On Saturday, I celebrated the culmination of eight months of hard work. After hundreds of hours of preparation, show time came for the “Law and Leadership” conference of the J. Reuben Clark Law Society. The conference took place in Crystal City, Virginia, my old neighborhood that is spitting distance from Washington D.C. As I sat in traffic on I-95 North on Sunday, trying to make my way out of Maryland, I reflected that the weekend had been one that changed me. So much had happened during and immediately before the conference that on Thursday, April 10th I had been a different Megan than I was sitting in my car on Sunday, April 13th.
I learned a lot at the conference. Not ethereal, hardly applicable theories regarding leadership, but instead concrete, chart-my-course, do-this-next sorts of things. I have planned events before—big events ranging from C-SPAN-covered panel discussions to dinners for fifty-plus people. But planning a six-hour conference 240 miles from home with over seventy attendees, twenty-five speakers, and two meals was a new thing for me. Doing it while starting my own business and being the full-time caregiver for my infant, now-toddler, son added yet another layer of challenge.
Make no mistake, I had endless amounts of help. My sister flew from California to watch my son and a solid team of more than ten committee members and their friends contacted speakers, set-up chairs and tables, purchased speaker gifts, and took the initiative to complete a multitude of other tasks that needed to be done. I already knew that any event requires a great deal of effort from a large number of people, and I wasn’t surprised to have that lesson reinforced throughout the planning and execution of this conference.
I was surprised, however, that so many things went wrong at the last minute. There wasn’t time for anything to go wrong. Every minute was necessary to make final preparations. So, I found myself negotiating multiple catering contracts, delegating things I thought I would be able to handle on my own, and thinking of creative solutions for last-minute problems. I learned that the most important outcome in a negotiation is to get the job done right so others don’t realize there was a problem in the first place. I learned not to settle for a refund when what I really needed was dessert for 75 people before noon. Money is not the solution to all problems, especially when you are working under an unbudging deadline.
As I stayed up until 2:00 a.m. on Saturday morning to meet those unbudging deadlines, I learned that it wasn’t the hours I resented when I worked at a law firm. Staying up especially late to get the job done doesn’t actually bother me. Our keynote speaker quoted The Life of Bees, saying, “You are best at doing the things you love most.” I love writing, speaking, and perhaps most importantly, having ownership of my work. In many ways it was easy to stay up until 2:00 a.m. writing opening remarks on the topic of leadership.
At the conference, I learned why I cared about putting it together in the first place. We had a panel about Leadership in Religious Liberty with three excellent speakers and a powerful moderator. The speakers emphasized the importance of civil communication. One of them stated, “empathy is the beginning of dialogue.” I had the opportunity to connect with one of the speakers and set up the possibility of working together again in the future. That possibility has helped to answer my “what now?” question now that the conference is over and I have some free time again.
At the end of the conference, after the tables and chair were put away and the carpet vacuumed, I realized I didn’t feel a huge need to rush home to my baby. I learned that wanting to spend time with my child, at home, was only part of why I didn’t want to continue work as a litigation associate. The more salient reason was that I couldn’t justify being apart from my child to do something for which I lacked passion. If I am going to be away “at work,” I need that work to be rejuvenating for me, and the law firm lacked that. When I am doing something I love, being on the road, away from my husband, and leaving my son for 10 hours doesn’t feel so heart-wrenching. That said, I couldn’t do it every day or even every month. There were some days leading up to the conference when I felt like I wasn’t playing or reading with my son enough. It helped to know that it would only be temporary. My mom reminded me that sometimes in life “you just have to bring it.” Busy times come and go, but the busy times will always be busy. I like the balance I’ve found in my current situation and appreciate the people who have made it possible (including my husband, my parents, my sister, and our regular sitter).
The final lesson I will share (there are many many more) is about being a servant leader. As I prepared for my opening remarks, my dad and I talked about what I should emphasize. He brought up the parable of the talents from the New Testament and suggested I focus on how each of us has a responsibility to use and magnify the talents we have been given. His words were inspiring to me personally and encouraged me throughout the planning process. The most important use of our talents is to serve others. Christ was the epitome of a servant leader. He exemplified Chinua Achebe’s description: “When I have talked about the need for a servant leader, I have emphasized an individual that is well prepared—educationally, morally and otherwise—who wants to serve (in the deepest definition of the word); someone who sees the ascendancy to leadership as an anointment by the people and holds the work to be highly important, if not sacred.”
About an hour before I got in my car to head home, I witnessed a beautiful act of servant leadership. In church, as the sacramental bread was being blessed, nine men stood at the sacrament table waiting to pass the bread to the congregation. Usually there are only three or six, but I figured that this was a large congregation, so maybe they needed more. As the bread was passed though, I watched three teenage triplets slowly make their way around the chapel. Their eyes were half-open, irises rolled back. Behind each of them was a man in his early thirties, gently walking behind and holding the young man’s shoulder.
The effect was profound. Leadership is about compassion. A leader is not the person who stands in front of everyone proclaiming that they have the best set of physical, mental, and emotional skills to complete the job as quickly and correctly as possible. Leadership is about being a servant leader—someone who acts on the capacity to help others rise to the occasion, whether that is fighting for a noble cause or sharing the gift of Christ’s Atonement with a group of church-goers.