How the Institute Helped Me Become a Leader

I used to be a shy person. I would seldom volunteer to be a leader or try to influence a group, even if I had ideas about how things should be done. The only leadership role I’ve had was the vice president of my homeroom class in 2nd-grade elementary school. Since then, I’ve always avoided leadership roles. I would either try to influence the group indirectly by being the leader’s confidant or keep my opinions to myself and go with the flow. 

When the Institute announced the practicum teams, I was surprised to see my name as a team lead. My thoughts were racing as I attended a wedding in LA. Why would they pick me as a team lead? I’m not the typical “leader type.” I’m not outgoing, energetic, or encouraging. I’m rather critical, serious, and always think about the worst-case scenario. Who would want a leader like that? Would my team be disappointed? 

After the initial shock, I realized that being chosen as team lead gave me the opportunity for self-reflection. I thought about why I avoided leadership roles all my life, why the Institute might have chosen me, and what kind of leadership qualities I possessed that the Institute saw in me. Even after reflecting on my life and myself, it was difficult to believe that I could become the ideal leader type.

My coach helped me figure out the answers to some of these questions. I told her about the times when I wanted to step up and lead my summer practicum team but felt incompetent to take on that role. Diving deeper, I realized I felt that way because I was fixated on an image of an ideal leader in my head. I didn’t identify with my picture-perfect version of a leader, which kept me from exercising my inherent leadership qualities.

Along with my coaching sessions, a talk with Dr. Rappa helped me gain confidence. He told me that being a leader is not an acting job. You can be a great leader by being yourself, doing what you do well already, and using that to benefit the team.

This challenged my belief that you need to fit a certain mold to be a good leader. I realized that while outgoing and energetic people could be great leaders, those qualities are not required to become a great leader.

Using the many resources the Institute provided, I slowly became more comfortable identifying as a leader. My coaching sessions helped me explore my strengths and weaknesses and come up with strategies to use them for the benefit of the team. Dr. West’s lecture about different leadership styles helped me overcome the fixed idea of a leader and explore what fits me. Peer feedback helped me see things from different perspectives while learning how to collaborate with others.

Even with the abundant resources provided by the Institute, ultimately, I had to learn the lessons myself through trial and error. There were times I felt unsure about a decision or my strategy and didn’t know what to do about it. I still don’t know what to do when there is an awkward silence in a meeting or when everyone looks at me like I’m expected to provide an answer. There are still times when I feel scared to make an executive decision. Every day is a learning experience, and I am grateful for my practicum team, who have helped me grow immensely. Through constructive feedback and honest conversations, they provide a safe environment where I can test out my strategies and learn from them. Thanks to them, I’ve become less scared and much braver as a team lead.

The Institute has been the greatest supporter in my journey so far, providing me with ample resources and opportunities to experiment, learn, and grow as a leader. I have a coach who I talk to every week. The faculty provides support when we face analytical challenges. During the leadership class, I learned about different leadership styles and team-building strategies, which I applied to an actual team setting. Monthly peer feedback helps me recalibrate my strategies. Homework teams are a great opportunity to put myself in the follower’s shoes, while learning from homework team leads. Last but not least, I consistently learn leadership skills from my fellow practicum team leads, who are also striving to lead their teams as best as they can.

My experience has taught me that taking on a big challenge will make you grow. Another thing I learned is that with the right amount of mentorship, taking on a big challenge is less painful and so much more rewarding. The Institute’s carefully designed curriculum ensures that the short period of 10-months is packed with fruitful learning experiences and plenty of opportunities to both fail and succeed in a safe setting. I am tremendously grateful to the Institute for forcing me to step out of my comfort zone by assigning me as a team lead. I don’t think I would have volunteered to take on that challenge myself, but looking back at being a team lead, I wouldn’t change it for the world. 

Columnist: Jiwon Lee