Learning to Lead
So, what did I decide to do when I had a week off from regular courses over Reading Break? Go surfing in Tofino? Hike the Juan de Fuca Trail? Skiing in Whistler? Travel to a sunny beach somewhere South? Hell, no. I took a course! (I promise that I’m not actually a very studious person, this was just a really great course.)
When I heard that one of the most inspiring professors I know, Ryan Hilperts, was offering a course called Leadership Skills for Community Action (ES 378) as a unique 5-day intensive, I knew that it was an opportunity I simply couldn’t pass up.
While I’m not exactly sure what I expected going in to the course, I can confidently say that it far exceeded my expectations. Within less than a week, ES 378 succeeded in completely transforming my perspective on leadership, as it forced me to rethink the most effective avenues for creating positive change in our society.
In the process, I was also challenged to get deeply in touch with myself; exploring my own core values and aspirations, as well as my fears and vulnerabilities. Plus, we spent plenty of time running around outdoors, sharing snacks, sitting in circles having heart-to-heart conversations, and telling hilarious stories. Now that’s a week well-spent.
Having now taken enough time to ponder and process the teachings of the course, I’d love to share some of the most transformative realizations that I’ve had about what it truly means to be a leader.
#1 Become yourself.
When we think about the world’s most influential and inspiring leaders, there really is no single, universal trait that they all possess. In fact, I’ve come to realize that the only real commonality between all great leaders is that they’re authentically, whole-heartedly, and confidently themselves. Inevitably, there comes a day when each of us is forced to accept that who we are is all we’ll ever be, and embracing that unique identity with open arms is the defining characteristic of many leaders.
This understanding has encouraged me to define the central value that I want my own life to possess, and to begin using it as a compass to guide all of my daily actions and decisions. After much contemplation, I eventually settled on ‘connection’ as my strongest core value, which I interpret in a number of different ways — connection with myself, with others around me, with a broader sense of community, and with the natural world that we’re all an intrinsic part of.
When I picture the broader purpose that I want my life to steadily venture towards, I see connection as the lifeblood of that vision. While the possible manifestations of my life’s purpose range from owning an outdoor education centre, to becoming an organic permaculture farmer, to designing sustainable urban developments, I at least know that I want my life to always be a study in meaningful connection.
#2 Listen. For real.
Never mind public speaking, group facilitation, or assertiveness — I’ve learned that the most essential leadership skill is the ability to listen to others with presence and sincere curiosity. As simple as that may sound, learning to actually listen has proven to be a radical experience for me. Listening with presence necessitates being completely here and now when someone else is speaking – offering them my complete attention and absorbing what they have to say without formulating judgments, comparing their experiences to my own, or thinking about what I’m going to say in response.
One compelling lesson that we discussed is to think about curiosity as the opposite of judgment. To me, this emphasizes the importance of remaining open to diverse perspectives that differ from my own, and asking curious questions about what someone else is saying rather than assessing, comparing, or critiquing. While I’m usually eager to share my own thoughts and opinions, taking a step back to sincerely listen to those around me has proven to be a challenging, and highly rewarding process. The more I listen, the more I’m able to connect with others, understand where they’re coming from, and expand my thinking with the diverse ideas, perspectives and knowledge that they have to offer.
#3 Serve the collective purpose.
Throughout our many class discussions, the word ‘humility’ kept getting thrown around a lot, and I initially felt like I wasn’t fully grasping the meaning of it. It wasn’t until I heard humility described in a very eloquent TED Talk as ‘thinking about yourself less, but not thinking less of yourself’ that it finally began to resonate with me. To build upon the other lessons that I’ve shared, I think that this is where it all comes together for me as an impactful understanding of true leadership.
Ultimately, a leader is someone who is able to be their authentic self, and consistently act in correlation with the values that they whole-heartedly believe in. At the same time, they’re conscious and considerate of those around them, listening to others with a sincere desire to understand, support, strengthen, and connect. From this place of authenticity, clarity, and connectedness, a leader can become the unifying force that identifies the shared aspirations of their group, and inspires the movement towards a meaningful, collective purpose.
While my own journey as a leader has barely even begun, I’m very grateful to have gained these wise and thoughtful teachings that were shared throughout my ES 378 experience. As I gradually join with others to pursue positive change in many realms of our society, I’ll undoubtedly keep these lessons top of mind, remembering what it looks and feels like to truly lead from the heart.
Finally, many thanks are in order… Thank you to our professor, Ryan, for your inspiration, energy, and dedication to the development of a brighter, more sustainable future.
Thank you to all of my wonderful classmates for sharing so openly, contributing to vibrant conversations, and showing up for one another every day.
And thank you to our teaching assistant, Dana, our numerous guest presenters, TED-talkers, textbook authors, and everyone else who contributed to my new understanding of impactful leadership.