Interview with Heidi Harmon - Leaders in Conversation

I'm so excited to introduce you to Heidi Harmon. In this fifth interview of our Leaders in Conversation series, Heidi joins me to talk about stepping up and into her power, and how we can all respond to the call to action for the issues most important to us. Now, more than ever, we need voices who can communicate a clear and concise clarion call and Heidi intends to be one of those voices as we join together to facilitate the transformation of the planet. [Transcript]

Heidi Harmon is mayor of San Luis Obispo, CA, as well as an activist and speaker.

You can reach Heidi Harmon online: LinkedIn, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, Pinterest, and on her website.

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Leaders in Conversation Featuring Karin Berardo


[Beth Wonson] Welcome. This is Beth. My guest today is Heidi Harmon. Heidi is currently serving her second term as mayor of the city of San Luis Obispo in California. I invited Heidi to be part of this conversation series because when she and I first met many years ago way back I think in 2014 we were both first putting our toes into leadership space. I was doing one of my very first leadership workshops and Heidi came as a participant and that's when she was beginning her first election for county office.

Recently Heidi was elected to the mayoral position for the first term and she won just by 46 votes. But in her re-election campaign, at a reelection she won by a mandate. And watching her journey I believe that her success has been a great deal due to her belief that civility and bringing all voices to the table to be able to navigate the toughest of dialogues is a big part of her success. In Heidi's words the pathway to a positive and constructive transition, to creating a more fair, just, and sustainable world, is through dialogue and community.

Heidi, thank you for joining me today. I'm thrilled you're here.

[Heidi Harmon] Thank you so much. It's great to be here. I'm really looking forward to the conversation.

[BW] Great. You know, one thing that stuck out for me about you is your campaign slogan. "Heidi is mighty". In three short words it exudes so much about potentiality personal power personal strength. Personal ethics and belief. Can you tell us a little more about where that came from.

[HH] Sure. I love that story.

The first time I ran for office was in fourth grade and I ran for something called Sergeant of Arms. And I'm guessing that involves weaponry of some type which I never understand why they would allow that in grammar school. But my dad, at the time, said okay if you're going to run for office the most important thing is that you have a slogan and then it has to rhyme. That's key.

I thought all right. And the only thing that rhymes with Heidi is mighty. And so that was my slogan in fourth grade it said Vote for Heidi because Heidi is mighty and I had a giant picture of Wonder Woman right in the center of that first campaign poster. And shockingly I did not win that campaign. But the slogan continues and as you said I eventually did go on to win as mayor in San Luis Obispo.

That's where it comes from. But I think that it is a core belief that I have. I think in order to be mighty you actually have to be perceived in a way as small. That's part of the definition of being mighty and so I think often in my life and I think this is probably true for many women and other marginalized groups in general we're underestimated. And so being mighty it is really about building that inner strength empowering one's self in order to kind of build the necessary skill set to come out of that sort of smaller space that people want to put us in and a mighty and show up in the world in a powerful way.

[BW] Wow. That's so great. And it reminds me of one of my learnings in the leadership world early on was when I really thought leadership was about whoever talked the loudest whoever took up the most air in the room whoever was the biggest expert on things. And then as I was watching other people operate far more effectively than I was, I was noticing that frequently as the person who sat back to observe, to listen, who heard all the perspectives and then was able to bring it together were the people who were able to move things the furthest.

I love that because I think it ties in with that mighty piece.

tell us a little bit about your kind of road to leadership. How did you get to where you are today?

 [HH] A lot of my work and my life really comes from my core orientation in the maternal and this is something that I've had since I was a young girl myself so long before I actually had children of my own. I really honed in on that maternal relationship with my own mother and then eventually with my own kids and my community. And that's something that either has become or was innate in me. I guess I'll never know for sure. And so I wanted to be as intentional as possible. As a mother myself, which is what I chose to do, I was a single mom for most of my life and I homeschool my kids even in that context and really put a lot of focus on that relationship. And so when my understanding around climate change became clear and the urgency around that and especially the piece that really hit me right in my maternal heart which was of the understanding that my kids lives hang in the balance of what we do in the next few years.

I really felt like, OK this wasn't on my radar. Being an activist, being political, certainly running for office, all of those things were not on my radar at all. But being a good mom was. And so to me this is all an extension and what it looks like for me in this moment to still be an intentional maternal presence even though my children have long gone out of the house now and all of that and so that set me on this path that I've been on and so I didn't know what I was doing. You sort of spoke to that. I think women, again, we have that impulse to feel like we're not ready we're not good enough, we don't have the right skills, we're not coming from the right career. I was a single mom and a house cleaner when climate change came and really gut punched me and now I'm the mayor of one of the best cities in the United States. OK maybe slightly biased there.

