did you first WANT to write a book?
I’ve always been a good writer. I won an essay contest fifth grade and had an opportunity to attend my first writer’s workshop then. I’ve thought about writing a book from time to time over the years since then, but it never felt like the right time to do so. I think I needed the seasoning that life experience can provide to happen, first.
When did you take a step to start writing?
I turned 49 and started contemplating how I might want to celebrate my 50th birthday. I had thrown a big party for my husband when he turned 50 and that was really fun. I also considered taking a trip somewhere I’d never been. The idea to write a book emerged from those musings and once it came up, it just wouldn’t let go. Before I knew it, I had connected with a book coach and started working with her to create the outline and identify what audience I wanted to write for.
How long did it take you to complete your first book from the first idea to release?
It took almost three years in total, which was about three times longer than I thought it would take. I never took time off from running my company or caregiving in order to write, so I had to fit time in for writing in short stretches only 2-3 hours 2 days a week on average.
What made you want to write Learn Lead Lift?
Learn Lead Lift is the convergence of my lifelong interest in and passion for leadership models and theories with lived experience. Weaving those two things together in a meaningful way that could illuminate new and different insights was what fueled my initial interest and sustained my motivation.
What were your biggest challenges with writing Learn Lead Lift?
After George Floyd’s murder in May 2020 I put aside the manuscript, which was at that point 80% complete, and did some personal work to understand why identity matters. I realized as a white, cis-gendered, heterosexual, able-bodied, neurotypical, financially fortunate woman I had many blind spots when it came to the impact of identity on other people’s lived experience and their leadership.
After six months, I felt ready to pick up the manuscript again and decide whether I could resume writing the book as is or start over from scratch. I was fully prepared and committed to starting over at that point. It was no longer about how long it might take me to finish the book or how much a do-over might cost, it was a matter of personal integrity. I couldn’t put out a book on leadership that did not address what was happening socially and politically. I couldn’t put out a book that might contribute to perpetuating systemic oppression via leadership.
Fortunately, I found that the concepts and stories I’d captured in the book tended to challenge the status quo in ways that aligned well. So I was able to finish writing the last 20%, but I did so with fewer blind spots in tow and a clearer commitment to allyship as an essential leadership task. It’s a better book, as a result of that.
What was your research process for Learn Lead Lift?
I felt I had developed a very clear point of view on leadership and it would be relatively easy for me to articulate that in a book. At the same time, I wanted to test my assumptions and include multiple perspectives on leadership, not just my own.
I read and re-read some of the classic books about leadership and teamwork as well as a number of new ones. And I conducted over 40 interviews with a very diverse sample of people, including many who we may not typically think of as leaders, such as artists, athletes, therapists, parents, investors, first responders and engineers. It was important to me that we not perpetuate the stereotype that leaders are white men sitting at the head of a table in a giant conference room at a Fortune 500 company.
How did you plan the structure of Learn Lead Lift?
From the beginning I wanted the book to feel very accessible and modular to the reader. Three or four sections with short chapters filled with concrete examples and stories. At the end of each chapter is a short list of Key Takeaways and What You Can Do About It. In theory, you can start reading any chapter, in any order, and immediately take away some helpful concepts and action items to improve your leadership.
Did you get support with editing, and how much editing did Learn Lead Lift need?
I learned through the process that there are several different types of editing. As it turned out, I didn’t need help with the actual writing or flow of ideas – what some might call developmental editing. What I did need help with, and I think all writers do and should engage is a copyeditor/proofreader to make sure the all the punctuation marks were in the right place, the citations were in the correct format, etc.
What is the first piece of writing advice you would give to anyone inspired to write a book?
I heard another author say, though I can’t quite remember now who said it, that you should only attempt to write a book if it’s a topic you are incredibly passionate about. It’s almost as if the book wants to be born into the world and your job is to be its birth mother or doula. I think that’s a pretty good metaphor.
Can you give me a hint about any further books you’re planning to write?
I have about 4 additional non-fiction book ideas in mind so far. I don’t know yet which one might come first, but I can tell you that all of them reflect my deep curiosity about what it means to be human through the lens of our lived experiences and the stories people share about them. Ultimately, I hope to write the kind of books that teach, inspire and entertain, because those are the books I most enjoy reading.
And, finally, are you proud of your accomplishment? Was it worth the effort?
I am very proud of Learn Lead Lift. Not because it’s a perfect book – I’m not and it isn’t. I’m proud because so many people who have read it say that it fundamentally changed something for them about how they view and approach their leadership – and that really they enjoyed reading it. When I consider the potential ripple effect those changes might have in the world and know that I made someone laugh or smile, I absolutely feel it was worth it.
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