By Ailish Rhoades ’19
2020 was a big year for women leadership. Not only did 2020 mark 100 years since the ratification of women’s voting rights in the United States — we got to see the fruit of our ancestors’ labors with so many women moving mountains across the country. Amidst a global pandemic, human rights crises and a monumental presidential election, we saw women at the front lines fighting to make history while female nurses held the hands of COVID patients and worked in labs to create vaccines. Stacey Abrams may just be one of the most influential women of the year for her work boosting Georgia’s voter turnout, and let us not forget the iconic moment Kamala Harris became the first woman (and woman of color, may I add) vice president in American history.
Women’s leadership has been at the forefront of many conversations over the past few years and is the ultimate aspiration we at Sweet Briar have for each of our students. That being said — what does being a leader truly mean? It’s a loaded question that I wanted to unpack the only way I know how: by speaking with women whom I adore that epitomize what being a strong and influential leader looks like. Reesa Artz ’22 and Siena Annable ’22 are two students who never cease to amaze me. Their ideas, involvement and the impact they have on Sweet Briar as a whole are admired by the entire community, and they immediately came to mind when I started prepping this piece. It was such a treat getting to speak to them, and I hope you all pull as much inspiration from these two as I continuously do.
Here at Sweet Briar we put great emphasis on building strong, confident and capable leaders. That being said, what does it truly mean to be a leader? Reesa summed it up beautifully when she explained to me that “there is no right way to be a leader, rather it is up to the individual to define what it uniquely means to them and then making the conscious decision to embody those qualities.”
I have to admit that I have a tendency to think that I need to be at a certain place in my life and career in order to be a true leader, but Reesa so eloquently reminded me that you can implement positive change wherever you are in life. In her role as president of Sweet Briar’s Campus Events Organization (CEO) she strives to create fun and positive activities to provide a sense of community during what has been such a challenging year. She and the other members of CEO successfully put together more than 100 on-campus events during the fall semester alone, which not only had significant impacts on the happiness and well-being of our students but cultivated a sense of normalcy after months of such instability. Reesa’s approach to leadership is so deeply empathetic in the sense that her goals and ambitions revolve around this desire to take care of others. This theme of compassion seems to be present in the most influential leaders which made me question my own definition of leadership. Does it take more than a strong, commanding presence to be a strong leader?
After speaking with Siena I believe that I found my answer. I really resonated deeply with Siena’s definition of leadership and am constantly inspired by her sheer talent for eloquently approaching topics and conversations that quite honestly make the introvert in me sweat. Siena told me that leadership to her is, “using your platform to bring people up.” “It is approaching difficult and uncomfortable situations with a level of respect and welcoming differing views; not shaming them but instead starting a respectful dialogue,” she said. Siena told me that respectful dialogue needs to be standard practice and that it is when you provide materials and spread knowledge that true movement can be made. “To be a leader is to bring educated, factual information to a conversation instead of being entirely emotionally driven and opinion-based.” This got me thinking about how many times I have approached important conversations with the wrong mindset. It is difficult to keep emotions at bay when you are so passionate about the topic at hand, but as Reesa says, “the goal is to be fully authentic, yes, but every feeling has a time and a place, and we have to be conscious of which situations each belong in.”
Needless to say, these women are brilliant. I was really interested in hearing how Sweet Briar had an impact on their views and involvement because I know that it’s the entire reason for mine. It surprised me actually that their answers closely mirrored each other in the sense that they both expressed how on campus, everyone just wants to see you succeed. Siena really hit the nail on the head when she shared with me that “people here see that you’re willing, and they want to give you those opportunities and open those doors for you.” “That’s invaluable,” she said. Reesa was on the same wavelength when she pointed out that we are all an extension of the five people we surround ourselves with, and when you’re in an environment like Sweet Briar you automatically want to strive to do and be better because that’s what you’re constantly surrounded by. As women, I believe that we feed off of each other, and being at a women’s college is really a blessing in the sense that you are constantly being encouraged to be confident in yourself and be unashamedly ambitious. Not only is that messaging being sung to you constantly, but you are so fully supported in your journey to becoming that version of yourself by people who actively practice what they preach.
It became clear to me after these conversations that to be a leader means a person has to consciously try each and every day to become the best, most educated version of themselves. To be a leader you should possess deep compassion for the people around you, which means learning how to hold respectful conversations. For me, my goal is to become a more active listener so that I can better understand and value the people I am speaking to.
With that being said, I would love to hear from all of you. Is there anything that you would like to work on to strengthen your leadership skills? Have you had any conversations lately with someone who has inspired you, or has led you to think differently about a topic or situation? As always please feel free to send me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org because as we learned today, respectful dialogue needs to be common practice, and I would be honored to cultivate that with all of you. I hope that this month brings you joy, creativity and of course some wonderful conversations. Stay well and I hope to see you on campus very soon!
Ailish Rhoades ’19