And so I just think that that's really important to know that yes I had a college degree but I wasn't pursuing a career in that traditional sense and that yes I am capable and able and I think actually pretty good at the work that I do. And so I hope that when people are listening they hear that about their own lives and don't question themselves as much as we tend to do and really I mean I think that this time in particular calls us all to step up in the world and show up in a different way than we might have expected. And so that's how my journey got started and I started groups, joined groups, did lots of things along the way and it eventually led me to run for office. And I've been really grateful since my time as mayor to be able to have concrete measurable things that we've been able to accomplish that are around the climate change space and so many other intersectional issues that are also equally important.

[BW] I heard you talk about something and its people feeling like they aren't ready, particularly women. And I do a lot of executive coaching and leadership coaching with people and I run into that all the time. Like, I'm not yet ready. I'm not ready. I also see in my space of coaching a lot of people who are trying to move into their work that they believed that they were created to do, whatever it is, but they are so held back by this idea of. You know I need one more class, I need to lose 20 pounds, I need to whatever have so many followers. How did you move past the voice in your head about whether or not you're ready? How did you deal with that?

[HH] Well I think when I first started to feel the call, I did have those questions for myself. You know as I said yes I had a college degree but I wasn't living out that path. You know, I was a maid and a mom.


those are two categories that are both sort of not highly regarded in terms of oh you're not an obvious choice to go down this road. Right and so I have those internalized questions as well. And to me that's actually the real gift of this moment and in particular the gift of climate crisis. Right.

we look at the science around that and we have so little time left that we are left with nothing left to lose. You know, so when we think of the alternative.

yeah, can I gain more skills? Sure. And have I along the way? Absolutely. And do I always have room for improvement? No doubt. And though the alternative of not showing up in the alternative of not acting is contributing to the potential loss of opportunity for the human experience to continue on. You know that's huge. I would rather show up and not be the most amazing public speaker than not show up at all. I would rather show up with my experience of being a single mom and a house cleaner and hear some of the pushback around that than not show up at all. And so I think that there's a real gift in this moment. But it also takes being willing to be bad at things, right? I think it's and the mom right who does a beautiful job about talking about shitty first drafts. Right? And so much of our whole lives are essentially a shitty first draft and I guarantee you that many of my first speeches were shitty first speeches.

[HH] And embracing that, and knowing that having to be publicly speaking is usually top of the list of people's fears. That is a really hard area to know that you're not good at it and choose to do it anyway. But that's exactly what happened to me. And as we know, the more we do things the better we get. And now I feel really skilled in that particular thing which I'm really grateful for because that's important to me. And so I think it takes a willingness to know that we are called to show up at this moment in time and that it needs to be ok for both us and the community that we're showing up and to not be getting it perfectly, especially when we're at the beginning of our journeys.

[BW] Yeah that's one thing that I try and create a lot of space for in my workshops, is the agreement and the understanding, intentionally saying that in this time when we're together this is practice. And practice is going to be sloppy. And so to have empathy compassion for each other as we wade through the sloppy. Because if we're not willing to wade through the sloppy we're not going to go anywhere. Right? We're going to stay exactly where we are.

let's hold each other as we wait a sloppy and I think that's such a crucial important thing for us to extend to ourselves as well.


[HH] Absolutely in my life the bar keeps ratcheting up which I'm grateful for which is exactly what you want out of life. And so as I grow the bar keeps raising so I consistently have the same challenge essentially. You know where I used to be nervous or just terrified to speak in a in front of a small group at a senior center, now I get to be nervous about speaking in front of a thousand people or doing a TED talk or being on your show, and things like that. And so I still have those experiences but I have the experience now of knowing that I can do it. And I also feel like the vulnerability of doing it, making mistakes and doing it anyway really adds, generally speaking, to the experience that people are having with me and doesn't generally take away from that.


speaking of speaking, you're doing some really big things right now. What are some of the bigger things outside of being the mayor and the City of San Luis Obispo that you're involved in.

[HH] Well I'm really called to have a bigger platform. And the reason is my biggest passion is inspiring people to be activated.

I'm really interested in educating empowering and activating large groups of people in particular women and girls and female identified people. I think that now is really a crucial time for the feminine to come into balance and to have a voice that hasn't really been heard traditionally in our culture for the last maybe several thousand years. And so I'm excited to have those opportunities.

I'm doing more work in the media space and I think that's actually where my destiny probably lies. And being mayor is a huge part of that and I and I utilize that platform to the best of my ability to make the world a better. Here in my small community and I'm really excited about some of those bigger opportunities.

when this is broadcast I will have completed a course I started with Marianne Williamson.

we have an event that will be online and then I'll be doing a seven week class on the heart of activism.

really talking about what is it to be an activist, coming from a heart centric place. And so that will be available through the Shift Network.

that's a space that I'm interested in.

