During my college career, I was involved in the Vietnamese Student Association (VSA) as both a member and a leader. Throughout my time there, I had grown immensely as a leader through both observation of others and executing what I learned into action. Much of what I learned is applicable to any leader, but my own (sort of) unique experience as an Asian American leader has added another layer of complexity. Below are 3 fears that I and many leaders often struggle with.
#1: Fear of Innovation
Leaders fear the unknown, avoid uncertainty, and their organizations suffer as a result. We often repeat events, taking the safe route to ensure that nothing goes wrong. Failure to innovate makes our events stale and growth stagnates. We become complacent, lose our member base, our community influence, and then wonder where it all went wrong.
With the Asian clubs, I often wonder if our fears carry over from our heritage. I am not speaking for all Asian Americans, but most would agree that as Asian Americans, the children of immigrants, we push ourselves to fulfill our parents’ wishes to perfect educational success. Our families sacrifice a lot for us to be here, and subconsciously, we feel that failure is unacceptable. I am sure my experience is not unique and is not just limited to Asian-Americans either. I believe this mindset seeps into our everyday lives and can negatively impact our leadership abilities. It took me a long time to be comfortable messing up, but I realized that failure is the ONLY way to grow. As a VSA leader, I actively encouraged my team to try “throwing things at the wall” and refining them so that they eventually stuck. I always told myself that our team culture is that “we have no culture;” that we are always willing to try new things.
#2: Fear of Conflict
How often has someone told you that your club is “cliquey?” What have you done to address this issue? Did you actually address the issue or did you again take the safe route and ignore this complaint? Have any of your officers brought concerns about the team dynamic to you? Did you deal with the issue immediately and fairly, or brush it under the rug, allowing these problems to fester and negatively impact your team?
The fear of conflict is poisonous for any team. It kinda sounds counterintuitive right? You might think that avoiding conflict is best for the team and while that might be true in the short term, addressing the issue with all parties is best long term. I’ve seen teams try to push this conversation to “a later time,” only to have it completely blow up in their faces (usually right before a big event since everyone is stressed x1000). No one should ENJOY conflict, but it’s important to understand that conflict is a vital component to building a strong team.
Bringing it back to an Asian-American perspective, communication is an issue even at home. I was never able to talk to my parents about issues due to a generational, cultural, and language barrier. I found it difficult to even try “bothering” my parents after they both had come home from an extremely long day at work. In Asian cultures, they believe in showing their love rather than saying it. Our emotional struggles seem menial compared to that, and maybe that mindset also seeps into our leadership styles.
#3: Fear of True Accountability
I’ve only met a few leaders who know how to properly apologize. It’s difficult to do and is still something I’m working on myself, but it is crucial to maintaining a healthy team dynamic. The difference between “I’m sorry you feel that way,” VS “I’m sorry I did that to you, I won’t do it again” is astronomical, yet is only one of many examples where a leader subconsciously avoids taking responsibility for their actions.
But why is it so hard for us to apologize? Once again, this might be a manifestation of the subconscious pressures we put on ourselves to always be perfect. Many view apologies as a sign of weakness, rather than an opportunity to grow. In my past, as someone who rarely apologized, always thought that others knew I wasn’t malicious and that I could make it up through action, but I’ve learned that even a simple apology can mean a lot. Nothing is WORSE than working with someone who doesn’t take responsibility for their shortcomings, especially when they’re quick to jump on others for their mistakes. Apologizing helps set the tone that the team is… a team and not a boss with their workers.
To my fellow growing leaders, I hope you were able to find my advice relatable in one aspect or another. I challenge you to change your mind set on failure, to take hold of your ambitions as well as your greatest fears. I challenge you to venture into the unknown by bringing new ideas to the table, so that your impact lingers beyond your years. Ask yourself, at what point do I stop going through the motions of my predecessors and make this organization my own? The best thing anyone can do for their organization is to leave behind an even more ambitious successor. What better way to do this than by example?
To my fellow Asian American leaders, be aware of how your background can impact your leadership abilities and be open to addressing these issues in yourself. Our parents took the biggest risks by coming to a country where they don’t speak the native language; they are the true leaders that we must emulate. Taking risks is in our blood - we only need to look beyond our pressures in order to seize it.