Leadership has been on my mind a lot lately. It’s not everyday that I have a free moment to reflect on this issue. This past weekend, I had the privilege of leading a retreat for my organization’s Youth Advisory Board (YAB) at the Fairview Lake YMCA in New Jersey. The YAB is an engaged group of young people, ages 18-23, who have been involved in the foster care system and who want to give back by shaping public awareness and perceptions of youth in foster care through advocacy. For many of these young people, it was the first time they had an opportunity to leave New York City. The retreat was a culmination of a yearlong effort to 1) define the group’s mission, vision, and values 2) promote teambuilding and 3) develop individual leadership skills.
Observing these young people conquer their fears on the high ropes course and listening to them speak up during debrief/reflection sessions forced me to reflect on my own personal leadership journey. What are the skills necessary for leadership? What moves and inspires people? Do I have the guts and right stuff of a leader?
I was on a mission to discover the answers to these questions. I came across the Princeton AlumniCorps Emerging Leaders Program after a desperate search for a professional development/leadership program for young professionals who have committed their lives to a career in public service. I couldn’t believe such a program existed especially since it was exactly what I was looking for.
It was perfect timing because my desire for professional growth at this point in my career mirrored my need for personal growth and discovery. Maybe it’s the same thing. Earlier this year, I had an epiphany of sorts. It wasn’t profound, and it probably happened while I was eating a questionable burrito, but at that moment, I realized that I felt stuck and unsatisfied with many aspects of my life. Mostly, I was angry with myself for holding myself back from the things I really wanted in life because I was scared.
After this painful realization, I vowed to do things that made me squirm. To do things even if I start shaking from fear. To embrace vulnerability in all of its messy forms. I knew participating in the Emerging Leaders Program would force me to experience all of these uncomfortable emotions. I don’t think I really thought of myself as a leader since my definition of a leader is someone who is strong, exudes effortless confidence, and commands respect from others. I didn’t think I had any of those qualities. In fact, growing up I was that introverted girl who didn’t raise her hand even when she knew the answer. I felt silenced in groups, and I tried to make myself as invisible so I wouldn’t attract unwanted attention. Even now, there are times I hold my tongue when I disagree with a Board member’s opinion.
I am still terrified when I attend the monthly Emerging Leaders sessions mostly because I am not sure what to expect. However, there is a level of comfort knowing that my fellow cohort members are here for the same reasons. It is comforting to know that there is a safe and supportive space where we can all be open and honest with each other about our fears, anxieties, and insecurities as we learn to navigate our careers and our lives. It’s a rare thing to be able to have that. I am surprised at how much I have learned from just the first two sessions.
Here are some important lessons that have stuck with me:
1. Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.
I remember this scene from Girls, and I think I either rolled my eyes or laughed hysterically. I mean, who hasn’t seen this phrase plastered all over magnets? What does it even mean, anyway? I like my comfort zone. Please don’t tell me when to be or when not to be in my comfort zone. The truth of the matter is, I realized that maybe there was some truth to this quote. I have spent most of my life in my comfort zone doing things that I already knew how to do and making decisions based on the lowest risk possible. I rarely “stretched” myself to do things that were new, that tested my abilities, that forced me to take on more and bigger responsibilities. Participating in the Emerging Leaders Program was the first step out of my comfort zone. It is already uncomfortable for me to talk about myself so you can imagine how I felt when I have to do this often in front of people I don’t know. All cohort members are required to identify an individual “stretch” project for the year where we develop a specific area or skill set that is currently outside of our comfort zone. Even if you refuse to leave your comfort zones, Emerging Leaders forces you leave it. Thanks, Emerging Leaders!
2. Don’t be afraid to fail big. And fail publicly.
We were very lucky to hear from two seasoned nonprofit professionals for our last two sessions – Margaret Crotty, Executive Director of Partnership with Children, and Daniel Oscar, President & CEO of Center for Supportive Schools. It’s always awe-inspiring to hear from very successful individuals and learn more about their career paths. What makes these individuals so extraordinary? I was dying to know what secrets they might be able to share with us. Sure, they’re obviously very competent and really badass at their jobs. But what really struck me about both Margaret and Daniel was the role of failure in their professional narratives. Both mentioned examples where they failed in the most epic way – whether that’s resigning from a leadership position after a controversial merger or watching the charter school you helped build close down. It’s heartbreaking and it’s disappointing, but I could tell that both learned a lot from these experiences, and I would argue that these experiences have led them to where they are today.
3. It only takes one clear person to have a good relationship.
I always thought it was “it takes two to tango.” It takes two people to create a problem or find a solution. It’s sort of nice because that usually means both parties share some responsibility whether good or bad. The problem is that I rarely put the fault on myself. What ends up happening is that I place blame on the other party for making my life difficult. “Why can’t she be more organized?” “Can’t he tell that I have been working so hard on this project?” “Why is he so abrupt?” It’s the same thing. The problem with this kind of thinking is that it is very disempowering and frustrating. I think my shift in thinking occurred after learning about my Myers-Briggs results (I am an ESFJ if you’re curious) and the feedback from my 360 assessment. I learned how I prefer to engage with the world and with others, how I re-charge, how I process information, and how I make decisions. Nothing was too surprising but it was very helpful seeing all of that mapped out for me. This exercise also made me see my blind spots and my triggers, which were (not surprisingly) mentioned as “areas of growth” for me in my 360 report. When I started to connect the dots, I realized that maybe the problem wasn’t other people. It was me.
The biggest lesson that I learned from these exercises was that I was not being completely self-aware. I didn’t understand how my nature and my tendencies shaped my perceptions of how the world worked, and it never occurred to me that maybe other people didn’t think or feel this way. This realization was HUGE for me. As an ESFJ, I am kind and empathetic towards others. I am highly organized. On the flip side, this also means I fall victim to putting others’ needs before my own. I also seek approval and recognition for putting others’ needs before my own. These sorts of behaviors are a breeding ground for resentment and burnout. These are hard truths to confront, but knowing all these parts of me has helped me be more mindful and aware when I am interacting with others. This self-knowledge brings a level of compassion when I interact with others as I try to understand how they think and work and how their experiences have shaped who they are as a person. I realize now that change has to start with me. I am responsible for the way I behave and interact with others. And who knows…maybe these changes will result in me being less defensive and being more open, and this energy will be returned to me from the other person. Someone once told me that dealing with a difficult person is like being in a dance. You can’t change the person, but you can change the way you approach the person, and in essence, you change the dance between the two of you. I thought that image was so lovely.