“What if your job is not to be right or knowledgeable,” Shannon Weber, MSW, asks readers; “What if your role is to create change?” Weber herself employs this question as a kind of magnetic North to realign with her core purpose when she feels “stuck” in her practice of Showing Up Hard. Simply put, to Show Up Hard as a leader is to support others through profound challenges in ways that are sustainable, that do not subsume or alienate the helper. “Leaders commit to the emotional labor of showing up to support change,” Weber writes. “Imagining oneself as a hero is easy: Fly in and save the day. Showing up when no one is watching, when the stakes are less high, when the task at hand is not as attractive — this is the work of creating change.”
Show Up Hard: A Road Map for Helpers in Crisis is an intimate, interactive conversation between Weber and her readers, whom she addresses with the assumption that we are all leaders. A leader is defined in the text as anyone who is in a position to illuminate a path forward, who attends to even one other person’s wellbeing, or who can potentially guide someone else to a better place. Still, many of the examples illustrating tools and techniques of Showing Up Hard are drawn from Weber’s own experiences in institutional leadership roles over more than 25 years as a social worker and self-described serial social entrepreneur.
In the framework of Showing Up Hard, the foundation of leadership is engagement as a Compassionate Witness. “The Compassionate Witness offers themself as an empathetic and perhaps resourceful observer of another’s journey,” Weber writes. She distinguishes this approach from an Enmeshed style of engagement, common for those called to help others but also draining and neglectful of boundaries; and a Missed Connection style, in which the potential helper cultivates distance from the person they are in a position to help, often out of fear of what might happen to them (for instance, becoming Enmeshed) if they get involved.
A hallmark of showing up as a Compassionate Witness is knowing yourself: your skills and what you can offer in a given scenario; the limits to what you are able to provide; your learned responses to conflict; how you communicate all this to others. With this approach, there is no confusion as to where the helper begins and the person they seek to help ends. In the space where the two overlap is the “sweet spot” of maximum opportunity to experience authentic connection, and to convey empathy — another key muscle a leader must build.
The theme of boundaries and containers, overlaps and intersections, courses through the text. “It took me many years to really embody the fact that I have choice in how I engage,” reflects Weber from her position as a lifetime giver: the oldest of 14 siblings, a mother of three young adults, a trainer of crisis responders, a supporter of women experiencing numerous forms of violence. “It’s not selfish to identify all the ways we are not available or not choosing to show up,” Weber writes. “Knowing what you choose not to do can illuminate the possibilities of what you can do.”
The text is organize into Books, and the above engagement styles are introduced in the first chapter of Book One: “Embarking.” Here, the main terms of Showing Up Hard are defined and explored. It is no accident that the second chapter is devoted to self-care: not just giving a nod to this essential component of leadership, but outlining practical steps to incorporate replenishment into the cycle of giving. “Without our own oxygen mask secured, assuring that we can also breathe,” Weber asserts, borrowing a tip familiar to commercial air travelers, “we are of little assistance to others.”
Book Two, “Detours,” addresses common complications on the journey to Show Up Hard — such as confusing empathy with sympathy (“Sympathy lacks connection … Empathy takes a different level of energy and engagement”) and leading others with saving them (“People save themselves. This is a truth”). The myriad social plagues identified within these pages (burnout, well-meaning but unhealthy organizational environments, lack of empathy and accountability from managers) are all framed in terms of the opportunities they offer for strengthening awareness and deepening leadership practices. Even vicarious trauma, so critical an aspect of social change work that it earns its own chapter in Book Two, Weber regards as a gift: “I carry inside me the stories of hundreds of traumas,” she explains; “I wouldn’t have it any other way. … While I will never forget these stories, they are no longer shouting inside my head and aching in my bones. These stories inform how I view the world.”
The final Book, “Arriving,” surveys methods for maintaining a long-term practice of Showing Up Hard. By this point, readers have encountered an array of journey-themed practice sections, interwoven with somatics and mindfulness principles, that encourage immediate application to our own work and lives: Reflection Rest Stops for checking in with mind and body around presented themes; Empathy Adventures Passports to document how new experiences have challenged our assumptions or biases; a Resiliency Landscape to inventory our self-care resources. Still more tools await download at ShowUpHard.com.
In the closing Book, the text’s encouraging, candid tone culminates in reminders to readers of our capacity to strengthen our leadership muscles, of the fact that all that we need is in us, and of the pain we will likely experience, and witness, on the path forward. “We build skill and hone our ability to shape containers and develop a network of supporting resources,” Weber notes, “And yet there are situations that bring us to our knees. That take our breath away. That shock us with their gravity.” When faced with those moments, Weber advises, we can revisit our why.
“We return again and again to the basics of the Show Up Hard practice,” Weber writes in conclusion. “Because we can. Because it works. Because the world needs you in this moment. Right now.”