Progressive Leadership: My Leadership Journey
As attention to the upcoming AOTA elections has increased I have read multiple comments about the length of service for some of us who have a passion for volunteering for our state and national professional associations. Not all of the comments were complimentary. Some were about the same folk just swapping seats, and one described the process as inbreeding (Yikes!). This prompted me to want to share the story of my leadership journey. I see my leadership journey as one of progressive leadership; an intentional effort to assume increasingly more important roles as my professional knowledge, skills and potential to contribute has increased.
I was extraordinarily lucky to have excellent mentorship early in my career. Even as a student I knew I wanted to be involved in the profession on a national basis. I chose to do a Level II fieldwork at AOTA and completed it in the Department of Continuing Education. My supervisor Susan Robertson became my first mentor. She encouraged and challenged me to get involved! With just four years of experience, I ran and was elected first for Vice-President and then President of the District of Columbia Occupational Therapy Association. I have to be honest, the DCOTA was reconstituting itself at the time after having been disbanded, and both times I was on the ballot I ran unopposed! Still, as a practitioner with limited experience I think it tells you something about my enthusiasm and drive that I put myself forward and assumed the leadership of a State Association.
As perhaps the youngest member of what was then called the “Committee of State Association Presidents (CSAP)” I learned a tremendous amount. I started to gain an understanding of the importance of state associations and the relationships between state associations and AOTA. I was introduced to the structure of AOTA and the influence that leaders can have on the profession through advocacy and clearly and logically articulating a point of view. It fired my interest in volunteerism and I was hooked on volunteering for AOTA.
I recently found a quote about failure that rings true for me. The quote is that “failure is delay, not defeat (Lax, 2016).” Not every step on my journey has been smooth. In fact my next step on my journey was running for the Chairperson of the Administration and Management Special Interest Section (AMSIS). I lost that election, but was asked to serve on AMSIS as the Education/Research Liaison and I jumped at the chance. My education about the association and about the needs of AOTA members continued and three years later I ran for AMSIS Chair again, and won.
As AMSIS Chair I had the opportunity to serve on the Special Interest Sections Steering Committee (SISSC) that coordinated much of the activities of the SISs. This gave me the opportunity to learn about occupational therapy practice in a whole new light. I began to understand the cross connections between various practice areas, the challenges we shared and what each group uniquely contributed to the distinct value of occupational therapy. I also gained exposure to a group of leaders who each had their own style and set of skills and in turn this helped me develop.
In 2003, the Chair of the SISSC resigned because she accepted a paid position for AOTA. AOTA President Mary Evert asked me to assume the position and I served as the appointed SISSC Chair for two years and then chose to run for the position and was elected to a three-year term in 2005 as Chair of the renamed Special Interest Sections Council (SISC). The five years in this position were amazing and contributed more than I can describe to my development as a leader. For five years I sat in a voting position in the Representative Assembly (RA). I learned about AOTA policy and procedure, how association policy is developed (the good, the bad and the very confusing!), and gained a deep understanding of how our very small but incredibly skilled AOTA staff support the volunteer leadership. I made mistakes as a leader and grew from them and gained insight into my strengths and weaknesses as a leader. For the first time I had the opportunity to dip my toe into mentoring and providing support to less experienced volunteer leaders who were coming up behind me.
My next step in progressive leadership was to run and to be elected to be Speaker of the Representative Assembly (RA). This was a significant accomplishment and challenge as an occupational therapy leader. I did not “grow up” in the RA and had not served as a representative (RA Rep). Because I have served as a voting member of the RA for five years I did not consider it an obstacle that I had not served as a Rep and was surprised by the resistance I encountered by some to my candidacy. Shortly after being elected, a long-time volunteer in the RA challenged me by asking me, “Why are you here? Why did you run for Speaker and what do you want?” I realized that with each progressive step in Association leadership, I need to prove myself both in terms of skill and in terms of commitment and motivation. Serving as Speaker of the RA was perhaps the single most valuable learning experience I’ve had in volunteer leadership. Guiding 80ish voting volunteer members through a structured decision making process (Robert’s Rules of Order and parliamentary procedure), coordinating the contributions of multiple bodies of the association and negotiating participation by volunteer leadership and paid staff and serving on the Board of Directors……whew!
