At the outset of this course, I had a rudimentary understanding of what leadership is (or can be). I had taken one course which dealt with the subject, taught from a Political Science perspective and focusing on the values of leadership in the Canadian public service. In that course we decided that leadership is not an inherent trait, but something that can be taught, learned, and measured; that leadership can be replicated; and that there are different approaches (Flynn, 2016). Of course, the perspective of the course necessarily focused on leaders in the public service, and was subsequently less reflective and inward-focused as the approach taken by the Humanities.
My personal definition at the start of this course was something like this:
“A leader is someone who motivates others, using a variety of means, to achieve the goals of the collective.”
This isn’t a bad definition. It touches on the aspect of collective goals, as I believe all leadership must. It prioritizes the achievement of goals. It also dictates that the leader must motivate others. It is implied that a leader may use any combination of inspiration, power, or consequences, to achieve the desired ends.
I think this definition misses that leaders are regular people with impressive skills, and that these skills can be learned and taught, and that reflection and constant attention to the process are all important aspects of successful leadership.
In this course, the authors Kouzes and Posner provide us with an alternate definition of leadership. They propose that “Leadership is the art of mobilizing others to want to struggle for shared aspirations” (Kouzes & Posner, 2014, p. 2).
This definition, to me, hints that leadership is an art: something to be honed and practiced, not an inherent trait unique to only certain people. It suggests that leadership is about getting people to want to work for shared goals, not simply getting goals accomplished. Like the first definition, it holds that goals must be collectively held and that it is the work of a leader to ignite others into action. From considering these two definitions, it occurs to me that leadership must be unique to each individual, and that leadership can be so much more than holding a position of authority and using authority to get things done. Leadership should be underscored by passion, excitement, and the expectation of fulfilling results. I hope that is true, because that is a much more compelling pursuit for me to undertake than simply seeking authority.
Because this assignment is designed to consider my own leadership development, I will be responding in subsequent sections to three main questions: Who am I? What have I learned? and Where am I headed? These should provide a comprehensive overview of my own leadership journey, from present to future, with insight into what drives me and fuels me on this journey.
I. WHO AM I?
My name is Alison. I am 25 years old, and approaching the end of my undergraduate career. I am studying Social Work and Political Science at McMaster University and am looking forward to graduating in June 2018.
I am passionate about social justice issues. I am particularly invested in the rights of Indigenous peoples of Canada, women, the LGBTQ+ community, and racialized minorities in Canada. I am also passionate about my relationships and the wellbeing of those I care about. I derive a lot of value out of learning about social issues, becoming a better person, and spending time with loved ones.
I prefer to spend my time with friends and my pets, outdoors, adventuring, and learning new things. I am particularly interested in personal development goals, such as attempting to live a healthier lifestyle and learning new skills. In reality, I over-indulge in relaxation and only do these things I love when I have a lot of energy. I have identified this area as a primary focus for development, and I am okay with that.
My long-term goals include being financially stable, having a family and strong support network, and working in a field in which I can make meaningful contributions to the lives of others. I hope that I can find that perfect balance between what I care about, what I am good at, what society needs, and what will pay (see image below, courtesy of Kimm Connett, 2015).
One of the ways I practice my values is through my participation in Epsilon Sigma Alpha (ESA). ESA is a greek letter organization – some would call it a sorority – with an emphasis on the leadership development and empowerment of women. This mandate is enacted through our three pillars: Education, Service, and Association. More specifically, we promote our members’ personal development, service to the community, and the development of strong female relationships. In my two years with ESA I have volunteered over 200+ hours to these ends and been fortunate enough to hold leadership positions ranging from the education of new members, to chapter President. This has had a profound impact on my own development and has exponentially increased my ability to foster relationships and make a difference in my community. ESA is an exemplary model of my values and interests in action, and I will continue to live my life in accordance with this model long after I have left its ranks.
II. WHAT HAVE I LEARNED?
This has been a year of learning for me, so allow me to break this subject down into headings, so that I may be more clear.
What have I learned about leadership?
This year I was fortunate to read The Student Leadership Challenge, a book by James Kouzes and Barry Posner (2014). The book breaks down leadership into five core functions: modelling the way for others; inspiring a shared vision; challenging obstacles and defunct processes; enabling others to act; and encouraging others’ contributions and spirits. The book contends that no leader can flourish without bringing people together, encouraging and including them, and innovating to identify and solve problems with creativity and collaboration. The authors detail what each of these functions entail, and give the reader opportunities to consider their own abilities in relation to this leadership model.
