Leading with Courageous Acts

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Melissa Werkman, Down Syndrome Association executive director, is a woman with a powerful story of perseverance and courage. In January she spoke at the ATHENA Leadership Forum, focusing on the tenet of Courageous Acts from the ATHENA Leadership Model. We caught up with Melissa recently and asked some additional questions, delving deeper into how she lives courageously each day—and we discovered some good advice for those who are just finding their voice.

How do you live out the ATHENA tenet of Courageous Acts in your workplace? In your personal life?

I’m not sure if it’s because my astrological sign is a Libra or because it was born out of earlier experiences, but injustice drives me nuts. That, partnered with the fact that leadership—particularly in the nonprofit human services realm—inherently requires a large amount of courage. To do much with a small amount of resources, advocate for many, and be responsive to a diversity of need requires one to swim upstream and be exceedingly resourceful, creative, and often times loud. To that end, for me and my peers in this field, the ability to act courageously is not just a nice ancillary characteristic but is requisite.

In my personal life, I’m first and foremost a mother and a wife. I can’t think of two other roles, personal or professional, that demand more courage. Then there’s my penchant for cycling—trying to be competitive when you possess hardly a lick of talent and are on the longer side of optimum age is a courageous, and some might say foolhardy, endeavor.

How has living out this tenet affected your career?
I’ll be honest: Courageous acts in my career have had both negative and positive results. On a few occasions, I’ve been rewarded for my propensity to speak up or make a bold decision. But more often than not, it’s led to labels such as “insubordinate,” “maverick,” or “loose cannon.” If you put the Sarah Palin-ness of the term “maverick” aside, you might think it would be a pretty cool name, but at the time it was not meant as a compliment. That being said, when I feel called to act boldly, my first thought is not usually, “How will this affect my career?” There are times that in hindsight I wish I would have given it a little regard.

For someone who is hesitant to speak up and voice an opinion, what advice would you offer?
Know yourself. I’m not sure if it’s my age, but more and more I’m thankful for the sharper knowledge of who I am. My priority has shifted considerably from one of listening to my public self to listening to my authentic self. I find that I increasingly use that as both a centering tool and a driver for my decision-making.

What motivates you to keep going and do what you do?
Our families with Down Syndrome Association. I recently attended our Mom’s Night Out monthly meeting and spent time talking with mothers who have younger children with Down syndrome. It is remarkably motivating to hear them talk about what their daily lives are like with the many barriers they have to overcome for their children and at intervals that are far too regular. Time spent listening to them refreshes my energy. It reminds me that the work that we do on their behalf is so important and will continue to be until the day comes when we no longer have to correct a misperception, squash out stigma, and fight for the rights of children who have Down syndrome to have reasonable and equal opportunity.

How do you overcome challenges in the workplace?
I begin with a classic vodka martini, if possible; I follow that with a lot of talking. I’m surrounded by people with a wealth of life experience whose advice I value greatly, and I don’t hesitate to confide in them. It’s almost always the best way I’ve found to approach a problem, as I have a flair for overreaction. Their first recommendation is for me to consider the situation from a different, often more rational perspective. Widening my scope allows me to react with more patience, understanding, and, often, a good dose of humility.

Tell us why you are supportive of the ATHENA Award Program.
I was given the book Becoming ATHENA: Eight Principles of Enlightened Leadership by Martha Mayhood Mertz during a particularly trying moment in my life. While I had been aware of the tenets, I realized they were all elements that I highly value—and in that moment, they became something I could ground myself in.

If you had a superpower, what would it be? 
Telepathy. I am a terrible communicator. I’m constantly moving, planning, and doing. I don’t like to take the time to slow down long enough to share information, and I’m a lazy writer. It would be exceedingly helpful to those who have to work and live with me if I could transfer information by just thinking it.

With an encouraging and powerful beginning to this year’s ATHENA Leadership Forum series, we’ve learned how to tap into our courageous side and stand up for what is right. Being courageous can also be a component of Collaboration, which is the ATHENA tenet that will be presented by Deb Bailey of Steelcase and Mindy Ysasi Castañon of Herman Miller on May 13. Join us in May to hear from these dynamic speakers on how to reach beyond what you can achieve and work in unison with diverse ideas and views of others.


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