One of my contributions to the RA was to make some changes in operations for the better such as streamlining the way we processed minor changes to documents or documents that were reviewed and did not require any change. Like all AOTA bodies, I had a staff liaison that had staffed the RA for some time. On several occasions I would ask, “Why do we do it that way?” I would listen to the answer which sometimes included “It's the way its been done” and would reply, “Okay, we are not doing that, this is what we are going to do….” I learned A LOT about facilitating change in a complex organization. I also learned a lot about being a leader who cannot always say everything you would like to say. On multiple occasions I was asked what I thought about a controversial issue coming before the RA and my answer had to be, “As Speaker I do not have an opinion, my job is to assure fair debate and transparent decision making.” Boy that was hard! I learned that often members want leaders to listen, not speak. I continued to learn more about how AOTA is organized and about the complex process of coordinating decision-making by volunteer leaders and the work product of AOTA paid staff. Perhaps most importantly I had a crash course in responding to the breadth and diversity of AOTA member feedback. During face-to-face RA meetings at annual conference it was not uncommon to be crossing a hotel lobby and to encounter a member who would give you their passionate opinion about what should happen with a motion before the RA, only to walk 50 feet and encounter a member who gave an equally passionate opinion about why the opposite action should be taken on the same issue!
One major challenge that I faced and handled successfully during my term as Speaker, was making the decision to cancel a face-to-face meeting at the 2009 Annual Conference and hold the meeting entirely Online. This decision was made in conjunction with AOTA President Penny Moyers and AOTA Executive Director Fred Somers as a response to the dire budget situation following the market crash of 2008. AOTA took a big hit to its investments and had to find ways to eliminate expenses until they recovered. Penny and Fred scheduled a phone call with me and when I found out that we could save $150,000 by holding the face-to-face meeting Online, I quickly said, “I’ll find a way to make it work” and we did. It took many hours of work and several weeks of late evenings and early mornings but the RA Leadership Team and our AOTA staff Liaison pulled it off. I learned a lot about the need and the capacity for volunteers to be flexible when something really important is on the line!
My next attempt progressive leadership was to run for the office of Vice-President. The Vice-President plays a major role in guiding strategic planning for the BOD, chaired the Centennial Vision Commission and led the annual performance evaluation of the AOTA Executive Director. These are activities that I am well suited for based on prior experience. I have led multiple groups including non-profit organizations, a faculty and state associations in visioning and strategic planning activities. My first run for VP did not work out and I lost the election to Amy Lamb who did an amazing job as VP and is now our President.
While I was disappointed at not becoming VP, I decided to jump right back in and was elected as AOTA Secretary the next year. As Secretary I served on the Bylaws, Policies and Procedure Committee (the BPPC). While this might not sound like a lot of fun, it is an invaluable experience. As Secretary I became intimately familiar with the Bylaws and the policies and procedures that guide all AOTA activities. This is a knowledge and skill set that is very helpful for AOTA leaders who are often faced with complex situations and have to devise action plans that are not only ethical and effective, but that also follow the rules set out the Bylaws, policies and procedures. During my term the BPPC completed a major overhaul of the Bylaws, policies, procedures due to a change in the law that governs AOTA incorporation in the District of Columbia. After serving as Speaker of the RA and as Secretary, there are few volunteer leaders who have the depth of understanding that I have of the documents that guide the operation of our Association.
So here I am in 2017, and making another run for the Vice-Presidency and taking the next step on my progressive leadership journey. I am doing so because I am passionate about occupational therapy and about our professional association. I believe that the biggest contribution I can make to occupational therapy is through volunteer leadership. Each step that I have taken in my journey has added to my knowledge, skills and capacities to serve as Vice-President. I hope my journey illustrates that progressive leadership is a lot more than just swapping seats and that my journey has prepared me to take this next step and to be successful.
I would be honored to serve as your Vice-President and you have my pledge that I will be fully committed, accessible and engaged with you, the members. I have adopted this personal mission statement:
I will be a servant leader and AOTA Vice-President who is constantly engaged and accessible to AOTA members working tirelessly to meet member needs and to achieve AOTA's Vision 2025.
Please reach out to me with any questions, concerns or suggestions. You can Email me at email@example.com, friend me on Facebook, send me a tweet at @brentbraveman or check out my personal webpage to learn more about me at www.brentbraveman.com.
The opinions expressed in my blog are personal and neither represent the views of my employer nor any organization.