A year ago, I was entering my 4th year in philanthropy and still not entirely sure of my fit or future in the sector. I was often the youngest person in the room and intimidated by the years of experience others held. I had just been promoted to program associate at the Evelyn and Walter Haas, Jr. Fund — a change I advocated for myself, the first time I had ever done so. I also had been chosen to join the 2020 EPIP Bay Area Steering Committee. I was accessing greater opportunities and more responsibilities, but I did not yet feel like a “leader”. I constantly fought back feelings of not being or not doing enough (hello, impostor syndrome!). When I saw the call for applicants for the Rising Leaders Cohort (RLC), I hesitantly applied at the encouragement of other colleagues. I didn’t think I’d get in. But I was hopeful for the possibility of finding a space where I could explore what leadership meant to me, develop a leadership aspiration, and practice the skills and values to lead with confidence.
From the beginning, I was aware of the potential value of this cohort. The RLC faculty started us off with the Reflected Best Self Exercise (RBSE), where friends, family, and past or current colleagues provided feedback. The catch? All the feedback was positive. It was a huge love fest! Some of the themes that showed up in the feedback I received were about my emotional intelligence, empathy, determination, and passion for my community and social justice. Most surprisingly, many people called me a leader. The people in my life identified leadership strengths in me that I would have never claimed. I was overwhelmed and grateful, and I felt empowered. It shifted my approach towards the RLC opportunity from one of hesitancy to embracing the possibility to shine. Through our time together, the simple question that guided my reflections was: if others saw me as a leader, why couldn’t I?
Prior to the RLC, if you asked me what I thought were the attributes of a good leader, I’d point to personality traits like assertive, extroverted, a “mover and shaker” on a mission. All things I don’t identify with. The character traits that I value — empathy, compassion, relationship-building — would have come second. In exploring my strengths from the RBSE and my values through various exercises during the program, I came to understand how I could practice leadership from a bottom-up approach, while centering my values of empathy, compassion, and relationships. Something as simple as a change in perspective has allowed me to let go of feeling like I need to force myself into a personality profile that doesn’t fit me just to think of myself as a leader. And, I’m already seeing these shifts at work. I find myself more comfortable speaking up and embracing my position in leading through a supportive role, from helping to lead the movement of grants through our approvals process to how I contribute to several staff workgroups.
Not only have I learned so much about myself and my values, but I had an incredible group of like-minded colleagues to get me through what ended up being a tumultuous year. We only met in-person twice: for orientation and our first session. Had someone told me a year ago that I would spend almost the entire time in this cohort behind a screen, I would’ve said it couldn’t work. How can you build long-lasting relationships and practice interpersonal leadership skills through a screen? Nonetheless, the RLC became such an important part of surviving the isolation and navigating the dynamics of remote work during the pandemic. And, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s and Breonna Taylor’s murders, the group was there to hold the pain and have conversations on how white supremacy shows up in our communities, workplaces, and ourselves; and what we can do to fight against it.
Looking back at 2020, I am so grateful I had the opportunity to join the RLC. I am taking important lessons on facilitation, managing conflict, influencing power, and personal development from the incredible faculty. I also now have a broader network of fellow changemakers who I can reach out to for support, feedback, and a good laugh. Most importantly, I am coming away with a better sense of the type of leader I can be. A leader who has empathy and compassion, centers justice in their work and community, and models their values in the workplace.