What I learned about leadership from a 16-year-old

By Deb Siverson, CPCC, PCC, WBE | President Xponents, and CWCC Member

I sit on a rock, high above the desert floor, looking at a view that is expansive and endless.  I was here on this very spot two nights ago, with a group of young women who are on the verge of being emancipated from the foster care system in the state of California.  It was the first of a five-day leadership program and along with my co-leaders, I had spent the day creating a safe environment so that these young women could open up and share what they most wanted for their lives.  Our objective during this retreat is for each of them to see their gifts and talents and begin to create a vision for their future. The work is intense and deeply satisfying. I get to witness these amazing young women begin to believe that they can let go of the pain and disappointment of the past and dare to dream of a life full of possibilities.

Before we made the trek to the “Big Rock” two days ago at sunset, we asked each girl to answer the following questions in their journals: “What are you willing to leave behind” and, “What are you willing to step into on your journey to being a leader?”  Then, one by one, they made the 10-minute walk in silence to the top of the wooded hill.  For many of the girls who live in the inner city, this is the first time they had been in nature.  They worry about snakes, mountain lions, and bugs.  I wonder how that can be worse than the danger they face every day.  One of the girls had shared with me how her brother had been killed, execution style, in a gang related incident, and that at the funeral they returned to “kill him again in his coffin.”

When we reached the top of the hill, one by one, we asked each of them to step forward and share their responses to the questions they had been pondering.  A small group of us witnessed them let go of pain, resentment, fear, and their old ways as they crossed through a gate that nature had provided.  This letting go was followed with a declaration of “being confident,”  “knowing I deserve to be happy,” and “believing I can have a future.”

As they finished sharing what they wanted for their new life, we led them around the “Big Rock” where possibilities seemed to open up, and go on and on forever in a vista that was big and bold and beautiful.  It was breathtaking at the end of the day when the light has that ethereal quality.  All the girls were awed by the majesty of the moment. One of them stood taking it all in with tears of joy running down her face and said, “I didn’t know I could feel so happy.”

I can’t even imagine what it is like to let go of anger and resentment when you have lived in a dozen or so foster homes by the time you’re sixteen. How do you turn the corner and believe you’re special when you have so seldom been told or treated like you’re special?   And yet here are these resilient and tenacious women, who trust us with their greatest fears and their heartfelt dreams.  It seems that lately I am constantly learning lessons about knowing when to let go.  Recognizing the need to make changes and taking consistent actions that will create a different outcome is not easy.  I never want to forget what I learned about leadership from a sixteen year old girl.  I pray I remember the look on her face as she stood on the mountain’s ledge each time I complain about how things are, or wish that my life was different.  I hope I step through my own personal gate again and again, as I shed the skin of my old self and recreate how I conduct my life anew.

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