Stories of Service


How Service Helps Build Leadership Skills

leadership hands
By Zayn Saifullah

Zayn Saifullah, President of the MN Intercorps Council and College Possible AmeriCorps VISTA member

Serving with College Possible was my first time working in an office bigger than 15 people (in fact, much bigger with 171 staff and AmeriCorps members in Minnesota alone). As a recent graduate, I started out feeling very unconfident in such a comparatively large setting and convinced that my introversion and shyness made me unsuited to leadership.

The needs of my service project and my interactions with College Possible’s staff, however, inspired me to focus on developing my leadership skills during my year of service. While I still have a great deal more to learn, the past year and a half has transformed the way I lead, garnering me new titles, but more importantly, making me more effective in serving my community. 

 So Many Opportunities to Lead Through Service

Through my experiences, I’ve learned that the connections and opportunities for AmeriCorps members to develop as leaders are rather unique. Some of these opportunities are clearly named, like serving as a representative of your program on the Minnesota InterCorps Council (ICC), a body made up of corps members collaborating to put on events and create resources for AmeriCorps members in Minnesota. Through the ICC, representatives can build relationships with other corps members and other civically-minded professionals, including our program advisor, Des Culpitt, who once served in AmerCorps and the ICC and is now an AmeriCorps Program Officer at ServeMinnesota.

If participating in a state-wide committee isn’t your thing, there are many leadership opportunities within your own AmeriCorps services sites – for example, participating in workplace committees or helping to organize events for your organization.

However, I must say that the best part of trying to grow your leadership skills during service is that AmeriCorps roles are inherently oriented toward doing exactly that. Whether in a direct AmeriCorps service role or as an AmeriCorps VISTA member working behind the scenes to help organizations build internal capacity, AmeriCorps positions will help you advance what I define as the core leadership skills: emotional intelligence, influencing, honesty, persistence and agility. 

Here is a closer look at how each of these skills are bolstered by AmeriCorps service:

Emotional intelligence: This is the ability to judiciously self-reflect, listen and empathize with the community that you serve as well as other members of your team and organization. After spending a year or more on a project serving others and better understanding their lives, it’s difficult not to grow in this area.

● Influencing: Often, people think about leading as just giving orders, but building cooperative relationships requires more subtle communication skills than just being authoritative or charismatic. In my role as an AmeriCorps VISTA leader, I need to use clear language to facilitate trainings and advocate for myself and my team. Other AmeriCorps members who serve communities more directly, like College Possible’s student coaches, use language to build trust with and empower the individuals they’re working with.

● Honesty: This skill doesn’t just mean being truthful with your supervisor, but also with yourself. There are times in service where you need to take a step back and ask, “Can I – not my idealized self but my real self – truly take on this task and do it well?” To do so consistently and honestly is difficult and the mark of a good leader. 

Persistence: Service is difficult, largely because we work on difficult issues like homelessness, addiction and unemployment, just to name a few. The work is incredibly rewarding, too, but getting to that emotional payoff and community impact means learning to push through some tough projects and circumstances. 

● Agility: Lastly, agility entails both adaptability and initiative in equal measure. It’s a cliché that nonprofit employees need to wear a lot of hats to fulfill their organizations’ goals, but it’s also very true. Indeed, organizations of all types need employees willing to move flexibly from one thing to the next to support a team effort. Additionally, you’ll learn a ton of new stuff during your service, and in order to not get overwhelmed, you’ll need to learn to prioritize and effectively organize information so you can act on it when the time comes. 

From my experiences, I believe that serving as an AmeriCorps member is a particularly good way to develop your leadership skills. Whether you’re just starting your career or joining with years of professional experience behind you, a year of service can give you the space to reshape yourself through intentional practice to become a better leader in your community and professional life.

Zayn Saifullah is an AmeriCorps VISTA Leader with College Possible in the Twin Cities and President of the Minnesota InterCorps Council. He graduated from Carleton College in 2017 with a BA in International Relations and Minors in Middle Eastern Studies and Arabic. Previously, he has held positions in electoral politics, the federal government and college admissions.

Do you want to build leadership skills through service? Learn more about the many opportunities in AmeriCorps here.

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