I'm looking for more of those opportunities, so hopefully I'm in power and activate more groups of people. I'm really interested more and more in the nexus of politics. Feminine empowerment and what I would call spirituality and wellness, just seeing more and more the connection of all of those things and how they go together and when they do go together. The multiplier effect that happens there. I think when the feminine is feeling really cared for and nourished and safe and supported and empowered, there's really nothing more powerful than that force.

that's one of the reasons I am getting my yoga teacher training and all of these things that people might not normally associate with the mayor, or expect. I am really seeing clearly how important they are for me in my own life. But as an amalgamation of all of these things I'm really curious and really figuring out what are those things that we need to do for ourselves for each other and for planet Earth itself. And it seems like no accident that they're all the same. Essentially what is good for my body is good for the earth. What harms Mother Earth harms me physically and spiritually in a lot of times emotionally. And that can't be an accident is what I'm wondering. And so I'm curious about sort of a Venn diagram of those sort of three core ideas and that's where I think I'm headed where I'm meant to be.

[BW] Wow, that's, I mean I just want to digest that for a minute because that's huge.

as we think about what's happening in the world now we've got a lot of people throwing their names in the ring for the national campaign. There's so much kind of yelling going on and interrupting and talking over and, I wouldn't say the energy that we're seeing politically that's building up and coming forward is aligned kind of with what you're talking about.

When you think of that, for these yellers, as I like to call them, do you think they never had this kind of nurturing? They don't see this skill? Or are they just not finding the value in it? How does what you're talking about align with what's happening on the bigger stage currently?

[HH] Well what I'm talking about is I think the vision of where we are going despite what's happening in a lot of spaces as you're recognizing. And also the vision of where I want to go and where I see being the most beneficial to individuals communities and the global family. And I think what's happening right now is absolutely necessary for what is going to happen next. You know, a lot of people probably would know that the apocalypse, that word, is about the lifting of the veil. And you can just feel it so strongly right now and what's happening in our government is such a mirror about what is toxic in the world and in particular what's happened with toxic about the United States of America. And we're really having to look at that dark side and the dark side of ourselves as a country and as individuals and take a really hard challenging look at that and say, this isn't about one individual in particular. Everything that's happening now has been happening and it's amplified to be sure. Racism. This country is built on racism and misogyny and patriarchy. And the fact that this is feeling very big right now makes perfect sense that we are having to, you can't hide from it regardless of your privilege and how you show up in the world you're engaging with racism and patriarchy on some level. And it is causing people to have to think about that in their own selves. And what we're doing as a community and as a country and I think it's actually, I'm hoping, this is hope maybe more than I can't know what's going to happen next but, I think it's forcing a conversation that we needed to have. And in terms of how candidates are showing up, that we're all a part of this patriarchal system and it's an aspect of that. Especially the toxic masculinity piece to yell to scream to try and make ourselves bigger. Right? Like the animals that we are when we're in fear, all of those things. And I I get that and I think that we need to be mindful of squelching that to some extent because I do think that women in particular get told in many ways about their anger and how it's not appropriate. And I think that we need to embrace sort of a sacred rage at times and be mindful that we're responding with that rage in a way that's really constructive and not destructive. And so I think that it can be helpful parts of some of that but I think that we're coming into a time of the more of the feminine where people will see the value of collaboration as opposed to this sort of argumentative competitive style that we've been in for so long.

[BW] Yeah, and for me and my work I definitely see that in what's happening within corporations and big organizational structures, is that the ones that are sustaining the ones that are navigating the pace of change that's happening so rapidly right now and so frantically are the ones where leaders are showing up as curious learners versus expert where there's opportunities for all kinds of perspectives and styles and diversity and inclusively to come forward and be part of. Solving the problems as opposed to the hierarchical one person solving the problem. But it's not a broad based norm yet, but that's where I see things really flourishing really flourishing.

who in your world right now is kind of your exemplifies the leadership spirit that you strive for in yourself or that you look toward? Who's leading that for you?

[HH] Well someone who's new sort of on the leadership scene and who is considerably younger than me which is not necessarily how we look to think of mentors, but nevertheless I am in huge admiration of Greta Thunberg who is a 15 year old girl from Europe who started the climate strikes. And I think that she's a young girl who stood outside I believe of her Parliament every Friday for the last year or so and she like me when she realized the urgent nature of this defining issue just decided oh this is my life, my life's work. And she's correct to note that going to school will be meaningless if we can't figure this problem out. And I just love her determination. And I also love the real amplification of her strength which is born out of something that some may have traditionally considered to be a challenge and that is her autism spectrum that she lives with, that she's, I think, really been able to utilize. And I think it's an aspect of her ability to maybe not engage with the opinions of others in a way that some of us might and those types of things.

