Leadership Before CSSA
My concept of leadership has been defined and then re-defined many times over. Looking back, I can recognize how my parents, grandparents, other family members and teachers were my first examples of leaders. However, I am positive that at the time they were leading me, I had no idea that was what they were doing. They were creating households and classrooms where community building was of the highest concern. They were making decisions that impacted far more people than I could even imagine. They were living according to deeply held values and passing those values on to me. They had visions for what they wanted to see within their communities and working hard to ensure that all members were benefiting from their vision. All of this was lost on me during my childhood, but I feel the need to recognize it here because who I am as a person and as a leader has ultimately been shaped by these early leaders.
My first experiences with being a leader and recognizing leadership qualities in my peers happened on the sport teams I was a part of during high school. I’d say that previous to high school, the only leadership quality I had seen in my peers was popularity. While this was still something that often propelled people into a leadership position, they couldn’t stay there as long unless they had other leadership capabilities. Peer leaders were able to bring new and exciting ideas to the table. They weren’t afraid to take risks. They were comfortable enough with their own skills and successes to compliment others on their successes. They recognized the value of teamwork and that no matter how skilled they may have been, they couldn’t “do it on their own”.
In college my view of leadership was shaped by my experiences working in student affairs. I volunteered as a student ambassador giving campus tours and participating in all aspects of campus visit programs. Not only was I “leading” students around campus, but I was entrusted with a huge amount of responsibility to not only ensure a quality experience for everyone I interacted with, but to represent the University of Colorado at the highest level. I was often one of the first people that perspective students and their families would interact with and therefore I had a significant impact on their first expressions and whether or not they would strongly consider attending CU. As an ambassador my words and actions spoke volumes. I learned that there were times when it was important and appropriate to express my own feelings, thoughts, and experiences and other times when I needed to support the greater messages supported by the university. I saw my supervisors as organized and supportive people who often recognized the group for their hard work.
It was through that recognition and support that I ended up applying to be an orientation leader and working as one for the remainder of my college career. It was while working with orientation teams that I began to have greater confidence in my ability to lead. I was able to absorb information quickly and people started coming to me for answers to various questions. I also began to realize my problem solving abilities. When things needed to be changed in a hurry, I could be counted on to take account of the situation and with the help of others execute new plans. I was also able to form solid friendships with my peers and good professional relationships with the staff and faculty that I came in contact with on a regular basis. I felt the need to always do my best and never expect something of someone else if I wasn’t willing to do it myself. This lead me to take on the toughest tasks, work extra hours, and go the extra mile for incoming students and their families.
My time in AmeriCorps marks the last great leadership experience/learning opportunity that I had before coming to graduate school. Many of the leadership skills that I had begun to develop earlier were strengthened through my time in AmeriCorps. I became more aware of the value of teamwork. I saw the amazing amount of camaraderie and friendship that can occur when people are put in challenging situations and must use one another’s strengths in order to succeed. I saw the incredible amount of service work and help to others that could be done when a group of people aspire to the same vision and mission.
Not all of my time in the program was so inspiring. I faced numerous challenges many a result of my own weaknesses with regards to leadership. During my second year as a team leader, I found it hard to accept and lead corps members who were not as dedicated as I was to AmeriCorps mission and values. I believed in “leading by example”, but that entailed others being as deeply motivated as I was and when they weren’t I didn’t know what to do. The way I saw it, everyone on my team had signed up for this program knowing that the work hours would be long, the pay minimal and the work unglamorous. Having reflected on this situation for a long time I now realize that none of us had signed up for the year we experienced. Hurricane Katrina hit and with it most of the prepared service projects were dropped in favor of recovery work. My team ended up doing nothing but construction/deconstruction projects all year long and that is not what they had signed up for. I wish I had been able to be more forthcoming with them about my own frustrations at the time, but I thought my role as a leader was to tow the company line and just keep working. I’m pretty sure that if I had opened up to them and explained how I was feeling, they would have felt more compelled to share their own thoughts. At the time I thought it would only lead to unnecessary negativity, but perhaps something therapeutic would have come out of the conversation. I also wish I would have taken more time to appreciate the individuals on my team for who they were. During my corps member year, my team had all shared a similar work ethic, similar ways of dealing with conflict, and a similar level of maturity . In a lot of ways what made us great were our similarities. However, not all teams function this way and I have only begun to realize this. My second team had people with very different personalities, goals, and communication styles on it. This often made me quite frustrated and at times even angry. Instead of seeing our differences as a liability, I wish I had tried to praise people’s differences in order to benefit the whole group.