What's In A Leader?

“What’s in a name?” It’s one of Shakespeare’s most famous quotes from Romeo and Juliet, signifying the two leading characters’ belief that their family names (and corresponding conflicts) are meaningless in the face of their love for each other. It’s a lovely idea that names are purely abstract, but as many of us in higher education know so well, a name—or language, more broadly—can mean a great deal. In reflecting on the values of Oregon Women in Higher Education (OWHE), I found myself getting hung up on one of them in particular, due the lasting associations I often make with the word: Leadership. When I saw it, I immediately thought, “Nope! Not going to write about that one.”

Whenever conversations about leadership arise, I tend to clam up with uncharacteristic ambivalence. As a woman, as an introvert, as a millennial, as a middle child, and as a new professional, I still question what I have to offer as a leader from a lifetime of seeing and hearing that a leader is someone who isn’t like me. Even in my very leadership-focused graduate program in student affairs administration, I struggled to view myself—let alone call myself—a leader. This feeling hasn’t left me, even though I am now a few years into my career in higher education; even though I have assumed a leadership position within my department; even though colleagues and mentors tell me I’m a leader; and even though I associate with wonderful organizations like OWHE that empower me to be a leader.

Yet, slowly but surely, my perspective of what leadership means is evolving. When asked what a leader looks like, most of us would probably imagine someone who is male, white, outspoken, older and/or experienced, and in a position of power or authority. Indeed, many leaders do possess these traits for a variety of sociological reasons, but envisioning someone with these traits as the archetypal leader is not only inaccurate but unproductive. Some individuals embody more natural leadership qualities than others, and some are more likely to assume higher-level leadership positions than others, but most of us practice leadership every day of our lives in some form or another.

So then, to twist Shakespeare’s quote: “What’s in a leader?” For me, a leader is someone who has carefully contemplated her values and strives to live by those values. It’s someone who seeks challenges instead of settling for stagnation. It’s someone who sees himself as a lifelong learner and maintains a hunger for new knowledge and experiences. It’s someone who reflects upon her weaknesses and endeavors to improve, while also having the courage to accept her limitations. It’s someone who advocates for underserved, marginalized, and struggling people, even when it’s unpopular to do so. It’s someone who creatively crafts strategies to work more efficiently and effectively, seeing beyond the “way it’s always been done”. It’s someone who collaborates with and encourages others to utilize their strengths and perform at their best.

I try to represent those definitions of leadership in my everyday life, personally and professionally. I am not in a supervisory role, and I am not usually comfortable displaying the traditional or stereotypical traits of leadership. To be honest, I’m not convinced that I ever will be comfortable with that, and I don’t know yet whether I aspire to a senior leadership position in higher education. But I know that I am demonstrating leadership when I streamline office procedures to ease students’ experiences with our department and lighten workloads for my team. I am demonstrating leadership when I take continuing education courses at my college to learn a new language or attend a conference to learn best practices. I am demonstrating leadership when I intentionally try to connect with my coworkers, recognizing that as an introvert I sometimes isolate myself. I am demonstrating leadership when I advocate for including part-time staff in departmental meetings and professional development opportunities. I am demonstrating leadership when I delegate tasks to coworkers who will enjoy them because they appeal to their strengths.

We all demonstrate leadership in our own ways, and it behooves us to reflect upon and celebrate our own unique brands of leadership. Envisioning ourselves as leaders and using the language of leadership to describe ourselves, regardless of our identities, statuses, or positions, is key to becoming our best selves. It is also key to transforming the connotations and images we conjure when we hear the word “leadership”. Rather than viewing leadership as a quality that we either have or don’t have, or rather than thinking of it as a status we have not yet achieved, we ought to realize the leadership we already model and think about how we can continue to do so in the ways that fulfill us the most.

For those who lack experience in reflecting upon their own leadership qualities and/or are not often encouraged to do so, I strongly recommend completing an assessment such as CliftonStrengths (formerly known as the Clifton Strengthsfinder). Don’t worry, they aren’t paying me to advertise for them! I just think this tool in particular is really valuable. I completed the assessment myself a few years ago because at the time my employer required all staff to do it and to post their top five strengths next to their name plaque at their office or cubicle. My top five strengths were: Input, Connectedness, Individualization, Achiever, and Maximizer. Taking the assessment and reading more about each of these strengths felt very empowering because it helped me recognize and articulate my qualities. It was also fun to share them publicly with my coworkers and to see their strengths, as well, because it started conversations, spurred connections, and helped us understand and appreciate each other more.

Whatever activity is most preferred and feasible in your workplace or in your life—assessments, books, mentorship, volunteerism, formal education, professional association involvement, etc.—seek validation of your existing leadership qualities and pursue opportunities to strengthen them. And, by the way, call yourself a leader! Because you are.


Lindsey Pierce is an Enrollment Services Coordinator at Clackamas Community College and can be reached at lindsey.pierce@clackmas.edu

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