I am not surprised at all to see the leadership around some of these important issues coming from young girls, coming from teenage girls. And she's not alone. She's inspired a world full of teenage girls, in particular, to show up in this way.

right now she's top of mind in terms of people that I very much admire and  would like to become more like.

[BW] Now that's great. I love that I've been following her. As a lot of people have just blown away and I did not realize that she was living on the spectrum, as we sometimes refer to it. And having a grandson who is in that world, as well as many people I'm close to, there is sometimes an ability to see the world through a different len that just kind of gets down to the brass tacks. Like, this is the truth. This is a reality. I'm not going to be in a puddle of mush over it, I'm going to take action. This is going to be my action. And it's like, wow. Sometimes I'm envious of that. But I always try and learn from what I see in that.

in terms of our listeners if there's people out there, which I know there are because I know most everybody listens to this podcast, who are wondering like, OK I get it, Heidi's mighty and Heidi's strong and committed. Heidi has found her path and Heidi's passionate about all these things. But they're wondering, how do I take my first step? How do I even step from where I am now, like even to go down the journey? How do I move forward without feeling ready?  What would you say is like the first thing you could do tomorrow? What you could do this afternoon?

[HH] Well I think it's probably going to be a little bit different for everyone, but I would say for one thing the most important thing in life in general is to pay attention. I would say at the to start paying attention to what is really on your heart in general but more specifically in terms of getting more involved and engaged on a political level, what is really calling to you? What is really breaking your heart? And there is no shortage of those issues and that can actually be the bigger challenge. And I know that's a challenge for me in a world full of heartbreak. How do we remain focused on the few issues that we might be able to concentrate on to have some meaningful outcomes with. I would start really paying attention and finding an issue that you can plug in on.

as in my case, I reached out to the local Sierra Club early on understanding that this was an environmentally organized organization. What do they have there that I can plug into? In our case our local Sierra Club didn't have anything that was specifically organized around the climate, so I eventually created my own position. I became the Climate Change Task Force Chair of the local Sierra Club, a position I invented and then filled.

these are the things that I think that people can start to think about. Maybe you attend a meeting whether it's a city council meeting, a meeting of something like the Sierra Club, the League of Women Voters, a Black Lives Matter meeting. Whatever those issues are that are really calling to you. There are people out there no doubt already working in those fields that you can reach out to even if it's in the virtual space you can start to learn online from some of these folks and see what's going on in your community. There may be some very specific issues that are unique to your community that you might be able to engage on. And so seeking those out and just starting to plug in and even in a quiet way. Just as a listener. You know you don't have to show up in a meeting and say anything. You can show up and I think it's actually really key to show up as a listener to a lot of these spaces, to learn. You're in a learning phase. And so they can be really small steps but they are the first steps hopefully on a longer journey that will invite you to to really show up and participate in a meaningful way for you.

[BW] Yeah that's great. Thank you so much. You know as I'm listening to your words I'm also realizing for a lot of folks, and one thing that I've seen Heidi do really well, and I know probably on the outside it might look a little cleaner than it does being Heidi, is also understanding that you've got to let your judgment down to allow yourself your judgment of yourself, your judgment of how others will perceive you, to be able to put yourself out there. Going back to what we were talking about in the beginning about, “are you ready” kind of thing. Just give yourself the grace that's in the space to be able to move forward and show up and kind of grow from there.


I was just going to suggest to be discerning no matter where you spend your time both in real space but in virtual space. There, as we know, there's a lot of negativity in the world in general and it really is amplified on the Internet and be discerning in terms of those types of spaces whether they end up talking about you specifically or about your issue, or your candidate, or your business in general. There is a real tendency towards a negative on the Internet and that's not the world. That's a very specific, small but angry group of people generally speaking, and so discerning about spending your time in those spaces.

[BW] That's great. That's great advice for everybody. In that show notes you're going to find the link to Heidi's web site. I know you have a podcast you're working on that you're going to put out.

[HH] I do. It's called "Get Mighty", and, yes, some new projects. I'm working on that and hopefully moving to having a blog to share my thoughts and ideas about what's going on in the world and again and with the hope of uplifting people and empowering people to help them plug in and get more engaged.

[BW] Well it's been an honor and a pleasure for me to watch your journey. I am super excited about continuing to see where you go next and what you're bring to the world. I'm really excited about that. And I want to thank you for joining me today for this conversation.

[HH] Thank you so much.