We sense the rising interest about the roles of women in leadership. In part because of a growing awareness of the value diversity brings to institutions, there’s a call to ensure representation across the board in leadership. This has created more opportunities for women who feel called to lead.
My personal leadership journey has provided a unique opportunity to be the first: the first female and first Hispanic president of Southwestern Adventist University. When I stepped into this role, the idea of being “the first” was not at the forefront of my mind. My focus was on the qualifications necessary to meet the demands of the role and the many responsibilities of the job. When I began to receive an outpouring of support and recognition around the significance of my appointment, I quickly realized that being “the first” was part of my story, and I needed to embrace it with a humble resolve.
In fact, while being the first can be seen as an advantage, it can also carry additional pressures. The standard to perform is set higher. The bar is raised. There’s a need to prove legitimacy. A different set of expectations is established. In addition to aptitude, women in leadership must have the emotional intelligence to maneuver situations in which bias may exist, and move forward to achieve the outcomes necessary to fulfill the vision and mission of their organizations.
In my first year as president, four areas of focus that have been beneficial in have included choice, calling, courage, and community.
Leadership Is a Choice
Many people possess qualities that would make them excellent leaders, but taking on a leadership role is a choice. Making the decision to lead comes with a certain amount of sacrifice. For women, this sacrifice can be especially difficult, depending on the season of life they are in and the roles they play in other arenas. I am a wife and mother to three teenagers. Taking on a demanding leadership role meant sacrificing time and energy previously reserved for my family. Even though we talked as a family about the decision to accept this position, the choice to move forward was one I made. Without the support of my family, it would be very difficult for me to be an effective leader. Their support, however, doesn’t eliminate the sacrifice.
The experience of sacrificing family time or missing important events helps me understand the need for work-life balance and boundaries. It’s something I strive for, but I admit it isn’t easy to attain. I also understand the difficult decisions working mothers face when looking for childcare or dealing with illness. A leadership role allows me to use this understanding as I make decisions for the employees in my care. As women, we have an opportunity to lead with a unique perspective, creating environments that encourage work-life balance, whole-person health, and that meet the needs of families.
The Bible provides instructions on how to approach the responsibility of leading others. We make the choice to lead and are called to do so willingly. “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock” (1 Peter 5:2, 3, NIV).
There will be difficult seasons of leadership that make us ask if the sacrifices are worth it. During these times, remember that you made the choice to answer God’s call, and that He asks us to serve with a willing heart.
Leadership Is a Calling
A commitment to calling is important for women who accept positions in leadership. Calling can help us to define the goals that we strive to achieve in our positions. It also allows us to prepare for seasons when leadership is difficult. Calling reminds us of our purpose. Remembering that yields endurance.
A calling is a personal journey that takes time to discover. It requires exploring your gifts and working with mentors to identify and develop your strengths. I had a professor who identified a gift for teaching in me that I wouldn’t have seen for myself. He encouraged me to continue studying, and provided a path that allowed me to begin a career in higher education. Without that encouragement, I wouldn’t be where I am. Not because I didn't think that I could do it, but because I didn't think I was worthy of the opportunity. My internal narrative included phrases such as “Why me?” or “Someone else is more qualified.” The calling that comes from God, however, replaces a false narrative with truth. “For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph. 2:10, NIV).
God places us in situations in which we are surrounded with individuals who can help define our calling. He also enables us to be an encouragement to others and provide opportunities for them. In higher education, it’s a privilege to work with young adults who are still on this journey. Many are discovering their gifts and words of truth, which, along with support, can change their trajectory.
The path of leadership is winding, and it brings many challenges to overcome. However, leadership can also be deeply fulfilling, and is an avenue to improve the lives of others. Serving others through leadership provides the opportunity to mirror the care and love exemplified through Jesus Christ. What an amazing opportunity!
Leadership Requires Courage
“Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9, NIV).
While this verse has brought me encouragement, I have also wrestled with a question. What do strength and courage look like for a woman? When I was a young girl, I remember crying over a situation that hurt my feelings—and being told to stop because I was being too sensitive. Over the years I resonated with a self-imposed identity of being overly sensitive or easily hurt. It was easy to conclude that showing my hurt feelings would be met with a negative response. It was better not to show emotions, because that meant weakness. Instead, I should be strong.
