I think I see the word in my inbox daily. Attend this “Women’s Leadership Event,” sign up for “Executive Leadership Coaching,” attend a conference on “Leadership for the Millennial Generation.”
It slaps me in the face every time I see it and I ask the same questions: Am I a leader? What is a leader? How can I become a leader?
There are thousands of places these days that claim, out in the virtual world, to be “the hub” to make you a true leader. It can be daunting to keep up with who is the new “it” person with the webinar series, and the book, and the success. In my early twenties, I would get so overwhelmed, in my big black-rimmed glasses, skimming LinkedIn for the latest and greatest of these individuals.
Then, in my late twenties, I went to Nairobi, Kenya and I silenced so many of the internet’s best leaders in leading leadership.
This story is to tell you what I have discovered as the true key to recognizing authentic leadership.
My journey to define leadership began as a barista. Every morning at 5am I proudly put on my green apron and represented the “hipster professional” generation as best as I possibly could. I sold dozens of the promotional Pumpkin Spice lattes like a champion, flew high in the sky on reviews that often stated “has intense passion for coffee,” and made sure the store was clean and certified friendly every day when I opened the doors and watched the sun rise across the street.
I loved the cafe.
The people I worked with, the customers I served, the coffee I brewed. LOVED it. The stories of humanity and love and life I have from my coffee shop days are endless and breathtakingly beautiful.
I served decaf mochas to newly pregnant moms, checking in each day to see how they were overcoming their fears around giving birth and whether or not they were going with Celery Green or Happy Hippo Purple for the nursery walls. I served iced black teas to businessmen going through divorces and losing their jobs in finance, tackling being alone and having to choose a new career path. I served and I loved. And every day I asked myself how these interactions, this joy of service, make me come to learn more about true leadership?
Naturally, as a young person, I looked up to my manager for direction and a definition of leadership. Our store manager, a short, gray-haired “rock star” sort of dude with Superman tattooed on his back, kept the vibe fun but often left me feeling as motivated as one should want to become a leader. So, I looked above his role, and began to pay deeper attention to our regional manager, Linda.
The first time I met her my exuberance practically knocked her over when she walked through our cheery, squeaky clean double doors. When she put out her hand to shake mine, I bypassed it and hugged her. My light, warm little body received no response from her cold, heavy one.
“I’m so happy you’re here today! We just set up for Holiday and have already sold six pounds of Christmas blend!”
“Great. Looking forward to seeing if you hit your targets over the coming weeks.”
“Yeah, me too! I love Holiday!”
Exuberance. Joy. All met with a cold, smart stare and an argyle sweater.
My inner monologue switched on: “Oh, Linda… didn’t you know you just walked in on the shift of probably the most over-the-top-latte-making-smile-giving machine in New England? Let’s party!”
Keeping my smile, I went back behind the counter.
Her stay was brief. I giggled with a customer at the end of the bar and restocked straws while she analyzed us.
Linda looked over our books, chatted with our store manager then left with black briefcase and black umbrella in hand. I ran over to my fellow barista, Patty. Patty laughed, recalling my crazy, happy self colliding with Linda’s “all business” attitude.
“Did she like me? Do you think she liked me?”
“You really gave her no choice with that hug!”
Patty laughs. I slink down to the basement, untie my milk stained green apron and hang it on its hook. I look up at my cubby, where I keep some of my school books and pins I’ve received for being Supervisor of the Month. On my cubby, I see Howard Schultz’s famous quote clinging with duct tape and a smiley face sticker.
“The most powerful and enduring brands are built with heart.”
My inner monologue erupts on an invisible Howard Schultz in our cold, damp cafe basement: “Blah. Blah. Bullshit! Did you see her face? Does she even have a heart? How can someone so cold and uneventful champion an entire New England region of coffee shops that emphasize community, service and warmth?? Bullshit Howard. Bullshit.”
With a sigh, I left work that day.
In the coming weeks, Linda returned several times. She always arrived with a blank casualness that bothered me to my core as she checked the books, looked at the temperatures on our appliances, yelled over store layout and criticized sales pitches for promotional materials. All the while, dismissing the fact that we were human beings.
One day, a staff member’s grandmother passed away and Linda stood complaining about how we would never hit our monthly sales goals if we continued to allow staff to cut their shifts in half for ‘minor emergencies.’
I couldn’t take it.
Leadership. Before meeting Linda, I envisioned having her role. Experiencing the joy of traveling to different cafes, supporting their stories and communities, building something spectacular over a cup of coffee and a strong dose of human spirit.
Where was the leadership in the leader I was supposed to look up to?
I left coffee and the cafe. The coming years would find me at home in activism, social change, and artistry. I would encounter many leaders, mostly women, who acted more compassionate than Linda but yet, still achieved their goals while helping to lead others.
It wasn’t incredibly obvious to me until I was in a cab driving through downtown Nairobi a month ago, what that real golden nugget of wisdom to being a great leader actually is and, now that I know and share it, I dare anyone to host a webinar on how to translate this.
