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Lessons in Leadership, From the Captain's Chair

April 1, 2019

I am now at the point in my life where I am, however ungracefully, blossoming into a Fully Fledged Adult, even though I look like a 16-year-old.

Indeed, I’ve had the same undercut haircut since I was 15, and with the exception of a few new freckles, my face has stayed exactly the same, but no matter! I’m now 22 years old, and I have begun to realize how colossally different I am from my freshman self.

I have a vague idea of what it is that cool kids listen to nowadays (though I am a big Mitski fan), my sartorial aesthetic wavers from “Local Bog Monster” to “well-tailored garbage bag from The Matrix” and, apparently, according to some of my friends, “Benedict Cumberbatch.” I constantly crave spicy food, strands of my hair are turning sandy blonde and grey, I watch horror movies alone without having to look up the plot first on Wikipedia, and I now watch Star Trek like I’m trying to catch up on roughly 50 years of media at once (which is exactly what I’m doing).

At almost breakneck speed, I’ve turned into what feels like a dramatically older rendition of myself, someone that I knew I would probably evolve into one day, but never seriously considered how it would all unfold.

In discerning the conditions for these signs of aging that have cropped up over the last few months, I’ve realized that they coincide with my stepping into more leadership roles on campus. It’s like I’m witnessing my own gradual transformation into Patrick Stewart’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard on Star Trek: The Next Generation, Animorphs book cover style (I really hope some other ’90s baby reading this remembers the Animorphs books). And that isn’t a bad thing—I welcome the experience of growing older and having a better handling on the various obstacles that life throws me without reprieve. And my experiences as a leader in different organizations has been, on the whole, immensely satisfying and rife for personal growth. 

It’s strange for me now to remember that in high school, I considered myself a “quiet leader,” one that wasn’t the loudest voice in the room, or even the most visible, but carried a grounded sense that was helpful to the other quieter kids. I was assertive when I needed to be, and I enjoyed public speaking, but I treasured my alone time.

At Oberlin, it’s amazed me how comfortable I’ve become with taking the lead on organizing events or other activities, a departure from my former self as a “quiet leader.” In other words, I’ve become an active leader, one that runs weekly meetings, orchestrates many moving parts at once, and has a certain vision for where I want my organizations to go. I have been fortunate enough to have had some older friends who modeled a great array of different types of leadership before I stepped into positions of my own. I don’t think I would have become quite as confident in myself if I didn’t have peers who reached out to me first. 

To go back go my past life as a quiet leader, I’ve found that I am much more verbal now (and officially an extrovert, according to a Myers-Briggs test). Communication is often a necessary part of being a leader, and more often than not, when I am speaking, I am asking for the opinions of the people I am working with. This may sound like a bit of an oxymoron, but I’ve found that the input of others is especially helpful because they often reach conclusions that didn’t occur to me. To return back to Star Trek, instead of being Captain Kirk, who often makes rash decisions without consulting his crew, I have evolved into the more collaborative Jean-Luc Picard, Shakespearean musings and all. Or, if you’re more of a Marvel Cinematic Universe person, recall how singular Thor was in his first two movies, as opposed to the help that he gets from Valkyrie, the Hulk, and Korg in Ragnarok. Friends just make everything better!

There’s no single factor that led to this personal change, but what I think laid the groundwork for my development as a leader is Oberlin’s small size, and the freedom that college affords in general.

Oberlin was small enough for me to not get lost in as a first year, while also large enough for me to keep discovering new things about my school in my senior year. With the size of school in mind, event planning for organizations requires a small team of people (or even one person, as I have planned things by myself before, though I don’t necessarily enjoy it) who all must contribute their efforts in order for something to happen.

I would say the experience of planning events with a group of people at Oberlin, such as bringing in a guest lecturer, a film screening, or a community block party, is like if everyone in the group were standing in a circle, holding a piece of string between all of them, and each feeling the tug of the other people around them. We rely on each other to get things done, and I think this room for accountability makes for student leaders that value each other’s skills.

These lessons in leadership have been enormously impactful in helping me understand that I do not always need to be in control. My experiences with aging thus far have made me comfortable with taking a step (or three) back, and that I do not need to have all the answers to the future at once when I can’t yet see what the questions are first.

This has allowed me to better focus on the present, and to enjoy what time I have left. While this does not mean that I am no longer proactive or taking initiative on things, I am approaching this next phase of my life without the anxiety I felt when I was younger. 

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