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Success through failure

December 22, 2014

A blog post from SOLES Ambassador and MA in Nonprofit Leadership and Management, Desiree Del-Zio:

The University of San Diego qualifies itself as a change maker university and rightfully so. The culture of the campus is rooted in self-reflection and self-awareness challenging both students and faculty members to consider the role they play in their choices and decision making; academically, professionally and personally. I am a graduate student earning a degree in Nonprofit Leadership and Management through the School of Leadership and Education Sciences. At the close of each semester students are tasked with completing a reflection paper in which they review the semester in consideration of the leadership opportunities that were capitalized on and that were possibly missed. Through this task, at the end of the Fall 2014 semester, I was once again afforded this moment of thoughtful consideration and realized that USD has changed and continues to change the person I am.

As my leadership capacity develops through the study of the science of leadership I find myself considering the meaning of terms such as: mental models, getting on the balcony, managing expectations, thinking politically, purpose and task, content and process, boundaries and risk, technical solutions, adaptive challenges, shared vision and work avoidance. These concepts are an active part of my learning and aptitude of this subject matter. However, it is not always in the exercising of these aspects of leadership that I grow academically, professionally and personally but through failing to exercise these aspects of leadership that I grow. I realize this seems counter-intuitive as we often think of failure as opportunity lost as opposed to opportunity gained. But I challenge that thinking and suggest that through my graduate studies at the University of San Diego and in SOLES I have learned and continue to learn that I often gain as much knowledge through opportunities lost as I do through opportunities gained.

A recent example is a semester of tremendous academic and professional growth. Without writing out a great deal of detail I recently completed a rather laborious and time intensive group project. This included community outreach, data collection, data analysis, documentation preparation and multiple presentations. These were vitally important tasks, the completion of which was necessary for course completion and academic and professional development – all of which I can say confidently I walked away with. However, we do not become change makers nor do we change the world around us by simply completing tasks. We become change makers by truly understanding our environment, recognizing the strengths and challenges of the self and other and capitalizing on what is available to us at any given time in our work. To do otherwise is to avoid the “beneath the surface” work of a group project. For these purposes, the “beneath the surface” work is defined as creating a cohesive team that shares a vision, communicates effectively, learns to lean into one and other for support and accomplishes the task(s) as one. As confidentially as I state that I completed the tasks of the course work successfully, I state with equal confidence that I failed to engage in the work of a change maker and in this missed opportunity came my growth, learning and ability to change myself and others. In reflection I am aware that there were moments in which leadership was desperately needed and subsequently ignored. This led to additional work, resentment toward team members and opportunities for growth that were not capitalized on when they were needed most. As a result tasks were completed but our purpose lacked clarity and shared vision.

To share vision is to individually find our way to a “balcony” perspective (see multiple moving parts of the system synchronously), recognize our own mental models of how we envision the world while simultaneously seeing the purpose in the task. We strive to master our own “work” through self-awareness while creating a space for the team to learn as one collective and inspired unit. Through these efforts we manage the environment within which the vision exists, meeting group members where they are at and collectively working toward a common goal. All group members must be honored in this process and leadership comes in knowing what and who makes up the system within which they function. My focus on the task this past semester produced quality work and that is a noble and worthy effort, the product of which I am quite proud. However, failing to use the opportunity to create a shared vision and leadership within my group reminds me that the purpose of shared vision, cohesive and effective communication, leaning into one and other for support and accomplishing the task(s) as one cannot be forsaken in honor of the final product. The ends simply do not justify the means.

To be a change maker is to change from within and to embrace the idea that we are lifelong learners. To be a leader, bringing to life a culture of change making we must first recognize that leadership is not an achievement, it is a collective process. It is the thoughtful awareness of what is possible and the creation of a space for self and others to achieve that possibility. It is about seeing, feeling and holding an idea or ideas within a collective domain that brings that idea to life. But most of all leadership does not belong to someone, it is not something you own or something you are. It is something you create and re-create as you breathe into its extraordinary potential. It is as delicate and elusive as to have the power to appear and disappear before our very eyes. Leadership is an ability to possess enough humility to admit that you are only the leader that you allow yourself to be. And in this spirit I assert that the recognition of missed opportunities to serve in a leadership capacity is, in and of itself, a powerful act of leadership making it possible to find success in failure. On your path to becoming a change maker I challenge you to go forth and identify your failures, use them to empower your future and find the success in your missed opportunities.

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