This helped me to conceptualize leadership as something that can be learned. It especially helped me to believe that leadership is something I might be capable of; and it gave me a way to analyze my own behaviours in light of how they might impact my leadership abilities. Indeed, the authors grant readers access to an online tool called the Leadership Practices Inventory, where learners can assess their abilities based on the frequency with which they demonstrate each behaviour. This is consistent with my belief that it is our behaviours, more than our words or even our intentions, which ultimately decide how effective a person can be. Fortunately, the inclusion of specific guidelines which detail how to model desired behaviours made it much easier for me to practice those skills with which I struggle. It was a tremendous learning tool.
Throughout this course, I also began to construct my own notion of leadership that is inclusive of many ways to be a leader. My image of the ‘Stereotypical Leader’ is no longer a stubborn CEO, but instead, I believe there is no such thing as a stereotypical leader. I believe activists, teachers, volunteers, parents, and even friends are examples of leaders in our everyday lives. I can be a leader, and I didn’t have to assume the role of President of my sorority to do so, although it provided unmatched opportunities to practice the skills I am learning.
This year, I also read We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and begun to incorporate ideas about leadership and feminism into one idea, as I had never done before. For one assignment, I argued that leadership needs feminism: to shatter that aforementioned Stereotypical Leader trope; to change our idea of leadership from one of economic importance to one of whatever a person wishes to lead. And I argued that feminism needs leadership: it needs stewards and pioneers to continually be bringing and developing feminism in our society’s collective mind, and embedding our collective knowledge with the belief that women are as valuable as men. That in fact, no person is less valuable or worthy of respect than the next.
These are ideas about which I am passionate, and the idea of leadership takes on a new appeal when it is applied to my passions. This, of course, was already argued by Kouzes and Posner when they describe people’s “personal best” leadership experiences. These stories all centre on people who see a problem in the world, and care enough about it to decide they will be the one to do something about it.
What have I learned about myself, in relation to leadership?
As mentioned above, the Student Leadership Challenge (SLC) came with a tool called the Leadership Practices Inventory (LPI): an online self-assessment for readers of the SLC to compare their own behaviours to those suggested in the five core functions of leadership identified in the SLC. I used this tool only twice throughout the year, and will continue to use the tool when I have more opportunities to practice leadership. Two trends emerged across my self-assessments: the first is that, of the five leadership practices, there is proof that I struggle with certain competencies more than others; and the second is that some of my leadership abilities have improved.
|September 2016||January 2017|
|Model the Way||16||18|
|Inspire a Shared Vision||17||15|
|Challenge the Process||21||19|
|Enable Others to Act||20||22|
|Encourage the Heart||22||24|
I confidently attribute the increased score for the “Model the Way” competency to my heightened awareness of this as an area for improvement. I knew before even taking the LPI that this is where I am weak as a leader. I now think that thinking about leadership holistically – that is, not seeking to excel in one competency at the risk of forgetting others – would be a better approach, so that I do not become so focused on one skill that I forget the others.
This side-by-side comparison of my leadership abilities shows an overall pattern of growth. I believe I have developed marginally in modelling the behaviours I wish to see in others, in allowing others more freedom in the pursuit of shared goals, and that I have further developed my highest ability: encouraging others. It is interesting that my top three competencies have not changed. Yet, the extra attention to “Modelling the Way” has boosted this competency several points ahead of what is now my weakest skill, “Inspiring a Shared Vision.”
I think it is natural that my strongest abilities should have become even stronger. Their originally high scores suggest to me that they are natural skills for me (indeed, my love of people makes this a logical conclusion). Paying just the slightest bit more attention to the need to encourage and liberate others naturally increased my willingness to do it. Further, having ways to do so highlighted by Kouzes and Posner in the SLC illuminated more opportunities for me to do so, in ways I hadn’t seen before.
I believe these assessments are mostly accurate reflections of my abilities. One potential factor which may otherwise impact my leadership abilities (or my perception of them) is the type of leadership activities I am participating in. Mentorship, for example, was a unique experience for me, and I found I was weaker at inspiring my mentees than I might be in other relationships. This was probably because I did not know my mentees well, outside of their academic pursuits, and it was difficult to give effective inspiration or encouragement for this reason. This has taught me that connecting with people and attempting to understand what motivates them are invaluable skills in leadership; I believe these would have helped my mentoring strategy significantly.
