We are born followers. In school, we are taught to memorize blindly our alphabet, multiplication tables, names of presidents and their wives, dates of wars and treaties. As children, we play a constant game of Simon Says to get the best grade in the class. And all throughout life, we try to find role models that we can emulate - our teachers, supervisors, politicians, movie stars, etc. When I talk to my nonprofit peers, everyone always says how much they want a mentor to help them learn how to be. Unfortunately, many of them are not finding a viable role model in their executive director, and don’t want to be the pressure-driven, workaholic they often see in their bosses. So what do we, as born followers, do when the images we see are not useful?

Try keeping it real.

It’s a simple concept, but one that young people especially have a hard time wrapping our minds around. When you don’t have 20 years of experience under your belt, there is this need to justify who you are, what you do, and why you do it. What incentive do we have to be ourselves? I’m waiting anxiously for the day when I get up on stage or behind a podium and half the people in the audience aren’t looking at me, half amused, wondering just who the hell do I think I am.

For many young professionals that seek to lead in the nonprofit sector, we are always wondering if what we’re doing is “right” or “acceptable” in the eyes of our Baby Boomer bosses and boards. Sometimes we think that if we learn to act and sound just like our bosses, one day we will indeed get to be the boss. Or, if we flow with the status quo, surely we’ll move up the ladder to senior management. If we don’t rock the boat or bang our sippy cups on the table too loudly, well then…somebody might just let us lead. Recently I gave an entire media interview trying to come up with the same kind of phrases and language my boss would use, and I felt so fake afterwards. For those five minutes or whatever it was, I had literally forgotten how to be myself. I realized then that it’s really hard to be authentic when you’re trying hard to be someone else. And as young professionals, we need to speak our own words in our own way. That is the only way we will find our voice.

Baltimore neo-soul band Fertile Ground plays one of my favorite songs called “Star People.” It’s a fabulous musical expression about how we have lost our authenticity over time.

“Do you remember the time when we were one with the sun?
And all the joy that we had, ‘cause in our hearts we were one.

“We’ve been missing the point of who we are and why we came.
And as this reality deceives us, we get caught and lose our aim.
We get in the way of ourselves, and we make it so hard.

“Star people come down, we are preparing to be with you again.”

It’s kind of funny. We learn how to be critical thinkers and activists in college, then leave all the fire behind when we enter the workforce. Yet, the nonprofit sector is the one place where one should expect to find truth. It’s the one place where we should be able to bring all of our hopes and dreams for a better world. And it is, believe it or not. Young nonprofit professionals have an opportunity to be very intentional and tell the truth in our own words. And if we would all seek to become better followers, we might find our own leadership in that moment.

imageRosetta Thurman is an emerging nonprofit leader of color working and living in the Washington, DC area.  She holds a Master’s degree in Nonprofit Management and blogs about nonprofit leadership and management issues at Perspectives From the Pipeline.