Getting to the top while being true to yourself

By Dr. Daria Willis

When I started thinking about becoming a president, I attended a leadership seminar where the keynote speaker provided words of wisdom and caution for those of us eager to advance into the role.

“It is lonely at the top.”

At the time, I did not realize the value of this sage advice. But today, now in my second presidency, I feel the weight of those words daily.

I remember the exact moment when I received the call informing me that I was selected as the sole finalist for my first presidency. The excitement and the disbelief that I had finally done it at the tender age of 34 was something I thought would never happen. I had experienced critics spreading rumors and former mentors telling me to wait my turn. They thought I should not and could not do it, so I had spent my career working to prove them all wrong.

Editor’s note: This is the first article in a series focusing on female community college leaders in celebration of Women’s History Month.

Things changed completely with that life-altering phone call. I had finally achieved the coveted role as a community college president. To make matters more interesting, I was the first African American president (male or female) in that college’s 78-year history in a town where most of the residents are white.

Today, I am sitting in my office at 7:45 in the morning on the opposite side of the country, serving as the president of a larger institution, with more students of color, and again, I am the first African American president (male or female) in this college’s history. It took 51 years to make this a reality at this institution, also in a community where nearly half of the residents are white.

Handling the challenges

In each instance, journalists and community members have inquired “how does it feel to be the first?” My response then as it is now, “It is an honor.” This is especially true knowing from where I came. My people ascend from the red clay of Georgia and Mississippi. They were slaves, sharecroppers and farmers. My family’s roots trace back to Africa, notably ancient kingdoms in Nigeria, the Ivory Coast and Ghana, and the Cameroon, Congo and Western Bantu peoples. I am proud of my heritage, and I am proud to have been a first-generation student to college, former student parent and now a college president. I truly am living my ancestors’ wildest dreams.

Even with the strength of my ancestors, the college presidency is still a very lonely position. As the first, as one of the youngest and as a woman, people have questioned me in ways they would never dare to question my white predecessor(s). For context, I have followed two sitting presidents who served at least a decade or more at each institution. When you are the first, your community and your institution must prepare themselves for what this means as we continue to deal with issues of race and generational differences in the workplace.

Many times, the challenges come your way subtly, as it is rarely overt. It is simple gestures such as their tone, the looks they give, the condescending comments and the anonymity they feast on when they hurl complaints your way. When you are in the thick of it, the human reaction says this is a personal attack, but you must remember, it’s not you, perhaps they just woke up on the wrong side of the bed – or on the wrong side of history.

But then you get to a point in your leadership journey where these things no longer bother you. You care less about some of your colleagues’ comments and underhanded behavior, and you deliberately choose joy. When you do, it will take their breath away.

This is the space I am in today. I choose joy because my body, mind, and spirit deserve nothing less. My students also deserve to see their college president doing it her way, wearing her crown with her head held high.

Tip of the hat

For the 2023 edition of Women’s History Month, I am celebrating every woman leader for her bravery and tenacity during these challenging times. I honor our women leaders for standing up when others choose to sit down and for bravely walking the path alone. I honor those women who came from humble beginnings and are now using their lived experiences to change the world.

Finally, I honor every woman leader who proudly leads her college as her authentic self while wearing heels or stilettos, sneakers or oxfords, all while carrying the weight of the world in her Louis Vuitton bag.

This article was originally posted in CC Daily.

Dr. Daria Willis

is president of Howard Community College in Maryland.