The most challenging aspect of my leadership experience was last summer when I felt like I could barely balance life personally and professionally. The first wave of COVID-19 hit, classes were now virtual, my internship had been shortened, and I was grappling with how to build an inclusive community through it all. What I did not share at the time was that I was also going through the process of interviewing for supplemental internships. And given the timing of the economy, I received many rejections.
The racial reckoning of the summer of 2020 also left me questioning what it meant to be an African/Black woman in such a space of privilege. So much injustice was happening around the country to people who looked like me and it felt like I was not doing enough. I was wrestling with many internal questions yet still felt like I had to show up for myself, my peers, and my school. I could not afford to quit nor give up. It felt like an undue burden, however, this was leadership. Now was the time to show courage, not to fold.
I remember when the MBA Association had a session with General Martin Dempsey and he mentioned that “being a leader is a responsibility that is a privilege, not an entitlement, and one should recognize the weight.” He also said, “the opposite of fragility is also action.” Reflecting on his words made me realize, at that moment in time, it was my responsibility and privilege to lead, to drive, and pave the way. If I didn’t show up, who would? If I didn’t commit, how would we move forward? And if I didn’t fail, how would I learn? I signed up for this, I wanted it, and I would see it through.
I consider myself a relatively resilient person, however, this was the time I had to dig my heels in. I reached out to my old connections at Vanguard to see what internship opportunities they had, and fortunately, was provided an internship in a group that was exactly where I wanted to be. With the internship search out of the way, I now had to balance supporting the development of anti-racist inclusion work for both classes at Fuqua while reimagining performance management at Vanguard and leading both academically and professionally.
I can’t say I had the easiest summer but the lessons were invaluable. I learned that sometimes you have to just jump right in, fear can be paralyzing but you just have to move forward. You also owe it to the people looking up to you and coming behind you to do your best, especially as a woman of color. Finally, to never ever give up, no matter how much you want to, sometimes the work is too important and bigger than you.
Personally, I also learned how to prioritize my mental health better. I said no when I could not support. I pushed back, set boundaries, and claimed my time. Boundaries are extremely important in the D&I/people space because it can be such emotional work. I bought a bike to keep active, took nature walks, prayed, and meditated a lot more. My mental peace is something I actively prioritize.
Never in a million years would I have said that I felt like a leader. To be frank, I’ve been a very reluctant leader. The most consistent feedback I’ve received professionally was to speak up more.
I am proud of the fact that who I am today is extremely different from who I started out as. I feel more confident, in my voice, in my skin and in myself. I am not afraid to be wrong or challenged. I 100 percent speak up more for the things I believe in. I also recognize I can’t do it all alone.
My parents raised my siblings and I to be fiercely independent and I love that. I also should have focused on how my mother and father leaned on others for help.
One of my Fuqua team members, Christiana, gave me the direct feedback to lean on the team more. This summer, as I was navigating my internship and the impacts of COVID-19, I had to ask for help.
When grappling with complex school issues, I had to lean on my co-president (Mike Treiser) even more. I could not hold myself to the standards of perfection during an extremely imperfect and daunting time. I had to be vulnerable and there was true strength in that.
The biggest leadership lesson I’ve learned thus far is how to mobilize a team and play to its strengths. I may be good at marketing, but Becky Mayes is even better. I may be awesome at relationships, but Tanya Panicker is probably ten times better. And that is okay.
It’s not a race for adoration or kudos. I think about how well I’m empowering others and giving them the space to do what they do best. As someone who also “reports” into a co-president, I also learned how to step back from always speaking up and to also be a follower.
It’s imperative to know when to lead, when to follow, when to make the hard choices, and when to bring others in.
I am proud to have made a name for myself here at Fuqua in the Diversity and Inclusion circles. And this is introduced me to countless others. As mentioned, the work is emotionally exhausting. I still waver on if I want to pursue this vocation in a full-time role.
However, it is also incredibly rewarding. The people you surround yourself with, who see and embrace the vision, and that help you make the work happen are just as important.
I was born in Nigeria, grew up in Philadelphia and cut my teeth in the corporate world of Vanguard. But it was Fuqua that helped me mature. I feel not only prepared but excited for the next chapter.
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