Saturday, April 27, 2013

If the (Leadership) Shoe Fits, Wear It

Every year, the women's leadership program I advise has a ceremony to recognize the young women who have participated in the program all year.  I am asked to speak at this ceremony, and I try to write something  that relates to the year's theme and leaves everyone feeling great.

This year, as I ruminated about my experience of the program, the rough times kept coming up.  My most recent post reflects my challenges with coordinating this program.  It is hard work.  As with any kind of development intervention, I don't always see that the students have made the connections I think they are supposed to be making.  I don't always get the satisfaction of knowing that they have learned something.  And yes, I would like to know that I have made a difference, and that doesn't always happen in the way I would like.  More often than not, I feel taken for granted and, in some ways, abused by the very people I am trying to guide in the personal and professional development process.  So when I thought about what to write, I wasn't concerned about writing a "feel good" speech. I decided I wanted to make sure that people would connect to some truth within themselves that they may not have accepted yet; something that would cause them to reflect on their leadership journey and integrate their personal identity with that process.  What emerged was a list of leadership lessons, entitled, "If the Shoe Fits, Wear It".

  1. It’s really important to stay true to your word.  When you are a leader, people want to know that you will do what you say you will do.
  2. With that said, don’t say yes to everything.  You will find yourself overwhelmed and feeling incapable of doing it all.  I can promise you that people who look like they can do it all have just learned the art of limiting themselves to what they know they can do.  Those who actually attempt to do it all won’t be able to get it all done.
  3. Remember that a leader is, first and foremost, a servant.  Leadership isn’t convenient.  People will want to see you lead.  Be where you say you will be, when you say you will be there.  And understand that a title or a position means nothing.  There are plenty of people walking around with titles who are not true leaders.  True leaders understand that their role is to serve, to help others, and to provide the inspiration for lasting change.
  4. If you want to change the world, your community, or even your own home, you must begin with yourself.  You cannot be a leader who isn’t willing to change or grow.  Every person you meet and every circumstance you find yourself in are opportunities to grow.  Do not close yourself off to those opportunities.
  5. On that note, be open.  Be vulnerable.  Sometimes being vulnerable will cause you to be hurt by others, but it also shows others your humanity.  And we all need to see our leaders as humans so that we can aspire to leadership.
  6. Be genuine.  Walk the talk.  Don’t "fake it 'til you make it".  You are on a leadership JOURNEY; therefore, it’s okay to fall, to make mistakes, to get back up and be better from the fall.  People know when you aren’t genuine, and truthfully, people don’t respect people who aren’t authentic.
  7. Love.  As the Argentinian revolutionary Che Guevara once said, "At the risk of seeming ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by a great feeling of love.  It is impossible to think of a true revolutionary lacking this quality...We must strive every day so that this love of living humanity will be transformed into actual deeds, into acts that serve as examples, as a moving force."
  8. And, don't forget my motto - "strive for excellence, not perfection".  You'll never achieve perfection, but excellence is within your grasp.
      Reflect on these leadership lessons, and you may find that some will resonate with you now, some at a later point in your own leadership and life journey.  If the leadership shoe fits, wear it.  Maybe it doesn't fit comfortably right now, but once you have tried it on, worn it a few times, and let it stretch, you may find yourself settling into your identity as a true leader.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Closed Doors

Photo courtesy of the Global Theater Project
"When one door closes, another opens; but we often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us."
- Alexander Graham Bell

Today, I got a door slammed in my face.  Not literally, but it felt that way.  And yet, as that door closed before me, I felt a mixture of emotions.  Amidst the sadness, betrayal, and abandonment, I felt something else.  I felt freedom.

I often try not to be too open about things that happen at work, mainly because I am grateful to have a job.  While no one's job is perfect, I have a pretty good thing going on.  I have tenure, so I don't have to worry about losing my job - ever.  I also see about twelve students a day, so I'm definitely busy.  I serve on committees and I plan campus-wide events, and I even got a call directly from the President of the college today.  So I really don't have much to complain about. 

Except that I am not being "fed" at work.  I have been doing the same job for the past six years, and while I have looked for opportunities to grow within my job, there's not much professional growth that can happen within my institution.  In other words, I'm pretty stuck in the position I'm in now.  Again, I would not normally say these things in a public forum, except for when I believe there's a lesson to be learned from it.  It's in my nature to help others, and if I have to be vulnerable to do so, I will take that risk.

In addition to my actual job, I am the program coordinator and advisor for a women's leadership development program.  This is not just a series of workshops, or a "girl's group".  This is a well-thought out program; a full-year leadership institute that aligns with nationally recognized standards and that utilizes student development and counseling theory.  There is a mission, vision, goals and a strategic model for running this program.  It is something that someone could possibly do as a full-time job, and for the past six years, I have been the one consistent presence in this program, although I have had several interns and students who have poured their time and energy into making this work.  I know that this program works, because I just completed a qualitative study that assesses the program's impact on young women's self-efficacy.  I know that it is one of the safe spaces on our campus, especially for young women of color.  I know that it provides opportunities for growth and development in the short span of one year for many young women on campus.  And I know many young women who can truly say that it has been a transforming experience in their college career.

Over the past couple of years, I've noticed that running the program seems to have created a burden on the team that helps me run it.  That wasn't always the case.  Maybe I was spoiled by previous teams with whom I'd developed a great personal and professional relationship, but the team dynamic was what refreshed and energized me for the first three years.  They made the extra evenings and weekends worth it.  More recently, I've noticed that the "spirit" of the organization is missing.  It has been missing for the past two years.  And while there are many very good moments, I don't know that the spirit of the organization will ever return.  Somehow along the way, it lost its heart, its energy, its passion.  And I have lost mine along the way as well.

I started to notice some things recently about myself as a professional.  Others at my job are getting opportunities to learn new things that I've asked to learn but didn't get the opportunity to because I'm "too busy" with the women's program.  And while some of the young women who complete the program go on to utilize the leadership skills they've developed to obtain internships and jobs and amazing experiences, I am like a movie still, playing on the same loop over and over again.  

I have contemplated moving on from this program for the past two years.  It has been difficult because, in many ways, this program helped me find my purpose in life.  However, as I look at the unhappy, tired, and even apathetic faces of the women who are supposed to be the most passionate and energetic about it - the team leaders - I realize that this door was closed awhile ago, but we were staring at it, hoping that it would open and provide us with something new.  

Today, the door was slammed in my face when I learned that no one who has been on the team wants to continue this journey with me.  And now I have a decision to make. Do I continue to look at this door that has slammed shut in my face?  Or do I move on?  

One of the things I have learned in the past year is that I need to care for myself.  All of the times I wanted to quit since the inception of this program, I was asked by someone not to quit.  I was asked to continue for the benefit of others.  But today, I realized that I can't ask anyone to do the same.  And so that door that has closed has given me a new, open door.  The door to MY life.  The door to what benefits ME.  

It's time for me to stop looking at that closed door.  It's time to look at the doors to my new life that are opening.

I am grateful to all of the young women who have given their time and energy to helping me develop young women leaders.  You have no idea how much you have taught me.