She’s a beautiful person. When I first met her, I couldn’t imagine someone with a kinder face.
A new partner and soul sister in social change, we are working together in strategy to aid the current global refugee crisis. She knew of the caliber of work we execute at Raising Change, but more importantly, the first day we connected about our partnership she unveiled how confident she was in knowing, first, who the women are behind Raising Change. Her joy to know us in friendship as much as in doing work together was a breath of fresh air. In an often difficult sector, where everyone has new ideas each day as to how you can make the word better, Alisa never once struck me with an ego. I felt a selfless essence radiate from her the first time we met.
So there we were in Kenya, Alisa and I, partners in the current Global Refuge Crisis, working to witness, brainstorm, and shape better outcomes for all involved in the fight to take care of women and children there. I sat in strategy meetings between her organization, Heshima Kenya, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). I listened as she led sessions with her team to grow a fabric line that would economically empower the refuge women in their care. I watched as she sternly yet lovingly told the girls of the future they had ahead in this work and what was expected of them to realize their own greatness.
“I want to make sure we get your feedback regularly, I want you to know we listen. I want you to know what we are building here, what we are building here together. Does that sound good?”
She addressed the girls, the staff, the members of the board similarly throughout the coming days. She listened, responded smartly and quickly, then carried about a subtle, intense smile as she daily climbed the stairs at the Heshima Kenya office building. She was a joyful presence for each person there, not afraid to change course or alter thinking when presented with a new, brighter idea from her team.
I cannot think of a leader I have watched in action before that who married the need for decision making along with the ability to include everyone’s ideas so well. She was inclusive even with discipline.
It was brilliant to witness.
In my eyes, Alisa is an executive director for the above qualities but more importantly: a leader. One who truly makes others want to follow her and learn to lead as well. Alisa’s leadership is constantly demonstrated, once again, in small silent moments along the way. Moments that I doubt she will know I noticed until she reads this.
One such moment came on a morning as we drove to the Heshima Kenya office, with our driver navigating the busy streets of downtown Nairobi. Alisa and I were in the throes of a conversation about the development of new stateside partnerships that could begin to support young boys coming to Heshima Kenya, in the hopes they would have a vocational training opportunity to prevent them from the risk of child solider recruitment in the slum areas. We bounced ideas back and forth and then, as she glanced out her side window, Alisa’s face got quite warm and her cheeks flushed.
“Njoegre, can you pull over, please?”
She dug her hand into her purse, keeping the conversation with me going. Suddenly our driver stopped and I saw we were pulling up alongside an intersection cross, to a woman with an infant.
Alisa rolled her window down and extended a handful of Kenyan schillings to the young mother.
“Here you go.”
Alisa’s smile was wide. She looked down at the young infant at the mother’s feet, in the middle of the dusty intersection. I have no doubt in that moment she thought of her own small son, Henry. I sat suspended in her glow that radiated in that car for a few seconds.
We were running behind for a meeting that morning. Alisa had a to-do list for her fast approaching last 48 hours in Nairobi that was about a mile long and here we were, sitting in the middle of the most aggressive traffic I’ve ever been in.
And it was here, yes, here, that I bore witness to true leadership.
The coming days would warrant more moments like this one. I became more and more convinced each day of the depth of Alisa’s character.
Each night, she offered me her coat when I shivered walking to meet our driver. Each afternoon, she opened up meetings by asking every staff member how her day was going before diving into an agenda. And each morning at the Safe House, I watched her cradle tiny refugee babies, gently, as they rocked to sleep in her arms.
I saw a women transformed. She belonged here. She knew that to do this work well her leadership had to transcend any transactional description of the word. She lived it there and then, and now, back in her Chicago home, I know she lives it still.
So, I think: Linda. Alisa. Both women who by any standard textbook description would be seen as leaders. Hitting targets, reaching goals, supporting business development, and inspiring others to look up to them for their accomplishments.
But the difference?
The difference is, once again, the smallest of moments. Leadership is the ability we possess to not only encourage someone to learn to lead in the work they do, but someone who inspires others to know the joy and truth in marrying one’s overall character with their leadership skills.
Leaders everywhere should be defined by their small, silent actions.
So this serves as a gentle reminder. The second you pass by a homeless veteran on the street without helping, or choose to overlook the fact that an employee is going through a divorce in your office, or decide to ignore the vibrant enthusiasm of a colleague for the work you are currently engaged in, well, you’re just not a leader in that moment. You may be a great professional but you’re not a leader.
So, what is true leadership? In your workplace, in your community, in your family, amongst your friends?
It is the things that most people will not even see you do.
Your unique voice as a leader will be birthed out of who you discover you truly are in the smallest of your most generous actions.
So, do them and know that the best of who you are may only ever be witnessed by yourself, but that it will make all the difference for the young person who will one day look at you and ask…
“How can I become a leader?”
You’ll actually give them great advice. For work, and for life.