Service vs. Leadership

I was at APA last summer and I remember one idea so vividly.  I walked in on the tail end of a panel and as I quietly tip-toed in from the back, Dr. Melba Vasquez was in the middle of her brief talk.  One of the things that she shared was that she thought for so long that her involvement (tremendous professional involvement!) was service.  

Now, service is not a bad thing. Service is a wonderful thing!  Think about all of the things that we can accomplish as a society because of the service of others – paid and unpaid.  But, the issue that Dr. Vasquez clarified was that she never really considered her multiple positions and accomplishments to be leadership

I could not believe it. I was shocked.  I certainly considered Dr. Vasquez a leader – even the definition of leader in the field of psychology! She was APA president in 2011 (when I started graduate school!), the first Latina president of APA, president of several divisions of APA (including Division 35 and Division 17), cofounded the Society for the Psychological Study of Ethnic Minority Issus (Division 45) and has authored several texts in the field of psychology – among numerous other accomplishments.  For her to bring up that she spent a good part of career considering the work she did to be service instead of leadership was thought provoking for me.

The idea of leadership has a different feel than service.  I have been sitting on this distinction for seven months now because I had never considered what I do in my professional and personal life to be leadership.  When I bring this up with my colleagues and friends to process they inevitably respond by “What?! You don’t consider yourself a leader?!” 

Well… no.  Not until now.

I’ve always considered my work service – improving my community, serving the university, and addressing issues of inequality and justice across the board.  I never considered any of these things leadership.  It has always service – my duty, my responsibility, my calling.

I do not believe for one second that I am the first person to think to myself that all of my involvement is service.  When I have thought of leadership in the past I have that automatic, nagging voice telling me "NO!  Leadership is dominating, non-egalitarian nonsense!  Unless you’re a good/one-of-a-kind leader."  I have my own images of the amazing people throughout history who I see as amazing “special” leaders – Melba Vasquez, Rosa Parks, Mahatma Gandhi, Angela Davis, Dr. Martin Luther King, Anita Roddick, Gloria Steinem, bell hooks… those people are leaders.  They change society.  They move and shake the world – either in its entirety or the smaller worlds that they were/are a part of. 

It has only been recently that I have been able to refer to myself as a leader – all with the help of Dr. Vasquez and me wandering in to a panel at APA last summer.  I never considered the distinction between service and leadership until that moment and I do not think I could be the conscientious leader I am without having faced this distinction. 

I am a leader in many aspects of my life.  I think it’s time for me to own it.

Does anyone else feel similarly about being hesitant to call themselves a leader? If not, was it a process and when did you start calling yourself a leader?  

- Written by Samantha D. Christopher, M.A.

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