on the topic of leadership (aka i’m wiser than an old guy)

I just returned from meetings in Canada (I’m actually in the process of returning and hoping I don’t get caught in Sandy’s path) and I had some revelations on the topic of leadership. I was at the table with leaders of international organizations and leaders of community social justice and I surprised myself when I realized that I could relate to the stories they were sharing and the concerns they had for their organizations.

In grade school and through middle school, I wanted to lead because I thought I had some good ideas, but mostly because I liked the attention. Hello, look at this blog.

In high school, I discovered that it was a real part of my personality. I was a participant, someone who wanted to be part of the conversation, someone who enjoyed doing my part to make things better. I’ve always been a really organized person and that lends itself to want to help others organize… something. I also still really liked the attention.

But more than the attention, if I was able to speak to someone to share my constituents’ perspective (ie: my high school class) I wanted to have that conversation with our principal or our advisors. I wanted to have that conversation half because I wanted to represent our point of view, but also to hear what the opposition (ha! our principals) had to say. I’m interested in learning why things work they way they do or why certain perspectives are policy.

It was in college when I became involved in student leadership that my belief in active citizenship (local and global) was solidified. I wanted to help make my world and the world a better place. And it has been through non-profit, fundraising, and activism that my citizenship has manifested itself in my professional life.

So, when I heard these people (the ones I was meeting with in Canada) speak about their leadership issues, I was pleasantly surprised that I knew exactly how they felt, because I had lived it… when I was president of my sorority (Delta Gamma) in college.

I remember being elected and making mental lists of how I would change the chapter for the better, how I would be more organized, a better communicator, and a better listener than the presidents past. They weren’t bad. I just wanted to be better. I had a clear vision for my year and I was excited that I was in the highest authority to make change.

What a laugh. What I learned, very quickly, was that I was not making any decisions. I had a Board (capital B) and I had my sisters to represent, and not least of all, I had alumnae that were incomparably invested in the larger organization and how it was represented on my campus. The best I could do was organize (yay!) all my stakeholders’ concerns and try to balance what was best, not necessarily my preference, for the organization . And going into it, I kinda knew.

I kinda knew that I would work with many leaders of my chapter, but I thought, “Hey, we all want the same thing. This should be easy.”

“This” was getting on the same page or being in agreement about something. And the saying, “there are a million ways to skin a cat” (gross) could never be more true. There are a million different paths to take to one singular goal and it is figuring out the path that is complicated, not the end goal.

I saw my same naïve eagerness in one of the men I was meeting with and he was 50+ years old. Imagine that.

Following our meetings, I found myself engaging in a conversation about leadership and our presidencies with a previous president of this international organization I was meeting with in Canada. And we discovered that we had similar experiences in terms of how our year as president evolved. I just found it so interesting that we had both entered totally green to the process and how we both witnessed the cycle repeat itself with presidents that followed us.

The problems weren’t new. The process wasn’t new. And somehow, it always feels like this has never happened before and the sky is falling. The sky is never falling. You will get through it and it will exist long after you’re gone. He experienced it with an organization of more than 300,000 and I experienced it with a chapter of 85 sisters.

Another of the things I personally took away from this weekend was something another of the guys had said. This guy is a pain in my ass. Man, does he make me soooo angry. When he shared this little nugget of wisdom, I was not only surprised by his genuine care for his organization, but how right he was. Damnit.

He said that all organizational meetings should handle business outside of the meeting and have meetings be fun, fellowship, and service. Jaw. Dropped. I thought back to how I ran my chapter meetings of HOSA (Health Occupations Students of America), how I would have run class meetings had I been elected president of my class any of the three times I ran (People didn’t like me. I was probably an asshole.), and how I ran my sorority meetings.

It was all wrong. They should have been more fun. And of course! Who wants to listen to business all the time? Given the chance to do it all over again, I would infuse more fun into my meetings, spend more time with the members, my classmates, and my sisters, and focus more on service to something.

We didn’t do enough of that. So I guess that’s my advice to all you presidents and future presidents out there – Fun. Fellowship. (Sisterhood.) Service.

Work hard outside of meetings, be efficient  in meetings and have fun with your members through service and otherwise.

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