When asked the question, “How do you define a leader,” most of us will quickly respond… vision, influence, communication, positivity, creativity etc., etc., etc.
But, when asked the question, "What does a leader LOOK like,” the response is sometimes slower. Some will say well, there is no special look, it’s about the skills, it’s about the competence, it’s about your presence. However, when you look at leadership in our nation, you will quickly see that leadership does have a look. In the sport community, leadership has a look. And most times leadership does not look like me.
In 2017, I was privileged to lead the USA Delegation of 500+ amazing student-athletes to the World University Games in Taipei City. I was the first female US Head of Delegation in almost 25 years. It was a tremendous experience for our student-athletes. They competed hard, built global friendships, and brought home more than 50 medals. A recurring memory for me during those Games however, was encounters with USA parents, fans and others in the elevator, or at the venues, or in the Athletes’ Village, and seeing my USA gear they would ask, what do you do? My response, I’m the Head of Delegation for the USA Team was often met with visible surprise, sometimes shock, and the clarity-seeking follow up question…”for the whole team…?” and my answer… Yes.
This is not unusual for women and especially women of color. We don’t fit the carefully curated image of “leader” in America. As a result, capable and qualified women have to fight harder for opportunities, and when we finally breakthrough, our leadership is often questioned. Actions taken by men, that are considered strong and decisive, are viewed as overly aggressive, and lacking empathy when delivered by a woman. At all levels, women have stories of overcoming sexism and marginalization. But as leaders, the pressure is magnified. We are described in ways that are unflattering at best and derogatory and dismissive at worst. As the 2020 Presidential election draws closer, you will see that Kamala Harris’ leadership style will be diagnosed and debated, and ancillary characteristics like her posture, the way she walks, how she laughs, will fuel hours of pundit discussion.
So back to the original question. What does leadership look like?
We know the saying “if you can’t see it, you can’t be it.” Self-efficacy refers to the set of beliefs we hold about our own abilities, and is based on personal experience as well as observation of others with whom we identify. This is why barrier breakers are so important in our society. In the world of college sport, those, like Tina Sloan Green, Judy Sweet, Carla Williams, Vicky Chun, Desiree Reed Francois, Amy Huchthausen, Kiki Baker Barnes, Gloria Nevarez, and Candice Storey Lee who step out as the first, not only lead the way for others to follow, but they open our collective eyes, and redefine what leadership looks like!