Center for Organizational Leadership

Empowering Effective Leaders

Learning to Lead as a Young Professional

by Abigail Cooper

Abigail Cooper is a 2022 graduate of the MAOL program

I have always been told the path to become a leader in the workplace was to keep my head down, work hard, and stick with the same company for 30-plus years to be able to earn my position as a leader. I needed to be good and wait for my turn to make a difference in the workforce. Sounds easy enough, right? The problem was this: Even if I did pursue that lengthy path to leadership, there would be so many valuable opportunities and experiences I could miss along the way. This age-old advice emerged from patterns of what has historically occurred in the corporate world, but the modern-day workforce is different.

Working in organizations where all leaders look, act and lead the same way creates a stagnant environment. The lack of diversity and representation on all levels speaks volumes to organizational priorities, values and direction. That cookie-cutter design may have lasted for a time in many organizations, but as each upcoming generation enters the workforce, we are seeing many more shapes, flavors and approaches to leadership. The workplace and its employees are ever changing — and so must its leadership.

Leadership comes in all shapes and sizes, but early in my career I felt I did not fit into any of the leadership models I had seen. Was it because I was a young, 20-something woman in the workforce? Was it because I did not have a leadership title? Was it because I did not have the expected tenure to be considered a leader? As I discovered during the Master of Arts in Organizational Leadership (MAOL) program at Harding University , I did not need to be a certain age, earn a promotion or have tenure to be a leader . All of my fellow classmates were changemakers in training — some at the beginning of their journeys while others were a bit further along. Each of us was redefining, establishing and sharpening our leadership skills to fit our own workforce and its people. Each of us was striving to be more effective leaders regardless of where we started. Somewhere in the midst of my time in the MAOL program, there was a mindset shift from seeing my differences as barriers to using them as opportunities. I learned to be the leader I would want to follow regardless of my age, gender or race.

The path to leadership has adapted as different generations have filtered in and out throughout the years. My MAOL classmates were from varying generations, and we had many discussions on how that affected each of us in the workforce. Each generation grew up with different perspectives, expectations and experiences that shaped how they behave at work. Most of them were older than I, and they were leaps and bounds ahead of me in their careers. It was quite intimidating to be learning alongside such successful career women and men when I felt 10 steps behind them. I was reminded frequently, though, that each of us were on our own journeys to become better leaders for our teams. The further I progressed in the program, the more grateful I was to be learning to lead more effectively with leaders of all ages and backgrounds. I realized despite our age and experience differences, we all had unique perspectives to gain from each other. We all had valuable perspectives and experiences we each brought to the table that made us a wonderful group of changemakers.

One of many takeaways I learned from listening to my classmates was that career progression occurs much quicker than it did generations ago. In fact, becoming an assigned leader in today’s corporate workplace could take a few years as opposed to a decade. I moved into leadership just a few years into my career, and my promotion was a significant milestone in my career development. My MAOL coursework helped me learn who I wanted to be as a leader and how I wanted to lead. Combining what I’d learned with hands-on experience where I could utilize the methods and theories I’d been taught was invaluable.

Here’s what I know: Leadership is more about the journey than a destination . We can each have our own leadership goals, but an adaptive leader understands it is a continuous learning process. We do not become effective leaders simply because we earned a promotion. We become effective leaders through our relationships, our communication, and the way we treat others. Now, thanks to the MAOL program and experience in my industry, I am convinced that anyone of any age or background could learn how to become a transformative leader in their workforce.

Topics: Youth Graduate School Christian Education Grad School Young Professional Leadership Leader Graduate