Laila Tarraf is the author of the new memoir Strong Like Water: How I Found the Courage to Lead with Love in Business and in Life. She is the chief people officer for AllBirds, and has spent 25 years in the fields of talent management and leadership development.
Q: Why did you decide to write this memoir, and how was the title chosen?
A: I didn’t sit down one day and decide to write a memoir. I started to journal when I was living in France the years following Daniel, my father and mother’s deaths.
The original motivation was that I didn’t want to forget the details of everything that had happened so I could tell my daughter, Nadia, as she got older. (She was only 3 when her father died.)
But the act of telling my story had me start to reflect deeply on what I had experienced and digging deeper into the thoughts and feelings I held about them.
Often, I would write out a scene and try to describe how I felt putting myself into the reader’s shoes and realized that it didn’t quite make sense.
Having to look at my story from a more neutral, third person perspective made me realize there were a lot of things that I was thinking and feeling that didn’t add up and, in that way, trying to untangle my feelings on the page became quite healing for me.
It made me realize that while the details of my journey are mine, the journey back to our true essence is one we all face at some point in our lives and my hope is that my personal story could help light the path for someone else as they make their way through their own transformation.
I struggled with finding the right title for the book. I wanted something that captured the duality of being a single mom and female business leader – something that captured the strength and the tenderness I was trying to live into.
I chose the title Strong Like Water after verse 78 in Lao Tzu’s Tao te Ching called Be Like Water. Lao Tzu was an ancient Chinese philosopher and is the father of Taoism. He wrote the Tao te Ching – roughly translated into “The Way” about the paradoxical nature of life.
Be Like Water is about how water is actually very powerful, but in a gentle way. In it, he says, “Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. This is another paradox: what is soft is strong.”
Q: What did you see as the right balance between the personal and the professional as you wrote the book?
A: I’m not sure I ever really thought about it, I was on autopilot for so long. After losing my husband, I realized that it was near impossible for me to be strong and capable at work and then have to come home to help my 3-year-old daughter grieve her father’s death (let alone my own).
I couldn’t compartmentalize my feelings anymore and started to try to integrate my personal and my professional selves which I had always kept separate.
Q: Much of the book deals with personal loss and grief. What impact did writing this memoir have on you?
A: It helped me understand the limiting beliefs and the story I had constructed in my life that wasn’t really serving me anymore so that I could let go of it. This idea that I had to be and that I was only strong and capable and that’s where my value was, that I could never show any weakness, that if I did, I would fall apart.
None of that was true and I had held on to these beliefs my whole life. Waking up to this fact allowed me to start letting go of that narrative which then allowed me to be more balanced and to grow as a human – as a mom and a leader.
Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?
A: My biggest lesson has been that being strong and capable can only get you so far in life, and while it may have served me in surviving a tough childhood, I needed to unlearn and disconnect from this idea that my worthiness came solely through my strength.
I would like my readers to recognize themselves in the protagonist (me) and question if their way of being is allowing them to live a life full of meaning and true connection.
If not, perhaps it’s time for them, like me, to reconnect with their hearts and allow themselves to be more vulnerable so that they can connect to themselves and others more authentically and deeply.
On a deeper level, I would like them to feel that self-forgiveness and self-love are the paths to accepting oneself and if you allow yourself to stay present for all of what life brings you, then you will be able to experience the full beauty alongside the pain in whatever life brings.
I would like them to learn, as I did, that leaning into the resistance we all feel when we are scared is what will ultimately set us emotionally and spiritually free.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am working on a second book that is more of a “how-to.” I am writing about the people and organizational challenges that all successful companies face as they get bigger: In essence, how do we grow in a healthy way without losing our humanity?
Q: Anything else we should know?
A: Big takeaways that I hope readers will get from my book:
Times of adversity in your life provide opportunities to grow if you will allow yourself to be present and feel what is coming up.
Allowing yourself to feel the pain associated with loss, rather than making you weak, makes you more resilient and stronger.
As a woman working in business, it’s easy to adopt the more patriarchal and masculine examples of power – strength, aggression, driving for results - and lose touch with the more feminine qualities of tenderness, nurturance, and compassion that can be every bit as powerful as the masculine, especially when combined skillfully.
--Interview with Deborah Kalb