* * * * *
More than all that, I have learned that leadership is something I shouldn’t shy away from. At one time, not long ago, I considered myself a born follower (and I’ll come back to that). I assumed leadership was a trait possessed by a chosen few, and even if it could be learned and emulated, it couldn’t be by me. I thought I didn’t have the passion, or courage, or opportunity network required to lead. I now believe a person can lead in any circumstance; that leadership doesn’t require formalities and power and official positions, but passion and need.
I described above that I am passionate about helping others. This means that I often recognize others’ hesitance to lead, and my drive has propelled me to lead when the circumstances require it. This has built my confidence in the last year in particular, and I am proud of what I have accomplished, and proud to have done it in service of others (such as mentoring, being an Ally with Student Accessibility Services, and taking on responsibilities within Epsilon Sigma Alpha).
That said, I also view being an effective follower as an act of leadership. Kouzes and Posner (2014) recognize this as part of “Enabling Others to Act,” one of their core values. I am also thinking of Derek Sivers (2010), who describes the importance of the “first follower” in establishing movements by leading others to support the ‘leader.’ See the video here.
Sivers says, “Being the first follower is an underappreciated form of leadership” [0:42-0:46]. I believe supporting others is a very realistic way that every single person can practice their leadership skills. Sivers acknowledges that not everybody can be the leader of something; that is neither practical nor realistic. Instead, he posits that being a follower – particularly the first, or among the first – is an act of courage which equals that of the leader themselves. In fact, he argues that the leader must embrace the first followers as equals, if a movement is to be made. Sivers acknowledges that many people will ridicule a person acting alone, and it takes courage to be the first person to follow another; but it is in fact within the power of that first follower to transform a “lone nut” (Sivers’ words) into a leader.
What have I learned from being a student mentor?
From September until December, I had the opportunity to mentor two students in McMaster’s English Language Development (MELD) program. It was the intent of the program to match an upper-year student with MELD students, to equip them with the knowledge and skills to safeguard their transition into university life.
My first lesson as a mentor was that, if you are going to adopt the role of ‘mentor’ in any professional capacity, you cannot ‘wing it.’ This was my approach – as it is in most things – and in my very first course reflection I remarked, “In full disclosure, I did not prepare at all for my first mentorship meeting … This showed through pretty quickly after meeting them, when I realized I knew nothing.” If I could redo the entire experience, I would have prepared for each meeting. And I would have made a greater effort to get to know my student mentees as people, not only as students, so that I might find better ways to inspire and excite them about the prospect of their education. Other than preparation, I felt this was my weakest attribute as a mentor.
Kouzes and Posner would say that I failed to model the way – indeed, how can I teach academic skills without doing my homework? – and failed to align our values and vision. Or more likely, they would identify these as new personal obstacles to overcome on the leadership journey.
And I carry some guilt for my lack of preparation. This is good, because guilt is a powerful motivator for me. In hindsight, I feel that I wasted my time and theirs, to be unprepared for our meetings and without a plan. In truth, I think this failure to prepare made me a poor mentor, because my usual laissez-faire attitude is a poor match for this type of work. I owe responsibility to my mentees, and I hope to remember this if I am ever in such a role again. As I said, this is a prime example of my struggle to “Model the Way:” it was challenging for me to inspire my mentees, and lead them on the road to academic success, when I myself was not doing due diligence with regards to their development.
That said, it was not a total disaster. The most successful mentorship meetings were those in which I asked my two students what their personal goals were. One of them wanted to attend upper-level lectures to assess whether he could handle the English language requirements of a second- or third-year course. The other wanted to switch programs from Economics to Math, and needed to figure out how that was done. By mid-way through the term, these tasks were accomplished after we partialized the problem. What I mean is, I assigned the first student the job of selecting a window of time in which he could sit in on a class; after that, he was to identify a class of interest; and then, finally, to attend. He proceeded to attend many upper-year courses and eventually felt more confident that he would be able to handle them. The second student was asked first to find out who in the Math department he could speak with about the requirements of the program; he was then to identify the person in the MELD program who could help him switch, and then to instigate that. Both of my mentees went above and beyond these goals, and I hope they are as proud of their efforts as I am proud of them.
I learned from this experience that these students were their own leaders, and I an accessory to their success. Their goals were successful when they were set by themselves, not set by me. And since their success was my only goal, we worked together to mutual ends.
What have I learned from the process of regular reflection?
In response to the requirements of the leadership course I was taking, I made regular reflections on my leadership practice, on what I was learning via the course content, and on my successes and failures as a mentor. Regular reflection provided me with insight into my own processes, such as how my thoughts, beliefs, values, and actions aligned (or otherwise), and how I might handle situations differently with new insight.
