Defining leadership

Over the last year, I’ve been working on revising my own definition of leadership, particularly for how I want to be perceived (or not) in conjunction with this word.

After reading Paul Schmitz’s Everyone Leads and currently in the midst of Angela Duckworth’s Grit, I firmly believe that leadership is rooted in action, not in a particular position or title. This approach contradicts how we are socially conditioned to view leadership/leaders. Power resides in the individuals at the “top” of various chains; but, each of us carries immense power that can be flexed, given the right conditions.

It’s funny: this week has been an opportunity for me to “flex” a variety of leadership muscles in vastly different surroundings. And, at times, I see my continued struggle in finding balance, especially when it comes to those leadership “positions” as opposed to opportunities to act like a leader.

Our YNPN Triangle NC Board of Directors participated in our first-ever strategic planning session this Saturday, facilitated by two corporate executives over the course of five hours. (What a way to spend a Saturday, right?) I left that afternoon feeling, as Sophie says, the feelings. Exhilaration. Stress. Frustration. Clarity. Exhausted. As a completely volunteer-driven 501(c)(3) organization, it can be easy for me to forget that…oh right, we’re volunteers. The majority of us have full-time responsibilities, whether in employment or academia, not to mention families and other extracurricular activities.

There were several moments during the session I found myself hesitant to speak up, fearing that I would create an unfair power dynamic within the group. I am finishing my second year as Board Chair, with one final year ahead. Even nearly 18 months in, I’m still feeling out the ropes as to when to step up and when to step back, knowing (or, at least sensing) that there is an expectation for me to have the answers to questions from the rest of our team. Most of the time, I’m working to figure out those answers alongside them. I view my role as keeping our ship pointed toward the end goal, making sure my crew has what they need in order to be fulfilled and successful, and actively seeking opportunities to keep us afloat (resources, partnerships, funding).

That’s the ideal, at least. It’s hard. It’s really hard. I came home Saturday, elected to pick a fight with Aaron, and then cry into my pillow for 15 minutes. Is that how leaders act? It seems fairly unlikely. At least, not so people can see. The pressure to keep up that front, to be bold, to be willing to take it on the chin (up to a point), and to invest in others so much that you are left drained and depleted – it’s hard. It’s really, really hard. On the flip side, it’s also a huge honor, and I am grateful for the opportunity.

Oh, double-edged sword. 

Tonight marks the third night in a row of board meetings, and as I noted above, I have navigated the previous two with varying degrees of leadership. On Monday, I engaged at our youth advisory board meeting with conviction, offering a rallying cry around personal responsibility and communications. But, I hold no actual leadership position. That was an intentional decision, as I recognize I am spread far too thin. It would be unfair to me and those around me to pretend like I could fulfill those roles. Last night was our quarterly board meeting for my job. As a staff member, I spend most of the three-hour meeting in silence, sharing when scripted in the agenda. In this space, I wonder if the board members view me as a leader, or since I tend to be more reserved, if they don’t.

Viewing myself as a leader in my work space is more nebulous for me. We operate in such silos that it feels like we’re all individual leaders. But, when it comes to some of the broader, bigger decisions, our voices may not be part of the process. Mini-leaders. Which is fine. That’s why we week out other opportunities to grow those skills and competencies desired to be more equitable, thoughtful leaders, not only in our work spaces but in our communities.

Alright. It’s time for coffee and, well, time to get down to work. I’ll leave you with this: how do you define leadership? And, based on your definition, are you a leader? Why or why not?

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