When did you first start thinking of yourself as a leader?
I first started viewing myself as a leader when my late grandmother brought it to my attention in my preteens. In my family, I am the oldest child and oldest grandchild. I recall her constantly reminding me that I was the oldest and had to set an example for my younger siblings and cousins. She would say, “They are looking up to you. So whatever you do, they will follow your lead.” This created accountability on my part to set a good example when it came to education because I wanted family members coming behind me to fully embrace the notion of academic excellence. I saw education as a gateway to world that extended beyond the boundaries of Louisiana. In leading by example, I wanted the younger generation to know that through education, they could explore all the world has to offer them. More importantly, I wanted them to know that they have options in life and have to ability to chart a pathway for success. My grandmother helped me to understand that the best way that I can positively influence and lead those behind me is through action. I understood that I must be the best person I could in order for others to follow. If I’m not giving my best, I can’t expect others to actualize the greatness within them. She helped me to understand that it all starts within, by having self-assurance and self-confidence. Then, lead by example.
What was one of your biggest challenges in leadership and how did you overcome it?
My biggest leadership challenge was leading through a major health crisis. I’ve always been very self-motivated. I also believe that through hard work, consistency, dedication, grit, and resilience, anyone can meet established goals. This way of thinking allowed me to thrive in the workplace and seek opportunities for self-improvement, while supporting the aspirations of people on the teams I’ve led. However, I learned that in the face of physical health challenges it came be difficult to operate at 115 percent. Going through these challenges taught me the importance of prioritizing the things that add the most value, techniques for efficiency, and the importance of self-care. I also learned that leadership also involves asking for help when you need it. I’ve always found it challenging to ask for help because I could always figure out a way to get things done or find answers to questions that would come to my attention. However, when I wasn’t feeling my best, I simply didn’t have the energy to operate at the same capacity. Through that process, I learned that my team really wanted to support the department and assist me as well. This taught we that leadership is truly an interactive process in which all the players on the team lead. In involves trust, open comminution, interdependence, and mutual respect. I was able to lead through this challenge because our entire team had all hands on deck. We, as a team, create an involvement in which we felt accountable and energized when reaching departmental goals. This helped me to refocus my attention to the positive things that were going on and also allowed me to be ok with giving others the opportunity to lead in their areas of strength.
What do you want young women of color to know about leadership?
I would tell them that they can do what’s expected of them in life and be good. However, greatness comes when they take that extra step in everything they do. This means studying that extra hour, having another person review a document to get extra feedback, or taking that one extra class needed for a double major. It’s truly that extra step that sets people apart from the pack. I would also want them to know that they should surround themselves with good people who know more than them and have high goals in life. I truly enjoy being around others that know more than me in different areas because I learn something new every time we meet up. I also believe that being around others that demonstrate a commitment to higher goals is important because they reinforce environments of success. Finally, I would tell them to find a couple of good mentors who are willing invest in their personal well-being. I’ve always had at least one mentor at a time. When selecting a mentor, they should find someone who will hold them to high standards and who will always be honest with them, even when the truth hurts. It’s better to hear the hard truth from a loving friend than false flattery from a stranger.
• LaSheila Yates is executive director of Civil Rights and Chief Diversity Officer for the City of Cedar Rapids.