Every few years, my parents travel to a small village in Uganda where they live for approximately six months at a time as my Dad, a pediatrician, volunteers at a locally run mission hospital. He receives—and deserves!—a lot of credit for the work that he does: it is easy to see the impact that his gentle hands, wise spirit and capable mind have on vulnerable people and communities.
But from an insider’s perspective, it is also easy to see that my dad’s good work is only possible through the much less visible good work of my mom. On a very basic and quite literal level, my mom sustains my dad’s existence while they are overseas. In the developing world, there are no convenience foods, and electricity is spotty, so the stove and refrigerator cannot be counted upon; my mom spends significant amounts of time shopping at the local produce stalls and preparing food each day, only to begin the process anew the next day.
My mom is also the communicator of the duo. She keeps her progeny back home knowing that their parents are alive and well, and she also sends gracious and informative updates to the countless individuals who support my Dad’s volunteer work through donating medical supplies, other needed materials, and financial contributions for patients who can’t afford hospital fees. My mom’s supportive role enables my dad’s hospital work.
It is tempting to critique the dynamic that we see at play here: a woman supporting a man at home so that he can go out and make a difference in the world. While there is certainly a nasty history to this dynamic and it’s one that needs continued examination, I think this critique fails to acknowledge a key principle of next-gen leadership: as the Nexus defines it to be, leadership isn’t about the title you have on your business card or the particular tasks that you perform. It’s a mindset to actively and intentionally choose to lead, and it is measured by your ability to make an impact. A person can actively and intentionally choose to lead in a humble, behind-the-scenes way, and as they do so, they can quietly and tremendously impact people, communities and systems.
It benefits all of us to remember that leadership has many faces. Sometimes leadership involves speaking up at a meeting, and sometimes it involves holding your tongue because you recognize that your words may cause more harm than good. Sometimes leadership takes the form of presenting material to an auditorium full of people, and sometimes its shape is that of the person ensuring that everyone has copies of the handouts and a seat where they can see the speaker.
Good leaders know when to speak up and when to stay silent, when to push for a change and when to let it go, when to make a tough decision and when to support someone else as they make the decision. Balancing these various tightropes isn’t about asking the question of when to lead and when to follow. It’s about recognizing that forging the path, following in the footsteps of another, and maintaining the path are all aspects of leadership.
In other words, having a supporting role isn’t the opposite of leadership; it’s the counterpart. Remembering this will not only empower us to feel confident in the moments when our contributions are not glorified but it will also help us to become better leaders. When we fail to recognize the strength and value of less visible qualities of leadership—endurance, patience, persistence, commitment—we will fail to let them flourish within our lives. And consequently, we stunt our growth as leaders.
We are better leaders—and better human beings—when we recognize that sometimes leadership involves being the star of the show, and other times, it means being the best supporting actress.
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Teresa lives in Providence, Rhode Island, where she works as a Director of Faith Formation at a Catholic Church and dabbles in hospital chaplaincy. She has a BA in English, a Master’s in Divinity, and a passion for thinking about the intersection of spirituality, self-improvement, and well-being. Her perfect day includes slowly savoring a morning cup of coffee, reading for work and for fun, and receiving snail mail.