Qualities of a Leader

According to Johnson & Hackman (2018), “leadership seems to be linked to what it means to be human” (Johnson & Hackman, 2018, p. 2).

photograph from yearbook with student council members in middle school
Olive Middle School Yearbook 1997

My earliest recollection of leadership was in elementary school when I ran for student council representative in 4th grade. I even made a t-shirt with a slogan on it in puffy paint. I knew then that I wanted to have a voice for myself and for my friends. Then in middle school when I was president of our school. I remember creating a voting campaign and making the campaign materials and finding ways to connect with different groups of people: the athletes, the band nerds, the goths, and the loners. Somehow I was able to relate to different groups and I was voted as the president. I didn’t understand what that meant at the time, but I knew my picture was going to be in the yearbook as the president and I would share ideas from students with the school principal. I was on the yearbook committee. In high school, my leadership moved from academics to athletics as I was a team captain and one of the top athletes for my school and district. Looking back, I didn’t realize how my athletic ability and medals symbolized leadership, what was interpreted was a role model and someone others looked to for the qualities of success. Leadership at this age was more about competition and winning. What I learned at a young age was that leaders win, at any cost, because they are focused and everyone cannot be a leader.

Leaders communicate verbally and nonverbally while they intend to be in front of people and even in settings that are informal. Communication is important because people associate words with actions and authenticity. Who a person truly is can be evaluated within the confines of the workplace and in their personal life. As Johnson and Hackman (2018) state, “a person’s communication cannot be viewed separate from the person” (Johnson & Hackman, 2018, p. 10).

As a young professional, I learned that leadership walks, talks, and dresses in a certain manner. Growing up in Los Angeles did not portray a different picture of the type of people in leadership. All of my supervisors were white men and I worked in at a frozen yogurt place, home inspection company, and print shop before moving to Corpus Christi, Texas. Before working in higher education, my supervisors were white men and white women. I worked at an environmental company and the Corpus Christi Caller-Times as a financial analyst. Honestly, it wasn’t until my entry position in higher education when I was actually told what is “professional”. I was informed by a white female supervisor that curly hair and a gap in my teeth were not professional and did not show leadership. In summary, “if I wanted to be a leader I needed to care about my appearance and by fixing my teeth I showed that I cared about how I looked.” When I started to travel for conferences, I would observe people boarding the planes and try to watch for “professional” qualities in how people dressed and how they conducted themselves during the flight. This included something as simple as the type of drinks people in suits or business attire were wearing. I began to order tomato juice because I believed it was a drink for people of a certain class. Looking back, I wonder why anyone thought sipping on tomato juice was a relaxing past time. I even started to show up to the airport in business attire so I would be taken “seriously”. I soon realized that none of that mattered because I would never fit into the box of a professional leader, so I went back to traveling in comfortable attire including a hoodie, beanie or baseball cap, and my oversized headphones and a backpack. This was the time of my life when I learned to question who was in leadership positions and who defined leadership. I realized that people that looked like me or were moms were not in leadership positions.

Over the next couple of years things changed as I got involved in the Corpus Christi Black Chamber of Commerce, local NAACP, the Texas Association of Black Personnel in Higher Education (TABPHE), and Toastmasters International. Through collaborations with other black leaders in the community, we hosted Girls Stepping Out and Boys Manning Up events at the Solomon Coles Recreation Center for young girls and boys in the northside of town. I started to feel like I was contributing to something greater than myself and the involvement in the community events changed how I viewed leadership. I learned that outside of the workplace, leadership was about advocacy, displaying care and concern for people and creating opportunities for growth in my sphere of influence. Attending the TABPHE conference was a first-time experience for me as I was surrounded by black professionals, especially higher education professionals. I had the opportunity to meet and hear Dr. Erma Johnson Hadley, founder of TABPHE and first woman and first African American Chancellor to lead Tarrant County College District. I also felt inspired by the profound words of Dr. Cherry Gooden, former TABPHE president for retired professor of Curriculum and Instruction at Texas Southern University. My eyes were opened to the complexity of the spaces black people navigate and I began to question much of my upbringing and how I was raised to view the world and myself in the world. As a founding member of the ELITE Toastmasters chapter at TAMU-CC, I engaged in leadership and communication regularly through the professional organization. As President, I organized institutes locally and co-chaired a regional conference. Through this experience I learned that my age and perspective were valuable to people who were ready to pass the torch to the next generation of leaders, regardless of my skin complexion. I questioned my readiness to chair a conference for such a prestigious organization; however, I was empowered and trusted to make decisions and the event brought creativity and a new perspective on leadership.

Once I became more self-aware with the qualities of the person I was displaying and the relationships I was building in the community, I transitioned my initiative and collaborative mindset to my work environment. I brought the community collaborations to TAMU-CC and through my independent efforts people began to see me as a “go-to” person to make things happen. My own approach to leadership stems from my interactions, experiences, and observations of the relationship between people deemed as leaders and followers, the language used to describe people in the workplace and outside of the workplace, and the trust people have in the decisions that are made.

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