Director, Center for Family Involvement at Virginia Commonwealth University
In the fall of 2015 – at the beginning of the clichéd “midlife crisis,” when I was questioning life and career choices— I received an email about a family leadership experience offered by AMCHP. Going into the 10-month Family Leaders Cohort (FLC) in early 2016, I felt both excited and anxious.
I had served as my state’s family delegate for over six years. Although I had a collegial relationship with the state Title V office, it had typically reached out to me only when writing its Maternal and Child Health Bureau applications and needs assessments. I knew enough to know that I didn’t have full knowledge of maternal and child health programming and evidence-informed practices. In 2016, I was also a member of my organization’s leadership team and had been in a leadership role for 17 years – supervising 22 parents and people with disabilities on staff, writing grants, and directing 18 state and federal grants that totaled over $4 million.
Then the FLC changed my life. Through the stretch assignments, monthly webinars, and peer mentorships, I learned to particularly value two important concepts: the difference between being a manager and a leader, and the importance of humility.
I had long viewed leadership as a role rather than a set of behaviors that inspire others to achieve their unique success. As a manager, I exist in the present: maintaining status quo, keeping things stable, and making decisions according to a plan. Through the FLC, I learned that leaders exist in the future, and as a leader, I needed to create discomfort, push boundaries, and take action to accomplish my vision. I was fearful of stepping fully into the leadership void and must have been confusing the people around me with my flip-flopping between those two realms!
I was raised by two very independent people. I am proud of my independence – taking care of my own needs, assuming responsibility for my own decisions. Being the mother of a child with disabilities somehow gave me superpowers. For example, I had given birth to my daughter, Brooke, at 28 weeks gestation. Other moms take 40 weeks but not me!
As a family advocate, I had become used to wearing a “supercape.” My supercape, invisible to others, was a façade of everything I told myself I had to be. While wearing it, I became more patient, more organized, and more well-read. (I now know special education law and long-term care service regulations backwards and forwards!) I also wore my supercape as a deflector shield so I could handle all the reports and the meetings where negative and degrading comments were made about all the things Brooke failed to do and wouldn’t do in the future.
However, one of the most pivotal moments in the FLC experience for me was a discussion about supercapes. Through the support of the FLC cohort, I came to realize that while I cannot and should not burn my supercape – I love Brooke and she is worthy of my best effort, all I have to offer – maybe I can leave it in the closet more often. To be honest, it was exhausting running as though my tank was on full all the time. And, the reality is, Brooke loves me because I am perfectly imperfect. She likes me best when I wear my cloak of humility. When I practice humility, I don’t spend time putting myself down; rather, I find humility lifts me up and silences the voice of my ego.
Where am I now? It’s been about 10 months since I completed the FLC experience. It was an intense learning journey – I had to go through the muck of my life to recognize and take stock of my fears, leadership talents, and emotional intelligence, and to recognize my capacity to lead – regardless of position within an organization, or a setting. I realized some of my inaction caused those around me to stall, so for my FLC project I developed a mini staff leadership academy for the people I supervise and my colleagues on the leadership team. Conversations began to look different when I approached the table with humility, and it began to rub off onto others.
My current colleagues and I admit we don’t know all the answers. We co-power by recognizing that each person at the table brings something different and has value: some have power in educational or scientific knowledge, and others hold power in personal history and preferences. I have built trusting relationships and am co-leading a medical neighborhood initiative with the state Title V and AAP offices. I was honored to be asked to serve as a mentor for some parents accepted to this year’s FLC. I owe AMCHP so much for what it gave to me. Giving my time and constructive feedback to other parent leaders and helping them determine who they want to become is the least I can do.
Dana Yarbrough: Super Capes and Cloaks of Humility from Center for Family Involvement on Vimeo.