In the summer of 2010, I spent two months in Los Angeles as part of the CASIC internship program run by the Center for Asian Americans United for Self Empowerment. Out of the blue at the second internship meeting, I was nominated by my peers to lead the project of writing a social media handbook. Having always preferred to take a back seat in group work, my sudden and unexpected leadership role was a bit nerve wracking. Suddenly, I found myself directing, organizing and motivating nine other interns. Not knowing quite how to handle the situation, I entered the first project meeting as leader completely unprepared and left feeling defeated. Being a leader during my two months as a CASIC intern was my toughest challenge to date.
During the project meeting, I lacked confidence, spoke vaguely for fear of being wrong and relied on others to make the decisions for me. Feeling defeated after the first meeting was a sobering experience and it made me reflect on my past group work experiences. I cobbled together a basic leadership framework after some reflection and continually tweaked it as my leadership experience developed. By the internship’s end, I ended up with something that was simple and effective but difficult to follow.
Taking a page from the Army commercials, I decided I needed to lead by example, when those deadlines started to get missed or simply ignored. After all, why would I expect my fellow interns to meet their deadlines if I was not meeting them myself? Being the leader of the group meant I was responsible for the short comings of the project as well as its successes. When the chair of the nonprofit grilled the team or a distinguished guest asked about our project, I was the one to step up and answer their questions. This bought me respect and credibility with the other interns which allowed them to trust my judgment.
The most important thing was my respect for the other interns. Friends joked that I would power trip as project leader, but I knew better. The truth was that I did not have any real power and the only way I was going have any authority was through mutual respect. To do this, I needed to be open to suggestions, mindful of others’ opinions, recognize achievements and acknowledge when someone knew more than me. Once the other interns saw that their opinions and suggestions were valued and taken into account, the awkwardness of taking orders evaporated and the formation of a team identity began.
At the end of the eight weeks, the finished social media handbook was a source of pride for the whole team. The smiles and warm embraces during the graduation ceremony meant that I did not burn any bridges during the project. All these were signs indicated to me that I successfully fulfilled my role as project leader.
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