One situation which stuck with me was not my own, but that of a guest lecturer, Juanita. She had worked in the field of human services, as I hope to, which is perhaps why her story resonated. She described being put in a situation to choose between using her clients for a funder’s motive, or else losing their services altogether. She described struggling with the dilemma, and of course there was no ‘good’ option. In the end, she decided not to use her clients because she could not live with that as a consequence of her decision. I remarked in my reflection that “I think values are a thing that is easy to discuss and very challenging to live… I think values provide some guidance through uncertainty, and it is probably easier to live with challenging decisions that are compatible with your values than those that are not.” This, from the entire course, was the message which resonated the most with me and will likely have the biggest impact on my decision-making in future.
In fact, it already has. I was recently put in a position to choose between two jobs: one offer was on the table, but I valued the work less; the other was not guaranteed, but expected, and I valued the work greatly. I weighed my options for a long time and eventually decided first that I must give my negative response to the offer on the table immediately, so that they would not be waiting on me; and so I decided that I would wait, because I valued the other position enough that it was worth taking this chance for. I considered how I would feel in the event that I lost both offers in this gamble, and I knew that I would rather have lost a priceless opportunity than settle for less without trying. I knew that, whatever the outcome, I was proud of myself for doing right by the agency I let go, and equally proud of myself for taking a chance on something I cared so much about. It was this thinking – that it would be easier to live with the negative outcome of a decision aligned with my values, than the outcome of that which is not – which guided my decision-making. And as a happy aside, it worked in my favour. So I am thrilled to be in a field in which I am reaching my fullest potential to serve others; and I am equally thrilled with how I handled myself in a tough situation.
III. WHERE AM I HEADED?
To succinctly summarize my above learning, I know these three things:
- Life is full of difficult challenges, and I will be put in the position of having to make difficult decisions. But I know what I am passionate about, and what I am capable of, and what my values are. And it is easier to live with hardships, when they are the inevitable consequences of living aligned with your values.
- I have weaknesses. For various reasons, I may struggle to exercise leadership skills. But leadership is a practice, and I am capable, and actions matter. So I must continue to struggle to align my values with my actions, which remains my weakest leadership skill.
- I must think about leadership holistically: seeking connection with others, prioritizing my values, and not getting hung-up on the details.
As I described at the outset, I am passionate about certain social justice issues. I know that Kouzes and Posner would suggest that my interest in these areas will eventually expose a need which must be filled, and I will need to be brave enough to say, I will fill it. When that time comes, I hope I will make good decisions, align my actions with what I care about, and think about the aspects of leadership laid out above.
* * * * *
To this end, I will continue to work on honing my leadership skills. “Walking the walk” or “modelling the way” has always been my struggle, and I will continue to think about it. However, I will not focus so exclusively on this one thing that I minimise the importance of others. I realize that leadership is a collaborative process – indeed, there can be no leader without those to lead – and I will continue to reflect on how I can be more inspiring and inclusive of others, in the pursuit of my passions.
To do this, I will try to seek out more opportunities for leadership. Volunteerism is an excellent medium for this, given that it is an excellent leadership tool and is aligned with my values of service to others. My service to Epsilon Sigma Alpha will also help me in the short-term, as I will assume a smaller role but endeavour to support my sisters who are stepping upward. ESA remains a truly exceptional avenue to hone each of the practices laid out in the Student Leadership Challenge.
As I begin to move past my university years – and it’s only a matter of months now – I know that I will crave relationships, financial stability, and fulfillment in my professional life, because these are my core values. Again I think of that sweet spot where my passion, skills, economic security, and society’s needs meet. I imagine this will require I collaborate with others a great deal, and will involve many leadership experiences, especially if I want to create large-scale change (which I do). I believe I have more knowledge and tools at my disposal for this path, having taken this course. I hope that the habit of reflection – which I fully intend to keep up – keeps me mindful of what I have learned.
Connett, K. (2015, July 13). Inspiring a generation, 2015. The Passion Project. Retrieved from https://www.slideshare.net/KimmConnett1/inspiring-a-generation-2015-50460321
Flynn, G. (2016, January 14). Leaders and followers. From POLITICAL SCIENCE 3FG3, Public Service Leadership. Lecture conducted at McMaster University, Hamilton: ON.
Kouzes, J., & Posner, B. (2014). The student leadership challenge: Five practices for becoming an exemplary leader. The Leadership Challenge/Wiley: San Francisco, CA.
Sivers, D. (2010, February 11). First follower: Leadership lessons from Dancing Guy. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fW8amMCVAJQ