I led EarthWork volunteers in the late 90's in a Student Conservation Association project to clean up local parks and support Seattle Parks needs. I had heard of the opportunity to get involved in this annual Earth Day event and felt honored to have my application accepted, to take part in training, and to be trusted to meet with park staff, formulate a plan, and act as a leader of group of volunteers--individuals I'd be introduced to on the work day itself.
At one such work day, my friend brought his work gloves and accompanied me to Ravenna Park, where I climbed onto a picnic table with my shovel and proceeded to give direction to a group of adults who had gathered as part of their corporate give-back program. I thanked them for being there, offered them refreshments, described the tasks they were to perform, showed them where to find first aid, and then I thanked them again. With that, I climbed off the table and handed out tools and doughnuts.
The crowd dispersed and the park was soon back to its morning quiet, but for birdsong and blackberry removal. I sat down at the picnic table and looked the first aid kit--my companion for the next few hours. My large group had been assigned an expanse of area, and it was necessary for me to remain centrally located. I couldn't perform work myself.
"That was impressive, Kari," said my friend Miles as he swapped out one tool for another. "I couldn't have done that."
Done what? I wondered as I coped with the idea of being inessential during these endeavors.
"I couldn't have gotten up there and told those people what they needed to know and do," he said. "Nicely done!"
I pondered this as I thanked him, fitted him with a new tool and assignment, and sent him back into the woods. My brief moments of activity were short and gone. What value did he see that was worth mention?
Only in the years since have I been able to observe these memories and see the origin of Miles' mention of respect. Until my recent revelations, I had only seen myself as a lucky recipient of gifts: While I was supplicating myself for SCA approval, the SCA was at the same time choosing to use me as an asset for the citywide project. When I hustled to attend training and make good on my promise to meet Parks staff and organize work plans, the SCA was entrusting these duties to my good judgement and execution. I was an essential component of this operation. While anybody could have stepped forward, I realize now that I did step forward, and that is an essential element of leadership, for, if nobody take a metaphorical first step, how would it be possible for another to follow?
Speaking to volunteers was an essential communication link in that day's plans. I did so humbly, but I can now recognize those moments as proof of my then-beginning capabilities as a leader.