SheLeads: Strengthening Your Territory of Influence


My earliest memories of my own emerging leadership leanings began in the 1970’s when, as a young elementary student attending Tuesday night girls’ club meetings, I was the pig-tailed brunette with her hand thrust into the air desperately wanting to be picked to recite her weekly bible verse first or answer the leader’s question with enthusiasm, fairly certain I was correct and never wanting to be overlooked.

While I was never explicitly taught that girls could do anything that boys could, having grown up in a family of four girls, I innately knew that this was true for me. My parents were not particularly progressive, but nevertheless, I found myself regularly accompanying my father around the neighborhood, either inviting virtual strangers to hear the Good News at a special rally being held at our church or canvassing on behalf of the local political candidate my dad wanted to help get elected. Loaded with wooden placards, we would travel throughout our city in our brown station wagon on evenings and weekends, pounding those heavy signs into street boulevards and neighbors’ lawns and then retrieving them weeks after the election, storing them in our garage until the next election rolled around.

It seems that activism and influence were imprinted in my very bones. I think my father saw that in me and nurtured and strengthened those qualities throughout my formative years.

I attended my first national political convention at 14, shaking hands with our then Prime Minister and igniting inside of me the possibility that I, too, could be someone who not only helped people achieve success through elected office but who also actively engaged in the process, influencing real change in my community and country.

At the same time, the parallel track of influencing change in my faith community was unfolding. While the Baptist church I attended was not enthusiastically affirming to women in leadership, I nevertheless found myself occupying positions of leadership in our youth group, teaching in Sunday School and mid-week programs, as a summer camp intern and, eventually, on deacons’ boards and strategic planning committees.

Leadership was all around me and I was being drawn towards and invited into it.

Therefore, it surprised no one that I studied political science in University and began working for political parties and government officials soon thereafter.

With each new job or election, I was being shaped by the leaders I encountered, the committees I chaired and co-chaired and the men and women I observed from the back of the conference rooms within which I was standing.

And while I worked for a woman who would make history as the first female prime minister in our country, the stained-glass ceiling in the church I was faithfully serving in for over 20 years was not showing any cracks.

Two steps forward, one step back.

But here’s what I have discovered. Being a person of influence is not connected to a position of leadership.

While I was working hard to break down barriers in the spaces and places I found myself working, I was also attending grad school and seminary to get the credentials to take on those who would oppose my leadership based on my gender or lack of qualifications. I falsely believed that their recognition of who I was and what I was capable of doing–even though I was already immensely qualified–mattered more than what I inherently knew to be true.

I was already a person of influence and influence was the key that separated leaders from those who lead.

And I wanted to lead.

Not because of credentials, but because of my credibility. Not because I worked harder or faster or smarter than everyone else, but because I lived out of my values and I engaged the world with an intentionality that framed how I showed up in every relationship I developed, every project I undertook and every commitment that I followed through on.

Influence is embedded in trust.

And I believe that trust is the core competency for anyone who aspires to influence change.

And, not so surprisingly, trust begins with ourselves.

We have to know what trust is and is not. We have to have a clear idea of what trust-building behaviors are and hold ourselves and others accountable to those standards. We have to know what trusting ourselves looks like day in and day out. And we have to be in relationship with ourselves and others to actually test this out.

Can I share an example? I worked in an office in my 20s with a terrific group of women that were smart, competent and team oriented through and through. We were having a farewell party for one of our colleagues and my colleague, and good friend, and I were coordinating the event. She was in charge of food, and I was in charge of decor. An hour before the luncheon, I ran out and got more food because I was worried we did not have enough. My girlfriend wiped the tears from her eyes as she brushed past me after the luncheon was over.

I blew it.

I was more concerned with how I would have been perceived if we ran out of food rather than trust the relationships and responsibilities we had already agreed upon. My ego got in the way. It took a sincere apology, a few months and new opportunities in order for her to trust me enough to rebuild our relationship.

I needed to trust her and her excellent skills to get the job done. I also needed to trust the process that, even if we both blew it, even it was a terrible event, that we would all recover from our mistakes and move forward. And I needed to trust myself that I could, in fact, trust others to rise and fall on their own without my intervening.

If you want to lead change in the world, leverage your influence. If you want to enlarge the territory of your influence, cultivate trust. Be trust-worthy. Engage in trust-making behaviors. Be a person who keeps their word. Be a person who is honest and humble in expressing their honesty. Expect trust from yourself and others. Give multiple opportunities to exercise trust. Examine yourself regularly to see where trust is being compromised.

For all those years I was engaged in the battle for positions of leadership I knew I was qualified for, I consistently lived out of my values of trust, justice, carpe diem, communication and faith. In doing so I was the one hired to work for a former prime minister privately, invited to serve on non-profit boards, asked to baptize the young adults I taught and perform their wedding ceremonies long after I was their pastor. I have been asked to teach, preach, mentor, cry with those who mourn, laugh with both teenagers and great grandmothers and keep the confidences of strangers and my closest allies, alike.

“Becoming a leader is synonymous with becoming yourself. It is precisely that simple and it is also that difficult.” Warren Bennis

We must still break down barriers to leadership for women in all fields. Those glass ceilings are not going to shatter themselves. But at the same time, do not neglect the influence you already have in the places and spaces you inhabit right now. Cultivate your inner leadership, know your values, examine the trust factor of your daily behaviors and know that influence trumps positional leadership every time.

And that is what separates leadership from one who truly leads.