This past year, I’ve had the honour and privilege of serving as president for Apra. It has been an amazing experience. It was also hard! It involved diplomacy, a lot of listening, understanding different perspectives, having awkward conversations, getting people to consensus and the occasional “herding of cats.”
But here’s the thing: The challenges that leadership roles pose should, in fact, be seen as a positive. Think about the last time you did something and thought it was easy. What did you learn? Did you feel a sense of accomplishment or growth? If being president of Apra were easy, I wouldn’t have learned or grown as much as I did.
Most things worth doing are difficult. We learned this early on as children. Do you remember your first time riding a bike? Your parents might have held on to you for a few steps, and then let you go as you pedaled forward. You probably fell over more than once and even scraped your knees. But, your parents encouraged you to keep trying, and eventually you could ride freely through the neighborhood with friends.
Leadership is not unlike learning to riding a bike. You do not become a pro cyclist the minute your training wheels come off. You can’t cross the Alps until you’ve conquered your own neighbourhood. Those things take practice, as well as overcoming challenges along the way.
Think back to a time in your career when you had to have an awkward conversation, make an unpopular decision or admit to a mistake. It was difficult and probably felt uncomfortable at the time, but you learned how to manage those feelings and avoid repeating those mistakes in the future. Lessons were learned and once you got past the discomfort, you became a better leader for it.
Beyond embracing uncomfortable moments, leadership requires listening. It means adjusting your perceptions about situations, thinking from others’ perspectives and letting others shine, too. It’s a complicated but rewarding role that will take you far in life, personally and professionally. And while taking on leadership roles may feel solitary at times, you are never truly alone.
I witnessed this personally during Apra’s first Executive Leadership Cohort, held at Prospect Development 2018 in Pittsburgh earlier this year. One hundred of our Apra colleagues gathered for a day of roundtable discussions focused on four topics: leadership today, influence, advanced career growth and the future of research. We split into smaller groups to allow for intimate discussions, and questions were provided to guide us. I heard from a number of individuals about their successes, exhilarating moments, frustrations and more. Hearing these varied challenges and triumphs was not only a great way to learn new insights, but also gain empathy for my peers. Every now and then, it’s important to pull ourselves away from our daily work and hear from others. We may learn things that surprise us, or at the very least, continue to grow listening skills that are essential to good leadership.
I sat in on a number of the tables that addressed the topic of leadership today, and one question asked what makes a good leader. The answer that came out loud and clear was communication. Good leaders are good communicators. This goes back to the idea of embracing awkward conversations and listening, because communication is more than just talking. A good communicator — and leader — has to be honest with their team, and that may sometimes mean delivering news the team didn’t want to hear.
So how do we become leaders? It doesn’t happen overnight; it takes practice. I believe Apra is a great place to begin “practicing” leadership skills. The association has a number of volunteer opportunities on several committees that fit your skills and interests. What better place to learn how to be a leader than among your peers? This is a supportive community with resources to help you succeed, including other volunteers and Apra staff to guide you along the way. It’s a win-win situation: You’ll be giving back to the profession and the association; lessons you learn along the way will certainly transfer in your own career path.
If you’re up for a challenge — a good, rewarding challenge — I encourage you to seek out volunteer and leadership opportunities within Apra, and take that next step in your professional development journey.
Leadership may be hard, but that’s OK.