This year I decided to challenge myself: how could I become a better employee? That may sound like I’m obsequious, but my motives are rooted in self-interest. If I do a better job, I’ll get promoted and have more accomplishments to add to my resume, which will lead to more money and freedom to do what I want. I have a somewhat altruistic intention as well. I have been blessed to continue in my position as Transportation Scholar at Bandelier for the third year of an initially one-year contract. I want to make the Transportation Scholars program (a non-profit) look good and assure my colleagues that they made the right choice in choosing me. Luckily (again), for me, Bandelier sends employees every year to Leadership Los Alamos (LLA), a nine-month program founded in 2003 “to identify current and emerging leaders in the Los Alamos area, enhance their leadership skills, and deepen their knowledge of the challenges and opportunities facing our community.” I could get instruction on how to be a better leader and employee without even paying for it or doing the research myself. After eight months in the program, I have learned the following 7 lessons from observing effective leadership, studying communication skills, and borrowing from positive psychology.
1. Do things that scare you, not once but regularly
For the first time ever, this year LLA has partnered with Toastmasters. I could tell from our very first evening together that some people already felt comfortable with public speaking, but others (myself included) struggled to communicate in front of groups. Laurie stood out to me because she clearly conveyed her personal story, despite the fact that I could tell she was nervous. During the following months, Laurie has unfailingly volunteered to give speeches during the first hour of our sessions, inspiring the rest of us to push ourselves into uncomfortable terrain. And not surprisingly, she has improved each time.
2. Give and you will receive
One integral component of LLA is the project. Everyone must either initiate or participate in a service project for Los Alamos. I opted to support the Los Alamos Public Schools Foundation as my project, but Nancy found a need not currently served. For Valentines Day, she organized members of her Jazzercize class and colleagues to make gift baggies for the Women’s Shelter. Shampoo, razors, toothbrushes and chocolates were donated in the weeks prior and in the days leading up to February 14th, Nancy “bribed” her friends with appetizers and wine to come to her house and compile the treats. Her worry that people wouldn’t donate items was unfounded. The group had more than three times the needed supply so they also donated to the Santa Fe shelter and gave bags of items besides. As Nancy said, “Women often come to the shelter with nothing. If they were in an abusive situation, they have fled alone or with children.” When she recounted the results that came of her project, we all could tell that Nancy had received more than she had given in time and effort.
3. Sign Off
Many important people participate in the LLA program from across job spectrum. We have Park Superintendents, Project Leaders from LANL, and lowly contract workers (point to self). One of the requests made to the group at the beginning was to not use cell phones or tablets during the sessions. All the presenters are volunteers, and the least we can do to show our appreciation is stay tuned in to their talk, and sign off from our digital life. Even for adults (maybe especially for adults), this is a hard request. In the very first class session, when we were asked to talk about a cause we believe in, Jorge M. said he believed in signing off, or tuning out, to the siren call of digital devices. “I want to tune into my son, and focus on what’s happening right here.” Despite our expectations that leaders promptly respond to every email and be available night or day to our needs, I have found that the best leaders are the ones who will talk to me when I am with them, not making me vie for their attention and feel unimportant.
4. Learn how to say no
There are two components to this lesson: 1) Learn how to say no so that it inspires people instead of turning them off, and 2) Learn how to say no so that you don’t overextend yourself. In regards to the first part, a leader must say no to people sometimes. That’s one of the main functions of leadership, to make decisions, but the way you do this can be positive or negative. My boss, Jason, has set a great example of this by redirecting the no, into, “No, but what about this?” He always has ideas about how to improve the park and thanks to his larger vision of where the park is heading, he can envision opportunities out of failures. The second “no,” is a lesson from one of my favorite researchers who is unrelated to LLA. Dr. Christine Carter encourages us to say “No,” in order to preserve our sanity and commit fully to our current obligations. As a “yes-man,” myself, this is a hard lesson to put into practice, but to be the best employee and leaders possible, I need to do fewer things well, instead of more things poorly.
5. Just Ask
“Even though I’m the boss, that doesn’t mean I know everything,” wrote Jorge L. in a poetry exercise of our Youth Session. He is the superintendent at Valles Caldera and with so many changes as the Valle becomes part of the National Park Service, many people are coming to him for guidance. There is nothing more paralyzing that taking full responsibility for a decision. Asking for help and listening to advice is the most powerful tool a leader can use. Not only does it set the tone of respect amongst co-workers, it also humanizes those in power positions. Again I come back to an example of Jason’s. He and I have both been working on the Transportation Plan for Bandelier but it came to a point where I was more directly involved in the process than he was. Despite the fact that he had been on the project since the beginning, he assigned me to be Project Manager because he recognized my growing aptitude. He was willing to ask for my help, which made him a stronger leader in my view for acknowledging his limits.
6. Set the tone
When I was 17 years old, I spent my summer vacation interning at a women’s advocacy organization called Equality Now in New York city. When reflecting to myself and others about the role I want to play in society, I think back to the example set by the Executive Director, Taina Bien-Aime. I have yet to find another leader of an organization who so fluidly balances authority and camaraderie. Everyone in the office really respected her and deferred to her opinion but at the same time, during office lunches, she was the funniest and more companionable person in the room. She set the tone. Being serious, yet engaging with people on a human level brought out the best in everyone. I realize now that everyone in the office takes their note from the leader.
7. Serve your team
Perhaps the most surprising lesson of my study of leadership is that the best leaders serve their employees (rather than the other way around). If your team has what it needs to do their job, they are happy and productive. Serve them instead of waiting for them to ask for your help. Debbie Huling demonstrates this at every session, feeding us, providing all the structure around the event (facilities, agenda, materials) so that we can focus all our attention and energy on absorbing the information (instead of wondering when we’ll be fed next). Like children, your team needs to know everything is provided for them so they can feel relaxed and get down to the topic at hand.
In summary, when I ask myself where have I improved? What are my strengths? and How am I developing as a leader? I can’t quantify all the small improvements I’ve seen since September. All I can say is that when I get a silent nod of approval from Jason after presenting at a shuttle meeting (last week), or a pat on the back from an unknown Valles Caldera employee after facilitating a particularly agitated group of locals in a listening session (this week), I know I’m on my way to becoming the leader I want to be.