Elizabeth Fry, Performance Leadership Intern
I have been swimming for as long as I can remember. I swam on a summer league team early on, participated in stroke clinics, and later transitioned to a club team and am still swimming today. While I have seen many different styles of coaching and have met many different athletes, all with unique strengths of their own, I have always had a difficult time defining myself as a leader. In all my years of swimming, I have never considered myself to be in a position of leadership or even respected as a leader because of my naturally introverted personality.
This year, however, everything changed when my coach approached me with an idea he had regarding leadership on our team. He wanted to create a peer leadership council where other members of the team could approach their teammates if they were dealing with a conflict or if they needed advice. I knew where this conversation was going because soon enough, he asked me the inevitable question I was dreading: “Would you like to be a member of the leadership council?”
Immediately, I hesitated at the thought of being labeled as a “leader.” A million questions flooded my mind:
Am I qualified to hold this position?
Would my teammates feel I am undeserving of this designation?
Am I the right person to help make a difference on my team?
And, the one question that was underneath it all: Am I a leader?
So I began my journey, determined to figure out the answers to these questions.
I first asked myself, “What is leadership?” Everyone is always talking about it, but leadership is difficult to define and even more difficult to embody. The term is subject to a lot of interpretation, but there are several characteristics I have found to be consistent in every example. Commitment, hard work, character...all of these traits can be used to describe a leader. There are hundreds of hard workers out there and thousands of individuals who embody positivity, but that does not necessarily make them leaders. It is a comprehensive collection of all these qualities that enables an individual to be respected as a leader.
I have often been skeptical of leadership positions because they can be easily abused. Too often I have seen members of a team using power to pursue their own aspirations or to assert authority over others. Those who tend to be faster, stronger, or more successful in the sport than others can sometimes be drawn to barking orders or demanding respect. This was not the kind of leader I wanted to be and did not want to accept the offered position simply in hopes of gaining power over my teammates. I also knew that deciding who the leaders are on a team can become a popularity contest and be perceived as favoritism which causes disagreement, ultimately hurting more than helping. I was not interested in attracting attention to myself or causing strife among my teammates. I wondered, “What do I have that my teammates don’t that would prompt my coach to ask me to be a part of the council?” I certainly didn't see anything special.
After hours of contemplation, I came to realize that not only were my teammates leaders, I was too. At the end of the day, everyone is fit to be a leader in their own way - everyone has their respective strengths that can make them a leader. Leaders should not be resentful of others in leadership positions or how others lead because leadership is not about status or position. Individuals in leadership positions should also not be arrogant. A leadership title does not have to create inequality. Leadership is about providing a model of excellence for those around us, and everyone needs someone to help guide them, myself included.
On my team’s leadership council, I have learned that leadership is not something we should turn away from as individuals but lean into as a group. We all have a natural tendency within us to avoid placing ourselves in uncomfortable situations. For me, that might include extroverted activities, such as speaking in front of a crowd or initiating activities, but these are not the only ways in which we lead others. There are many everyday leaders that are able to bring about change by providing a model of excellence just as there are leaders innately gifted in charisma. I believed I was not a leader because I did not possess the qualities the traditional “idea” of a leader embodies, but really, I am an everyday leader. Quiet leaders might not always be able to vocalize a detailed action plan - their ability to address a crowd is not what draws people to them. But quiet leaders are often looked up to for their actions. I now consider myself a leader because I try to achieve consistency in my habits and actions, which can influence others in its own way.
Ultimately, I accepted the position on the council in spite of my doubts and have not regretted it. I’ve learned that everyone has the potential to take on a leadership role on a smaller scale in their daily lives. Actions that are seemingly insignificant play a big part in inspiring others to take action, sparking an even larger movement. Quiet leaders are the essential on any team, and they are necessary in maximizing the effort and energy of others and directing it towards a common interest. I am an everyday leader, and you can be too. Take the initiative in the face of insecurity. Continue to lead by example in all aspects of your life, and others will follow.
Elizabeth Fry grew in Baltimore, Maryland and has been in the water for as long as she can remember. She is currently finishing her senior year at St. Paul’s School for Girls and has been swimming under Scott Ward as a member of Eagle Swim Team for the last three years. In the fall, she is so grateful to have the opportunity to continue her academic and athletic career at the University of Notre Dame.