Young women deserve opportunities to explore their leadership potential—especially if they don't seem like natural leaders

Published 4:51 pm Monday, November 13, 2017

“Be who you needed when you were younger.”
I saw these words for the first time in an Instagram post by my friend Micah Whitson, the creative force behind Old Try. His posts are always popular, but this one exploded quickly among Old Try fans, who shared and re-posted it until even celebrities were sharing the words of wisdom.
It’s a powerful idea and something I’ve often considered: If I had a way to go back in time and visit my younger self, what would I say to that little girl?
Would I tell her what lies ahead or just reassure her that no matter what anyone says, she’s capable of going after whatever she wants in life? Would I pretend I don’t remember her awkward preteen years, that I don’t know she goes home most days wishing everything about her was different? Would I tell her to ignore the incessant brain chatter convincing her she’s not smart enough or strong enough or enough enough?
The thing is, I didn’t need that when I was younger, even if it would have been nice to hear.
I was blessed with a family who inspired and encouraged me to pursue the life I wanted. What I wasn’t blessed with was natural organizational skills or the ability to speak in public without praying for a fire drill. My genes came with a penchant for arguing passionately (and loudly) about things I believed in, but biology didn’t teach me the art of debate or how to effectively communicate with someone whose views differ from mine.
Besides, what my parents saw in me wasn’t the same thing my teachers saw at school. I was always an average student who much preferred blending into the background rather than socializing with classmates. (True story: My fourth-grade teacher got so fed up with me bringing a book to recess every day that she made a permanent no-books rule for the entire class.)

Oxford Mayor Robyn Tannehill (Photo: Paul Gandy)

When I heard Oxford Mayor Robyn Tannehill is launching a leadership program for local fifth-grade girls, I was thrilled, particularly when I learned it’s designed for girls who might not stand out as future leaders.
What a concept, and a great one. In my experience growing up, leadership programs and similar opportunities were only designated for students who excelled in and outside of the classroom. This isn’t to say excellence shouldn’t be rewarded—of course it should. But not everyone has the same opportunities or self-confidence to get to that point during their adolescence.
“This program is not about who has the highest scores,” Tannehill told the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal. “I want this class to look the way the real world looks and for us to learn to respect each other and talk through issues and identify what a leader looks like.”
It makes sense that Tannehill, who ran unopposed in Oxford’s mayoral election earlier this year, would launch a program like this. She announced her campaign after years of serving the community through the tourism council and later on the Board of Aldermen. Politics wasn’t something she planned on, but after years of successful service to the city, it was the only thing that made sense to her, and apparently to Oxford voters.
I hope more follow Tannehill’s lead in finding ways to tap into the potential of young women around the state. Discovering and empowering tomorrow’s generation of leaders requires more than identifying young people who fit the most-likely-to-succeed profile at age 10.
“You’re only a leader if you turn around and there is someone behind you,” Tannehill said.
Amen to that.

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