By Keisha Stanford • June 03, 2010•Writers in Residence
Recently, somone suggested that I give my reflections on student leadership. Initially, it seemed like a great idea. Over the course of my law school career, I have found myself in leadership positions in several organizations. However, upon further reflection, I struggled with how to talk about those experiences in a way that was not overly obnoxious or came across as shamelessly patting myself on the back. In many instances, I had not sought out to be a “leader,” but rather really cared about a particular issue and found ways to get involved and contribute.
I also struggled with how I could talk about leadership in a way that would be accessible to and useful for other people. Leadership is not an easy topic to cover in a short blog post. I find that there are a number of attributes that make someone a good leader and a variety of combinations that can (and do) work well. In this post, I have chosen to discuss three aspects of effective leadership to serve as a starting point for further discussion. The degree to which these three factors are within your control varies greatly, on a personal and organizational level.
The one thing that has been consistent in my most successful and rewarding leadership experiences has been working with outstanding people. I was recently at an event with women who were on the Executive Board of the Women of Stanford Law School the year that I served as Co-President, and we all looked back on that experience with fondness and a sense of true accomplishment. However, when I think about that year, what made it a success was not that my Co-President and I took on everything and delegated tasks effectively. What made that experience memorable was that we all truly worked as a team: each person bringing their own ideas and contributions to the organization; each taking ownership of their initiatives, all the while knowing that they had the support and help of others; and each respecting the other, their time, and their competing obligations and responsibilities. Having other driven and committed people in an organization prevents any one person from feeling like they are shouldering the responsibility on their own – a sentiment that can quickly lead to frustration and burnout. Unfortunately, it is often something that you may have little or no control over depending on the organization.
Another thing that is crucial to effective leadership is knowing your personal strengths and weaknesses, which requires a significant amount of self-reflection and honesty. Some of us are great at organization and task management; others succeed at motivating others; and still others effortlessly generate creative ways to tackle problems. Knowing what you are truly good at allows you to realize the unique thing that you bring to the table and to capitalize on that attribute. Similarly, knowing where you fall short highlights places and opportunities for growth, but also signifies areas where you will need to rely on the help and support of others. The times in past leadership experiences when I have felt the most overwhelmed have been those in which I took on responsibilities with which I was unfamiliar or when I felt like I was going it alone. Really outstanding leaders know when and how to ask for help and rarely wait to do so until they are on the verge of drowning. Taking the time to really reflect on your capabilities and to map out all your competing obligations forces you to figure out what you can realistically commit to, what you can contribute to the organization, and ways in which you could personally benefit from the experience.
Finally, taking on a leadership role for the sake of resume building alone rarely produces the outcome you expect. Without some sincere commitment to a cause or organization, it becomes increasingly difficult to allot the appropriate amount of time and effort to do the job well. As your schedule becomes more demanding (and it always will) something will have to give, and the things you care the most about will always take precedence. This means that if you take on a position merely to check off a box on your resume, you will likely do a poor job, and, if there are things that have to be done, someone else will be forced to pick up the slack regardless of whether it is what they signed up for or whether they have time for it in their own busy schedules. This is not to say that things don’t come up unexpectedly. It is to say that each of us is only one person and there are a set number of hours in any given day, and the work that you put out reflects the amount of time and effort you have been able to give to any particular endeavor. And in the end, if you don’t really care about something, it will quickly become obvious to others and limits your ability to lead effectively.
I am certain that this post has not even begun to adequately address the topic of leadership. For this reason, I invite you all to join in the conversation. Beginning in June, Ms. JD will initiate a forum discussion on leadership: what seems to work, what doesn’t; what resources are available; ideas for programs and initiatives. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the contribution of others is critical to successful leadership. In that vein, I look forward to seeing where this conversation leads us…