I admire you.

Currently, I am in my last semester of social work school. With the end of this period in my academic and professional life approaching, I’ve been thinking a lot about what kind of social worker I want to be. I know I want to be a leader in my field. But what does a leader look like?

When I think of the leaders I truly admire, they are not those with the most charisma and a bag full of slogans at hand. Rather, they are individuals who work quietly and thoughtfully, determining what is best for those they lead in the big picture sense. Real leaders take risks. They hold their ground when the existing power structures threaten their ideals and try to convince the rest of the world that their actions are wrong. Real leaders uphold standards and set precedents. They do not want praise or recognition; they simply want effective, positive change.

I also think leadership must be lonely. To assert yourself against a dominant belief, institution, or system means leaving behind the security that comes with aligning yourself with the majority. When you become the face of a cause or the voice for a group of people, you also become the primary target. Those who initially offer support may feel their courage waning as the opposition grow hostile. Subsequently, they walk away to protect themselves, leaving the leader once again to stand alone.

Right now, I am sitting in the graduate student lounge at my school, surrounded by a few of my classmates who are preparing to take the social work licensing exam. As I look at them and reflect on the beliefs they’ve voiced, the actions they’ve taken, and the work they will do in the future, I feel like I am looking at the quiet kind of leaders I’ve always respected. I am grateful to have these role models in my life and I am excited to see what we’ll do next.

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