A Becky Tarbotton Remembrance
Some notes on the art of leadership
A year ago today my friend Becky Tarbotton died while swimming in rough surf off the coast of Mexico. It was the kind of accident that is so unexpected and shocking — so out of the blue — that it felt, in the fullest sense of the word, nightmarish. It felt like the world had spun out of control, in all the wrong directions. Becky was just 39 years old when she died. Her death occurred on a bright morning, in the midst of a holiday beach vacation, among her closest friends and her new husband, Mateo Williford. The couple had been married just six months. The whole thing was beyond tragic.
Photo courtesy Rainforest Action Network
At the time, I didn’t have the heart to write any kind of obituary. For me the news was too raw to treat it as newsworthy. During the horrible weeks right after Becky’s death, journalism took a backseat to being a human. Now, a year later, my grief has mellowed (as it inevitably does), and I’ve had the space to think more deeply about what Becky gave to me during the time we knew each other.
One the greatest gifts I received from Becky was a lesson in the art of leadership.
From 2010 to 2012 Becky served as the executive director of Rainforest Action Network. My longtime partner, Nell Greenberg, is the communications director at RAN, and so I had a lot of opportunities to watch Becky behind the scenes, as it were. Becky often came to our place for working dinners with Nell. I would be in the kitchen cooking supper, and they would be in the living room drinking wine and cooking up campaign strategies — plans for halting reckless deforestation, stopping the financing of the coal industry, and ways to hold corporations accountable for their actions. Important and righteous work, part of the bigger effort to create a saner world.
I tried not to listen (we have a strict “off the record” policy in our journalist-PR specialist home), but occasionally I couldn’t help but overhear. Sometimes, one of the things that I caught in Becky’s voice was a note of self-doubt. Like most of us, much of the time she wasn’t entirely sure of what she was doing or where she was going. Her passion for environmental sustainability and social justice was crystal clear and unshakable. In private, though, she admitted to being unsure of how to reach those goals. And that lack of surety, I have to come to believe, was key to the deftness of Becky’s leadership.
Leadership is a tricky thing, more craft than science. There are, of course, a few key ingredients to effective leadership: clarity of vision; an ability to articulate that vision, to make it tangible for others; passion and a knack for making passion contagious; the skill to perceive the desires of other people and harness their hopes to a common task. A natural and easy self-presence is another criterion for leadership — and Becky had presence in spades. She was never less than poised, and she knew how to command a room’s attention, as you can see in this video. Her ease with an audience, she once told me, came from an adolescence spent as a thespian. What is leadership, after all, but a performance?
But leadership also defies definition. It’s alchemical, magical. Leadership is protean, taking on different shapes in different circumstances, and depending upon the personal idiosyncrasies of the leader herself.
We often think of innate self-confidence as a hallmark of leadership, and no doubt it is. Neurotics rarely do well in charge. Yet humility is just as important to effective leadership. Read the biographies of any former president, and you’ll find that determination in public almost always masks doubts in private. A measure of modesty is what separates the real leaders from the blowhards. Humility and a soupçon of self-doubt make a leader into a listener. And listening is essential to leadership. Remember the old Hawaiian aphorism: We have two ears and one mouth for a reason — so that we will listen twice as much as we talk.
Most of the obituaries published a year ago focused on Becky’s public role as a leader. Certainly she was that. And yet the Becky I knew in private was very much an emerging leader, someone who was just becoming comfortable in her responsibilities and her station, a person whose outward confidence was balanced with inner doubts. That was the human Becky I knew. And that humanity — that humility — was the key to her evolving leadership. She knew how to listen. I watched her in social settings, and usually she asked more questions than offered answers. I saw her at her office, and she seemed to seek counsel as much as she gave orders. Becky hoped that if she listened to enough voices, she could help to synthesize a common vision.
I don’t think our culture today values the importance of listening to good leadership. Becky, though, got it. And that’s just one of the many reasons why I miss her very much.