I grew up at a preparatory school where leadership was a line on a resume – “Secretary, Key Club,” that was leadership. But that paradigm degrades the concept, trivializes it. Real leadership sprouts organically, with lines on a resume coming only as a byproduct, if at all. It often does not have the courtesy to show up with an appointment, as I found early in my college career.
During my first semester, my university was poised to launch a football program, with the Student Government, school newspaper, and even Faculty Senate lined up in support. There was one catch to the proposal though: a $150-per-semester student fee. This struck me as excessive, especially at a school where $25,000 could pay for four years, and I began saying so to the student newspaper and those pushing for the program. The city paper started quoting me as a source opposing football, while other opponents turned to me for advice on how best to stop the fee.
Suddenly, I was the leader of a movement. It was as if other people opposed to the program snuck back, leaving me standing in front alone. Nevertheless, I stepped forward further, embracing the role by organizing my own petition drive. I coordinated a dozen others who braved the oddly still hot and humid Alabama fall with me to gather signatures against the added fee. Armed with clipboards, we waylaid students coming out of class and argued our case, one person at a time. By the end of a couple of months, we could boast a respectable total: more than 600 signatures.
Opposing a football program in lower Alabama, though, is akin to being against motherhood, Jesus, and the Republican Party. One anonymous local told the city paper “that freshman kid” was “screwing it all up” and “throwing a monkey wrench” into the new program. Far from being deterred, though, I pressed on, resolving to take the case to the highest levels of the administration.
The big day came on December 5th, when the Board of Trustees was set to vote on the football proposal. Donning my favorite black pin stripe suit, red power tie, and scuffed high school loafers, I waited anxiously in a leather chair by the shining conference table that seemed longer than the room. An unceremonious “We will now hear from [my name]” called me to address the group of skeptical faces. I pled with them to at least let the student body vote on it, at least consider the proposal for another semester, but the Board was unfazed. Despite my efforts, they unanimously passed the resolution.
Even though I “lost,” I could celebrate the fact that I led even in an unexpected situation. Leadership ambushed me instead of playing by the rules and coming after an election: I suddenly found people standing behind me, demanding to follow. We sometimes lack the convenience of being able to neatly schedule our opportunities to lead, but I found that when those opportunities show up, we have to take them. What I learned from this experience will carry over into my career. Practicing law sometimes requires being prepared to fight in situations we least expected to, then excel even when victory seems far away. As a civil liberties attorney, I will find myself in that situation, and I will take what I learned opposing football to fight against those overwhelming odds.
I at first thought about focusing on the "standing up for your beliefs" angle, then I decided that it kind of came through anyway.