I’ve been thinking a lot about leadership over the past year—are leaders born or made? What’s the best way to grow as a leader? How can I inspire my team and guide JPO to new and greater successes? With it being Women’s History Month, my thoughts have also turned to what it means to me as a woman to be a leader and how can I best use the lessons I’ve learned as a woman working in male-dominated fields to mentor the women on my staff.
I’ve always been interested in the concept of leading, even from a young age. I remember my second-grade teacher telling my mom that she wouldn’t have to worry about me being pushed over by the boys, or anyone else for that matter, because I was always the first to volunteer to lead a discussion or activity and could outtalk most adults in the room. I also remember that she wasn’t complimenting me. Being an outspoken elementary school girl in the south in the 70’s had its challenges. Fast forward, and it still has its challenges today. Although, now I’m an outspoken woman on the east coast with an endearing southern accent, or so I’ve been told, who’s found her place as a leader who uses her voice.
My desire to lead comes naturally; I believe I was born with it. And long before I kissed the Blarney Stone in Ireland, professors told me I had the gift of gab. It took time and experience to learn to translate that natural born gift into one of my greatest strengths as a leader. That’s to me the trick, taking what you’re born with and developing those talents into the skills you need to succeed.
The first time I felt like a leader was when I was a special assistant district attorney, and not for the reason you’re probably thinking. I was bothered by how uneven the criminal justice process was; it felt stacked against defendants. Instead of charging multiple misdemeanors and fighting to win a case because that’s what baby prosecutors were supposed to do, I wanted to ask the defendant what I could do to problem-solve the case, preventing him from returning to face another charge. Knowing that I couldn’t do that, I worked to put myself in a position to lead such a change in how we approach justice. I went on to oversee successful reform efforts in pretrial justice, problem-solving courts, prosecutor diversion, early appointment of defense counsel, and procedural fairness training.
Recognizing a problem in the justice system and committing myself to be the one to spearhead change was a defining moment for me. It’s also why I believe everyone has opportunities to lead from where they are, whether it be a first job out of college or the last one before retirement. It’s never too early or too late to start developing your leadership muscles, and it’s critical to not become complacent and stop learning and trying to improve yourself. I’ve always felt that if I’m not learning something every other day, I’m not living.
Whether you are just starting to build your skills or are working to improve your style, I have five tips to help you reach your leadership potential:
- Practice mindfulness. Learning to be mindful helps you to be present in the moment, learn to manage your emotions and handle conflict, and will lead you to be a higher performer as well as a more engaged and approachable leader.
- Be open and honest. I believe transparency is the foundation of a strong team. Your staff won’t trust you if you don’t trust them, and everyone benefits from knowing the lay of the land, whether good or bad.
- Communicate within a framework of respect. It took me time in my career to truly understand that everyone communicates differently and how best to make staff, and colleagues, feel heard, valued, and empowered. It’s simple: come to all interactions from a neutral place, making no assumptions and recognizing that everyone has feelings and those feelings are valid.
- Listen actively. That means listening to others openly and empathetically, without judgment or interruption, and with the intent to understand, process, and respond to the idea expressed, rather than waiting for your turn to speak.
- Be prepared to fail. And if you are in a leadership position, make it safe for your staff to fail.
And since it is Women’s History Month, I’ll end with this final thought for the women on my staff and the women coming up in their careers everywhere: don’t be afraid to use your voice. You don’t have to be the loudest person in the room, but you do have to stand by your convictions and be willing to articulate your vision if you want to lead.
Kim Ball is the director of the Justice Programs Office.