Powerful Things Come in Small Packages

As a young child it was easy to get people's attention. Until about age 11 I remained the size of a small stuffed animal, and have been told that I was irresistibly adorable. Many adults were curious about the fragile seven year old who could converse with fourth grade vocabulary, but appeared to be the size of a two year old, and scurried across floors with the confidence and speed of a fourteen month old baby. Growing up I remember there was usually someone rapt with attention as my parents patiently explained my curious stature and why "the whites of her eyes are so blue." Among adults I had become used to being in the spotlight, accustomed to being listened to because of what I looked like and what I had.

Fast forward fifteen year later and that seven year old is not much taller and could easily be mistaken as a 12 or 14 year old teen. Except that at this point I had just finished school, had a college degree and was about to start my first "real adult job." It was an AmeriCorps position where I was doing a year of service at a community college in Boston. A real adult job that had real adult responsibilities; I had my own office, extension, email - the whole nine yards at a place where looking cute would no longer matter to anyone.

My job was to put together a mentoring program that served first-generation community college students. Most of the students were older than myself, some had had years of life experience, some were veterans who were not much older than myself, many were parents and they were all at various places in their lives but knew that they wanted some guidance to help steer them in a direction toward success. Suddenly the spotlight I was in was not so much because of what I looked like, but more because of what I was asked to do. At least I knew that much was true; however, I found out quickly enough that it would  take awhile for this truth to sink into the community that I was serving.
Who is this young person that is suddenly trying to put together a mentoring program for us? And what does she know about how things work here? She's so small and soft-spoken our students aren't even going to listen to her. These were some of the question I was up against and the attitudes that were pervasive for the first half of my year of service.
I quickly realized that things were different now than they were for me when I was a kid. I needed people to pay attention because of what I had to offer. I wanted the attention away from myself, and instead on the need that I was confident that I could meet. I would need to take on more of an authority figure than I was used to, and somehow fish out of thin air at least 24 more inches to add to my height. Needless to say I was well aware that I had my work cut-out for me.

After months of research, interviewing, and performing assessments on students and staff members to figure out what kind of mentoring program would be needed, it was time for me to present the findings. I would be presenting to the school's Board of Trustees, the President of the college, other members of the Cabinet, and various faculty members. Going into the presentation I told myself this is it. I thought to myself this is my chance to own up to the work that I've done because in this presentation nothing else matters, nothing else should matter but what's best for the students at the college.
That day I was still 3ft tall, as tall as I had been since age 11 and as tall as I will ever be. I still had a pip-squeakish soft-spoken voice, I was still in my first "real adult job," and was still the youngest employee at the school. Not much had changed except that by putting the needs of an entire population of students before myself, I grew to be taller than everyone else in that room. It was me who had the upper hand in that moment, I was the one who was offering a real solution, and while it was nerve-wracking for me to defend my findings to the Board of Trustees - when I responded I realized that I am the one who is speaking with the most authority and knowledge on this topic.
Since then whenever I am confronted by another moment where I might be physically 'dwarfed' by others, I look to what's at stake --

Authority in a Small Package:

  • It's not about you. People look to leaders who are comfortable with themselves and are confident in varying situations. I have learned that if I make it about how nervous I am or how diminutive I feel, then that's all folks will see. But if I make it about what I can offer and what I know, I can easily switch the focus away from my more vulnerable aspects. 
  • Authority is only gained with respect. And as we all know, gaining respect takes time. For authority to work you need an audience that will listen, and people will only listen if they respect you. Build respect and trust, thankfully these aren't things that require any great height or physical strength to acquire.
  • If you doubt yourself then others will follow suit. When we think about why we don't think we're capable, is it because of what we're telling ourselves? Or is it because what others are telling us? When we tell ourselves that we can't give the speech then it's not going to matter how others perceive us because already we've talked ourselves out. But when we tell ourselves we can give that speech, the way others perceive us can become fodder for us to prove wrong. And who doesn't like a good ol' "Hah! I WAS right and YOU were WRONG!" 
  • Eye-contact. This is one of those tricks that I have had to practice a lot. Just because I am short doesn't mean that I need to physically look-up or look-down at anyone. By matching someone's eye-contact we are already beginning to present ourselves to be capable of playing on the same playing-field. It also conveys a sense of seriousness and an air of 'adulthood,' when we are naturally able to do this. 

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