From Susan Cain’s “Quiet”

“Williams also identifies leadership training as a primary benefit of cooperative learning. Indeed, the teachers I met seemed to pay close attention to their students’ managerial skills. In one public school I visited in downtown Atlanta, a third-grade teacher pointed out a quiet student who likes to “do his own thing.” “But we put him in charge of safety patrol one morning, so he got the chance to be a leader, too,” she assured me.
This teacher was kind and well-intentioned, but I wonder whether students like the young safety officer would be better off if we appreciated that not everyone aspires to be a leader in the conventional sense of the word – that some people wish to fit harmoniously into the group, and others to be independent of it.”

I read this last night when I couldn’t sleep, yet was slowly drifting off, and it reminded me of some work evaluations I have had.  Now, I accept criticism pretty well.  I don’t like being told I’m wrong when I don’t think I am, but I accept criticism, constructive criticism, fairly well.  I know my own shortcomings and if someone can help me either get around them or correct them, then I am all ears.  And I know when it’s good advice (especially when I don’t follow it and I should have).

But I went into an evaluation a year or so ago and my then supervisor, I think, started the conversation with: “You are not a leader”.  I was so shocked by that statement.  I don’t ever remember telling him that I wanted to be a leader.  I don’t remember ever doing anything to indicated that might be something I was desirous of that season.  In fact, I think I’d once told him – on an extremely awkward date months earlier – that I had no intention of seeking a leadership position within our company.  That particular season I didn’t want to be a leader.

A person in our company, even if they are not a supervisor, can absolutely be a leader.  Returning staff are meant, to a degree, to be leaders for the new staff to follow: I’m all about doing this, it’s how I learned the job and it isn’t a task I shy away from.  Our new staff members that season, I took an active interest in them and was friendly and, hopefully, I led, to a degree, by example.  But there were so many returning staff that season that I didn’t have to be a stand out leader.  Other seasons, when I’ve worked on smaller staffs, I’ve stepped up and been a more proactive leader, teaching and guiding and explaining things to new staff as needed.  That particular season my “leadership” wasn’t necessary.  (He also, in the same conversation, praised me for always being willing to do what was needed.)

I won’t lie, I was laid back that season.  I took it a little easy.  It may have been a little because I’d started dating the TMM that season; it may have been a little because the last time my supervisor and I spoke before I arrived on site that season was an awkward conversation earlier in the summer and all fall I didn’t know where I stood with him and I wasn’t brave enough to confront him about it; but mostly it was because I never wanted to be a leader.  I wasn’t looking for that responsibility.  It was really nice that entire year I didn’t feel like I had to be anyone’s mentor (not that I mind doing it for new staff, but sometimes it can get overwhelming when, you know, it’s not in your job description).

I never claimed to be a leader.  I never aspired to be a leader the way I’m almost positive my middle child, borderline ADD, extroverted supervisor meant the term “leader”.  I wasn’t even sure why we were talking about my “leadership skills” in my evaluation.  And I’m still not certain why he said it as if this was news to me.  And it was coming on the heels of my previous evaluation where my then supervisor wrote, and I paraphrase, “that people overlook me because I’m so quiet”.  (Which I also find interesting when we encourage our teachers not to ignore the quiet kid and to remind our students that we really need to listen to everyone in the group because if we don’t listen to everyone’s ideas we might miss out on an even better idea, etc, etc.)  These two statements, clearly, have stuck with me; mostly because I don’t agree with them.

Amongst my peers, my fellow teachers, I have more than my fair share been looked to for leadership.  Which is sometimes OK, but often crap; because it usually meant we had a bad supervisor.  I remember what it was like to walk into this bizarre world in which we live and how overwhelming it can be and I was able to survive it, in part, because I wasn’t going through it alone (seven of our ten staff my first season were new); but mostly there are one or two new people on the staffs I’ve worked with and I have always done right by the new person, and even the returning staff when they need the support of their fellow teachers — and they have been there for me.  That is a form of leadership.  Just being there for the people you work with — especially in a setting where you also live together.  I never want to be the loudest person in a room, and I don’t think it’s fair to say that because a person isn’t the loudest person in the room, or doesn’t jump at the chance to lead activities, that means they don’t have “leadership skills”.

Ps. I’m finding this book very empowering.


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