Leadership Before CSSA

Posted on December 1, 2008. Filed under: Uncategorized |

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.


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5 Responses to “Leadership Before CSSA”

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This is a great post, one that really provides a lot of insight into who you are becoming as a leader. You have engaged in a great deal of self-reflection here that will only benefit you down the line. I was interested to find recently that the 75 member Stanford Business School Advisory Council (made up of some of the nation’s most prominent business minds) was asked to identify and recommend the most important capabilities to develop in emerging leaders. The groups’ top answer to this question was self-awareness. Obviously, reflection is one of the quintessential pieces to becoming self-aware and this is the work of truly strong leadership. I have often related to students the importance of this concept and for years have been fond of the Johari Window exercise as a mechanism for sorting out different areas of personal/other awareness…it is always a challenge and in uncovering the open, hidden, blind, and untapped areas people always walk away with a greater sense of self.
A few of the themes that I saw shine through here are really evident in recent theory focused on Leadership Identity Development (Komives, et al, 2005; 2006). Your own development/growth is mirrored in this model and may be interesting to read as a way to further the connection between college student development theory and leadership development theory.
An addition comment about your reflection…I was very intrigued to see the awareness you showed in understanding the need to highlight the strengths in others as a way to build functional teams. Research by the Gallup Organization suggests that environments focused on strengths (versus those focused on either weakness fixing or who ignore their employees development altogether) have increased percentages of committed employees and less employees working against the mission of the organization (i.e. poisoning the water). I have really come to believe a strength-based approach to leadership that is focused in rooted in positive psychological/organizational development theory is a very fruitful approach to leadership.

One other comment about this post…I really feel like your experiences are wrapping around some similar thematic areas in leadership. One core issue present in your discussion regarding the Peace Corps was importance of creating shared vision as a supervisor/leader. In developing organizations, there seems to be no more important need and one that (unfortunately) too few groups work through. There are many ways to create shared vision and there are also many ways to undue a shared vision. I have seen groups truly flail because they were unable to identify where they wanted to go and what their shared purpose was. Some techniques for creating this opportunity can be found in understanding the concepts of the Relational Leadership Model Komives, Lucan, & McMahon, 1998; 2006) as well as the Shared Leadership Model (Pearce & Conger, 2003). I wonder if you have had an opportunity to explore some of these models to help build a foundation of understanding of your own leadership development and practices.


You provided me with a lot of great things to think about and I will only post on a few because I need to try and read some materials and think back on development theory before I can address some.

One of the things I appreciated seeing support for is the connection between leadership and self-awareness. In my Organization and Admin. class, I remember discussing that leaders who were perceived as genuine were more effective than those who seemed to be faking it. I think that increased self-awareness has helped me recognize what values, knowledge and strengths I bring to situations and therefore I can be more genuine and feel less of a need to “fake it until I make it”.

With this being said, I find it necessary to openly admit that I still find it a challenge to operate on a strength-based leadership model. While it is something I will continue striving for, I can recognize that it may never come naturally to me. Examples of this are not hard to find. When sorting through the U-Engage data, I immediately started to pull out the negative feedback and think of ways to improve or reasons why students answered the way they did. Of course, part of this was that I was evaluating myself and I think most people, including me are harder on themselves, but still… the strength based model would implore me to seek out the areas where I succeeded and build on this success.

I think that you are onto an interesting distinction here between strengths focus and weakness fixing focus. Strengths would say that we need to look at the areas of concern as well but would employ your personal strengths to increase effectiveness versus work to fix your personal weaknesses only. Does that distinction make sense?


Your description of the strength-based approach to problem solving makes complete sense. After reading your post, I thought about my redesign of my office’s Academic Integrity Seminar. Part of the reason for the redesign was my strength in addressing issues of integrity with students in one-on-one settings more so than in classroom settings. Had I not been given the opportunity to redesign around my strength the effectiveness of the program would be far less effective. As a leader it is important that I give others the freedom and opportunity to design programs that speak to their strengths as well. Read more about my redesign of the seminar here: https://ruthsterner.wordpress.com/2009/01/11/redesigning-academic-integrity-seminar/

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