Unfortunately, this sentiment reinforces broad gender stereotypes that assign agency (dominance, competence, and extraversion) to men and communion (morality, warmth, and agreeableness) to women. Too often, when women take on leadership roles, there’s an assumption that to be successful, they should exhibit more agency and less communality. To be strong and courageous, the stereotype suggests that a woman in leadership should show confidence and dominance. Yet what makes leaders successful isn’t only an image of agency, but rather an authenticity that embraces communality as an equal strength. Successful leaders should be both competent and agreeable, able to make decisions and understanding of how their decisions affect others.
Reflecting on Joshua 1:9, the command to be strong and courageous isn’t a call for individual agency. It’s a call to be dependent on God. We’re reminded that the reason we shouldn’t be afraid or discouraged is that we are not alone. The presence of God by our side provides the strength and courage needed to move forward. As leaders, it’s comforting to know that when we experience fear and discouragement, the answer isn’t to find strength in ourselves, but to find courage through the companionship of God.
Women, be courageous! You are not alone. Embrace your strengths, understand your weaknesses, and develop a leadership style that’s true to who you are.
Leadership Involves Community
Leadership that is intentional and relational is powerful. When Jesus began His ministry, the first thing He did was form His team. With the words “Come, follow Me,” Jesus began His work through the intentional relationships He formed with a diverse group that became His intimate friends. These relationships helped Jesus fulfill His mission. The disciples saw Jesus at His best and when He was exhausted. They experienced crowds of exalting supporters and stinging internal betrayal. His disciples became a community of followers who would later be given the Great Commission that launched Christianity. Jesus understood that His leadership would thrive if He invested in building relationships.
Leadership isn’t a solo game; it requires collaboration and investment in people. Time spent building a team in which members trust each other and work toward the same goals is essential. When I think about those I have the privilege of working alongside, I understand that my relationships with them have a direct effect on how the team approaches common goals. These relationships must be based on trust, for we are interdependent. I trust that my peers understand the mission and vision of the university and that decisions made will be reflective of this understanding. Each of us has a unique approach based on a variety of strengths and areas of expertise. Together we make better decisions when we allow for input and focus on a shared purpose.
Community is built in all directions; it’s both internal and external. In business, this is termed as a stakeholder mindset. Rather than focusing only on one group, as leaders we should constantly be identifying and assessing the needs of all stakeholders. This can include our employees, students, churches, sister schools, and many more. This mindset broadens our outlook and develops collaboration from a wider community of supporters.
I view Adventist education as one part of a larger ecosystem. When we look at our churches, schools, Pathfinder clubs, small groups, and other ministries, success in one area should bolster the success of all areas. When our schools thrive, we develop future leaders for our churches and institutions. When our churches are healthy, they can support more students. It’s in community that all our institutions can grow to their full potential.
A Seat at the Table
For me as a woman in leadership, some of my greatest advocates have been men. The most important man in my life, and my greatest fan, is my husband, and he is a constant companion. Women can also find support through male coworkers, leaders, and community members. I’ve witnessed men who have advocated that women have a seat at the table, and once they were there, provided mentoring, guidance, and support to help them succeed. Together we can expand the opportunities for women to pursue the call to leadership.
A recent experience broadened my understanding of the significance of expanding our tables to include a variety of leaders in our communities. I was sitting in a pew toward the back of church one day, attending a week-of-worship program for the local elementary school my son attended. He was part of the praise team, and I had promised him I would be there to watch. One morning before the program began, a mom came up to me and shared a sweet conversation she had experienced with her daughter. This family is very special to our community because her husband is the elementary school principal. She shared that one day her daughter asked whether a girl could be a school principal, as her dad was. After thinking about how to respond, she told her daughter about me—that I was the president of a university, which was like being a principal. She thanked me for being an example with whom her daughter could identify. In that moment I realized that the importance of a woman holding this position wasn’t only about me but also about what it represented to others. When a young girl, a female student, or a mother can point to a woman in leadership as an example of what is possible, it empowers a future generation of leaders, who can courageously choose to follow their call.
Ana Patterson is president of Southwestern Adventist University in Keene, Texas, United States.