Do you consider yourself a leader? This question opened a panel hosted by a group for young professional women here in NYC–a group of highly intelligent people with diverse careers and backgrounds. When asked about leadership, the majority of the group, however, did not raise their hands (myself included). It was an obvious illustration of the fact that, despite growing equality and opportunities for women in the workplace today, women are not aways encouraged to take charge–or even if they are, to admit that they do or want to.
Being a leader can mean different things in different contexts. Maybe you’re the person in your friend group who’s always making plans to get together or the office happy-hour organizer. Maybe you’re in a fancy corner office with a high-ranking title, making expensive business deals. Or maybe you’re on the other end of the corporate ladder, fighting tooth and nail for what seems like the smallest of gains.
It may also seem like a challenge to take on a leadership position at your job or in your personal life when there are obvious obstacles: people, cultures, or policies standing in your way, or even your own anxieties about change, being “liked,” and disrupting the status quo. But you don’t need to be an extrovert or a revolutionary thinker on the scale of Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr. to lead. When you know what you want, and can create an environment that helps you achieve that, it’s easy to rally a group of people to support your cause. Because more likely than not, you’re not alone in whatever you believe in–and sometimes all it takes is one tiny voice to make that belief heard.
If you’re looking to take more of a leadership position over your own life, consider incorporating these ideas into your mindset:
Do what you love: Are you a baker? A succulent enthusiast? A great note-writer? Turn your passions and creativity into a means to bring people together. Although it may seem like extra work to take on leadership for social or group activities, when it’s something you inherently enjoy it won’t seem like work. You’ll be helping to stoke your personal interests in a setting where they might not be a given, and you may even find that there are others who share your hobbies and interests. Start small, and make it self-motivated: bring in the foods you love to cook to share with your teammates, or spread some smiles by greening your office with cacti or secret messages. The collective atmosphere will thank you, and you can take pride in leading the way toward a more positive and productive environment.
Be nice: I don’t mean that you should be people-pleasing or obsequious–quite the opposite of that, actually. It’s all about being genuinely nice and supportive of people around you. When others trust that you are earnest in your feelings, and encouraging rather than dismissive of new ideas, then they’ll naturally rally to whatever cause you believe in. They’ll want to help you in return, creating a positive feedback loop of love (yes, you can say that re: work!). Being nice doesn’t mean letting people get away with things because you’re afraid of confrontation. Rather, it means helping people–yourself included–respectfully see multiple sides of a given issue, and not allowing quick judgments or emotions to get in the way of seeing someone for who they really are and what you can do for each other in the future.
Say yes: There are times when it’s best to just say no–to the bad boyfriend, to the party when you’re tired, to the extra project when your plate’s already overflowing. As vegans, we say no all the time to things as a part of a certain lifestyle. But saying yes can also be refreshingly liberating, especially when the No instinct comes from fear. If you’re not sure you’re qualified to do something, or worry that a change will result in regret, reframe your thoughts more positively and actively: how would you feel if someone told you that you couldn’t do something? Or what if this was your only opportunity–ever–to take a leap? I bet you’d be more likely to challenge an outside critic than an internal one. So turn self-doubt into a self-pep talk, fear into excitement, and the potential for any given situation seems more likely to succeed, which in turn means more trust from those around you.
Accept failure: You’ve found something you love, you’ve projected good vibes about it, and you’re super psyched for what’s to come with your new project. But then the universe decides otherwise, and all your best intentions are turned on their head. Failure: it’s going to happen more often than not, Dumplings, so just be ready for it. But also, make sure you learn from it. One of my favorite quotes is from the famed Existentialist, Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Failure can become a kind of accomplishment in and of itself if you know how to handle it, and rise higher above it each time. And then when you succeed, it will be even sweeter.
At the conclusion of the panel, the question of who was a leader was asked again. This time, in thinking about the seemingly insignificant but actually impactful steps I’ve taken in my life, I raised my hand proudly. Many others did, too. Surrounded by these leaders of every stripe, I felt empowered, and I knew I’d carry that back to my office the next day no matter how much busy or admin work filled the hours. And with each hand that raises in response to that question, the closer we come to a world where all women’s voices can be heard and valued as they should be.
Now let me ask you: Are you a leader? How? Share your stories!
Also by Jennifer: A Day in the Life of a Peaceful Dumpling Editor
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Photo: Eric Saantilian via Wikimedia Commons