What does it mean to LEAD?

From the desk of  Lourdes Orlando

What does it mean to LEAD? When I was a teenager, my step-father would tell me to be a leader, not a follower. I listened to him, but half rolled my eyes- it was good advice, don’t get me wrong. He just didn’t want me to fall prey to peer pressure, and that phrase was the easiest way to convey that to me. Lourdes, don’t just do what others are doing. Do your own thing.

The problem with stopping at “be a leader” is that it doesn’t ask you to build on the type of leader you want to be. Take the classic example: if your friend jumped off a bridge, would you? Well, isn’t that a silly question? If you follow my step-dad’s advice, of course you don’t follow- you don’t jump, just because your friend is jumping. But… what if the bridge is on fire? Or what if someone is drowning? What if jumping is really, really fun? And isn’t that what life is about, that “what if…” that leads to something, that requires you to act in some way? Isn’t that what leading really is, beyond simply not following: it’s finding answers to that question, finding the answers that will define who you are as a person? My step-dad wanted to keep me out of trouble with his advice, and I mostly followed that advice.

What’s curious is that I never stopped thinking about what he told me. Years down the line, at 18, 24, and now at 27, I still think of that silly little phrase and think about what it means to “be a leader.” And yet, with all that reflection on that phrase, in so many ways, I was a follower. I follow rules that keep me safe, I followed my peers to university, I followed my friends to parties, I followed authors that I liked and followed advice that ended up causing me joy and pain. I thought about that phrase again, so much, when I followed my dream to go to France, or followed my passion to study philosophy, or followed my heart to work in Rome. Was I just being a follower? Was I being passive in my own life, following things because it was what others were doing? The thought terrified me! I thought of the times I was a leader in my life, setting goals for myself and making sure I made them happen. I told myself I would go to university outside of Florida, and I ended up being the first in my family to go to college. I told myself I would learn new languages, and I became fluent in French, and picked up Italian a few years later. I told myself I’d travel the world, and even though I didn’t have a penny to my name, I fought for that dream and traveled across the US, Europe, and Morocco. Those were things I looked back on and that I was proud of, because in those moments I knew I wasn’t following anyone. I was actively shaping my life, through every struggle, every challenge, I made my way forward towards my goals. But the thing is, as I got older, it didn’t take these grandiose events to make me a leader. I wasn’t a leader because I did charged my way forward towards these goals. I realized I had always been a leader, and that following was part of that. It was in following others that I shaped my life. I started seeing what I wanted to be, what I didn’t want to be. I wanted to actively shape my dreams, yes, but those dreams came to me from looking around, seeing inspiration in the love of my family, the drive of my sisters, and the inspiration of my friends.

It was in this moment of reflection that I felt I understood what leadership was. It wasn’t taking control of your own life by yourself; it wasn’t some solitary charge forward into the future. I realized that what I loved about my life and myself came from the passions that grew from the people I loved and with which I surrounded myself. It doesn’t mean that from one day to the next, I woke up and decided to be Greta Thunberg, or Sonia Sotomayor, or Barack Obama. The thing is, they don’t just wake up and decide to be leaders, either. They work at it every day, following the choices that inspire them, choosing the way they want to live, making those choices every moment of their lives and shaping who they are, and how they want to be. And in truly doing and being what they believe in, they become something more. They become symbols, movers, visionaries; they become what they fought for. That’s what’s beautiful about this realization: we don’t have to be these incredible people, because what makes them incredible is just the love and passion they pour into their own lives.

Being a leader, to me, is loving yourself, taking care of yourself and what you love, and trying, trying, trying, and trying some more to do what you love. I never said it would be easy: I spent days where I did not want to get out of bed, where I was convinced that I could never achieve my dreams. I spent days furious against the world, at how unfair it was, at the cruelty and the violence. There are still days where I feel this way, defeated against the impossibility of it all: the challenges, the obstacles, the sadness. But other days, I try to step back and remember every beautiful thing that I’ve seen, every kindness I’ve been offered. I remembered my dreams and how I transformed them into reality. I think of the dreams that I have for the future, and get excited at the challenge that rises before me. Leadership doesn’t ask you to be the next president, or the first person to go to college, or the next champion of the down-trodden, it just asks for you to take an active role in your life. It’s the bravest thing you can possibly do: when you find the things that move you, the reasons you want to do things, you can move towards them. You’ll find people there who inspire you, who move you forward, who help you, people who have a story to share with you. You’ll see that in following those dreams, you’re transformed into a leader.

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