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Leadership Starts With Us

Region IV-W
January 12, 2021 Kaitlin Long Kansas State University

2020 brought us many challenges – remote work, lack of accountability from seeing our colleagues and students, Zoom fatigue (OH, the Zoom fatigue), steady (or unsteady) internet access, and all of the distractions that sometimes come from working at home.  Of course, this list is missing a contentious national election, significant racial injustices, and anxiety around a global pandemic. There is certainly much to lament about this past fall semester.

And perhaps at an even higher level, our students experienced this. Confusion about whether it was required to attend in-person class or join over Zoom? The question of having to do how many discussion posts each week? And trying to figure out how to engage with their student organizations in a virtual way...would their peers even want to attend and participate? Here I will point to the secondary list mentioned above as additional challenges.

Despite all of these things, this fall I saw some amazing things as a leadership educator, both in and out of the classroom.

I observed many students being just as excited (if not more) to learn and grow in their own capacity to lead. They wanted to attend workshops – even virtual ones - as it meant the opportunity to connect with peers and hone their skills amidst a time when leadership is desperately needed. They were committed to building a pathway to leadership in life after graduation – how does better communication with roommates extrapolate to their career goals of becoming a couple's therapist? What does it mean to critically reflect on participation in class and at work, and ponder what’s holding them back from contributing more? What is this self-doubt? What is the group missing without my voice?

Leadership starts with each one of us.

It’s a personal endeavor before it can be a sustained effort towards mobilizing others. My observations of the past four months indicate that students are just as willing, if not more willing, to do the hard work of reflecting on their own leadership capabilities. I share with my students the adaptive leadership adage that leadership happens above and below the neck. It takes the head and the heart working in tandem to lead. And often the most difficult work occurs below the neck. It seems as though the pandemic, in some ways, has given some students the space to dive deeply into self-learning. I want to capitalize on this opportunity. Spending more time with our computers at home has many downsides, but if we create spaces for students to thrive, to engage, to explore, to commit, then we will aid in the growth of ethical and authentic leaders in the decades to come.

Looking forward to the spring 2021 semester and knowing that our former ‘normal’ is likely not to return by May, I see my challenge as an educator as continuing to facilitate opportunities for students to do this exploration. The in-person ‘magic’ of retreats, immersive service experiences, and sharing of meals may be out of reach, but the hunger to grow seems to be there.

In a time when we continue to experience much loss – personal and professional – our students have shown resilience and a desire to make the most of their college experience. I, and I'm sure many of you, have always and continue to be inspired by students. I hope that inspiration is enough to carry me into the new year with creativity and willingness to experiment with new pedagogies, innovative program design, and commitment to resilience and positivity.