Serving with College Possible was my first time working in an office bigger than 15 people (in fact, much bigger with 171 staff and AmeriCorps members in Minnesota alone). As a recent graduate, I started out feeling very unconfident in such a comparatively large setting and was convinced that my introversion and shyness made me unsuited for leadership. But my service project’s requirements and my interactions with College Possible staff inspired me to focus on developing my leadership skills during my year of service. While I still have a great deal more to learn, the past year and a half has transformed the way I lead and made me more effective in serving my community.
Through my experiences, I’ve learned that the connections and opportunities for AmeriCorps members to develop as leaders are rather unique. Some of these opportunities are clearly named, like serving as a representative of your program on the Minnesota InterCorps Council (ICC), a body made up of Corps members collaborating to put on events and create resources for AmeriCorps members in Minnesota. Through the ICC, representatives can build relationships with Corps members and civically-minded professionals, including our ServeMinnesota program advisor (!). If participating in a statewide committee isn’t your thing, there are many leadership opportunities within your own AmeriCorps services sites – for example, participating in workplace committees or helping to organize events for your organization.
However, I must say that the best part of trying to grow your leadership skills during service is that AmeriCorps roles are inherently oriented toward doing exactly that. Whether in a direct service role or as a VISTA member building capacity behind the scenes, AmeriCorps positions will help you advance what I define as the core leadership skills: emotional intelligence, influencing, honesty, persistence and agility.
This is the ability to judiciously self-reflect, listen and empathize with the community that you serve as well as other members of your team and organization. After spending a year or more on a project serving others and better understanding their lives, it’s difficult not to grow in this area.
Traditionally, leading is thought of as giving orders, but building cooperative relationships requires more subtle communication skills than just being authoritative or charismatic. In my role as a VISTA leader, I need to use clear language to facilitate trainings and advocate for myself and my team. Other direct service positions, like College Possible coaches, use language to build trust with and empower the students they’re working with.
This skill doesn’t just mean being truthful with your supervisor, you also need to be honest with yourself. There are times during service where you need to take a step back and ask, “Can I realistically take on this task and do it well?” Consistently doing so for your true, non-idealized self is difficult and the mark of a good leader.
Service is difficult, largely because we work on challenging issues like homelessness, addiction and unemployment – just to name a few. The work is also incredibly rewarding, but getting to that emotional payoff and community impact means pushing through some tough projects and circumstances.
Lastly, agility entails both adaptability and initiative in equal measure. It’s a cliché that nonprofit employees wear a lot of hats, but it’s also very true. Today, organizations of all types need employees willing to flit from one thing to the next to support team efforts. Being agile will let you take the huge volume of things you learn during service and act on it in a constructive and organized fashion.
From my experiences, I believe that serving as an AmeriCorps member is a particularly good way to develop your leadership skills. For me personally, this development has helped me overcome my shyness in the workplace, take greater ownership in my projects, and has made my service more enjoyable overall. Whether you’re beginning your career or joining with years of experience behind you, a year of service can give you the space to reshape yourself through intentional practice to become a better leader in your community and professional life.
By Zayn Saifullah
An earlier version of this article appeared on ServeMinnesota’s Blog.