Prepare for Leadership by Leading
So you’ll be prepared for tomorrow
When I went back to school to learn how to be a mediator (and eventually, a negotiation consultant) I was thrown into classrooms with 20-somethings at the age of 54. I recall a heated discussion in a class about international diplomacy concerning a hot button topic of the day. It was 2004, so it could have been the revelation of torture at Abu Ghraib or the CIA’s admission that there had been no imminent threat from Iraqi weapons of mass destruction that would have justified the Iraq War.
At some point in the discussions, one of the 20-something students suggested that there was no reason for the class to be discussing these matters because they had no power to do anything about it. As best I recall, he said, “we’ll be able to do something about these matters when we’re in positions of power.”
Ever the straight talker, I said something like this:
There’s unused power scattered all over the law school atrium. It would behoove the law students to use their power now so that when they’re in powerful positions, they’ll be able to use it wisely.
As I recall, this wasn’t met with an enthusiastic response. I was probably thinking of the law school’s refusal to let a student LGBTQ organization meet on campus because the law school was affiliated with a church that believed LGBTQ relationships were sinful and hence out of bounds. But, really, there were lots of issues at the law school, including the University’s refusal to provide birth control to the school’s young women. Needless to say, it was a right-ward leaning law school in Malibu, California. A very blue state. There was certainly an opportunity for right-ward leaning law students to form a Young Republican chapter.
That was then and I wonder how my fellow students are doing out there in the big bad world fifteen years later.
there’s no time like the present
First, an admission. When I started law school at 25, I was super shy. Had terrible stage fright. How was I going to be a lawyer. In a courtroom. Representing clients. In front of crusty old judges who still weren’t that happy to see women in the justice system in 1977.
Fortunately, I’d been “leading” through my fear since high school. It was “the Sixties” after all so there was a Progressive Students Union to organize and a peace symbol slug at the local printers that I could put onto “my page” (as Features Editor) when I had once again mis-calculated my column inches and needed a “filler.” I did alot of this work quite literally trembling. But what was I going to do? Sit inside the house and watch one of three channels on a grainy black and white TV?
Another admission. I’d always been what teachers called an “overly serious” child. Today, they’d probably call me “troubled.” I asked a teacher I respected what to do. She told me that being of service was a great way to stop ruminating on my own troubles. So, at 19, I volunteered for a Christian organization called FISH, calling on the sick and elderly, doing chores and trying to bring cheer to shut-ins. That same year, I started volunteering at a runaway house near downtown San Diego. Those kids played “She’s Leaving Home” on the phonograph over and over again. I’ll never forget that, nor the girl who took a month’s worth of birth control pills in a suicide attempt (no, they won’t kill you).
In my junior year of college, I began volunteering at a Women’s Center and was made the point person for inquiries concerning our jobs program. I learned about federal revenue sharing funds, how they’re gotten and the way in which they were used. There was a Community Congress in San Diego at the time comprised of alternative service organizations that strategized activist events for the betterment of battered women, post-incarcerated people, the poor and the marginalized. When I moved to New York after college, I volunteered for Legal Aid in East Harlem and for a Peer Crisis Counseling Center on Long Island where I lived with my husband while he earned his Masters Degree.
By the time I got to law school - frightened as I was - I’d learned quite a bit about how power is exercised at the grass roots level and what kinds of roles I could play to make a difference in the world in the way I believed the world would best be run. And I was only 25.
Today, I volunteer to teach women career lessons through Dress for Success and L.A. Works.. By now, I know a thing or two about a thing or two and I’m no longer shy or frightened. Because I didn’t say to myself, SELF, you don’t have the experience or the stamina or the confidence to take leadership roles in the community. Instead, I said, SELF, you can be bored to tears or you can be scared, pick one of those. And I picked scared. Plenty glad I did.
So no matter your age or experience, your leadership lessons begin today. Start a chapter of something. Make some feminist waves at the workplace. Do it loudly or do it quietly. Refer to your sisters, mentor and sponsor them. Call out sexual harassment and support women who do. Join professional organizations and climb the leadership ladder (it’s shockingly easy because so few people actually want to do the work of the organization). Lead a girl scout troop. Answer crisis calls. Register people to vote. I guarantee you that whatever volunteer work you do, you will quickly rise to leadership levels simply by consistently showing up.
Go get ‘em. The future needs you now more than ever.