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A Girl's Guide to Leadership with Sheri Shaw

Updated: Feb 5, 2021

Training women to lead is a huge motivating factor behind the work we are doing at The Inspiration Lab. Leadership is complex, and there is a stunning amount of research about what makes a great leader. It can sometimes be hard to articulate what makes someone worth following, but we often know it when we see it. Sheri Shaw is a person worth following. She is a woman on a mission, one who knows a thing or two about assembling and leading a tribe.

What is your earliest memory of being a “leader”?

Oh, this is a fun one… I was in first grade, in a play about dental hygiene, and I was the toothbrush in the play. I had to instruct all the first graders in the school, alongside a peer who played the dentist, how to brush their teeth. Dressed as a toothbrush (thanks, mom, for your handy-dandy sewing skills), I had to lead more than 100 peers on dental health and the actual act of brushing their teeth. The funny thing is, some of my elementary friends, now in their 40s with children, remember this play and have taught their kids how to brush their teeth using the same method! Ha! I bet you have not heard that before!

Which leader has had the most impact on your life? What made them so extraordinary?

Just one? But there are so many! So many people saw potential in me, and I am so grateful for everyone who has poured into me. It’s my mom, who encouraged me to be inquisitive; my Aunt Beauty, who exposed me to a myriad of careers and ensured my handwriting was impeccable; Mrs. Keller, my middle school math teacher, who stayed late to teach me geometry; Ms. White, my middle school soft skills teacher, who allowed me to sew my final project over to increase my knowledge of stitching (which led to attending the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising); it’s Coach Dash, my high school volleyball and track coach, who forced me to change my way of play and my positions on the relays and on the court, which helped increase my speed and vertical jump, allowing me to be considered for college athletic scholarships; and even Ms. Rickelman, my fifth grade teacher, who disciplined me for playing with the class’s magic eight ball (you remember that toy, don’t you?) during a spelling bee test! (Ha! I was praying for a miracle!)

However, if I had to recognize one leader who had the most impact, [it] would be Jen Themanson, my first full-time supervisor, who poured into me [when I was] 26, and taught me everything she knew about academic affairs. Under her leadership, I wrote and presented a program proposal that resulted in a $2 million endowment and created my first endowed program at the University of Illinois. Within eight months, Jen transitioned to another position, and I was the only one who knew her role and all the administrative and programmatic aspects; so, at 26 years of age, I became the acting assistant dean at a Big 10, R1 university. Jen was extraordinary because she expanded my knowledge, allowed me to dream without bounds, and supported and poured into me, professionally and personally. I believe that leaders invest, support, and help reduce the knowledge gaps by equipping individuals with the tools and vehicles, and when possible, leaders expand your pathway. Jen was intentional, supportive, engaging, and patient.

For women who are worried they don’t have what it takes to be a leader, or who struggle with self-doubt, what would you say?

One of my favorite quotes is in Heart Talk by Cleo Wade (buy it, read it, and keep it on you for when you are faced with anxiety, self-doubt, and all the things that stump you). It says, “We may not have the power to control what shows up at our door, but we always, always, always have the power to decide what stays and goes.”

I feel that as women, we are very self-critical. We could have just built the Taj Mahal, and instead of feeling a sense of immense accomplishment, we focus on the extended timeline that it took to build or that the stone color is not “exactly” the desired color. We hardly sit, pause, take a deep breath, clap for ourselves, and say… “Great job.” So, I say first, we must learn to pause, compliment, and reflect. We have to applaud the work, time, and results — not immediately look for ways to improve or wait for others to applaud us and the work.

Second, everyone has what it takes to be a leader... yes, you too! But the struggle you are experiencing around the aspects of leadership or the feelings of self-doubt are the same that Brené Brown, Oprah, and Michelle Obama have faced and continue to face. So it is important to remember, you are not alone... and you got this! And let’s be honest, some people will not like what you are doing and will not support you, simply because you are trying and they are not. We must realize that their dissatisfaction is in fact their own insecurity of going through their own self-care and self-doubt battles. However, when you feel your back is against the wall, you must continue to lead, impact, and do the work… quite simply because you must.

Last week, in conversation with a friend, she said that oftentimes a woman measures her success by how much she can solely carry on her back until she breaks. And I agree, because I, as well as so many of my lady friends, equate leadership and success to the same formula. A leader cannot continue to be the lone “doer,” isolating others and their value out of the work because it is not the way “we would do it,” and then desire everyone to call her a “leader.” Self-doubt sinks in because we self-isolate and take on all the work. So, finally, we must create and engage a team. The collective becomes a partnership, and you are leading and following throughout the partnership, which is the healthy balance. It is quite challenging to focus on self-doubt when you work alongside others for a common purpose. Self-doubt turns into encouragement and team appraisals, and you, in fact, grow in strength, balance, self-care, and confidence, ultimately rising as a leader.

Do you agree with John Maxwell, who basically said leadership is influence?

I believe John Maxwell provided a good basis to create the conversation around leadership, but from my perspective, I do not believe leadership is built on influence. I believe leadership should focus less on influence and more on transformation rooted in love and hope. Transformational leadership focuses on team building, and equips individuals and a team with a clear sense of vision, mission, and goals. It allows for the collective to all have a shared voice to establish and create thoughts all around the common purpose.

Transformational leadership also allows you to be the leader and follower simultaneously, placing you on both sides of the team equation, allowing you to use the collective intelligence for problem-solving, while positioning yourself as the leader to guide your attention and coaching for the team. When you decide to interlace and integrate transformational leadership with hope and love, you are able to create a mechanism that allows you to tackle any challenge because you are investing in the team, not just the goal. Hope and love feeds the soul, personally and professionally, and creates roots in the team [that are] focused on team growth and happiness. All leaders must create a healthy balance of love, hope, and transformation. By focusing on these things, influence will take care of itself, in the right design and with the best of intentions.

What top leadership traits are you working on cultivating within yourself?

Currently, I am focused on cultivating the trait of practicing pause. As I mentioned previously, I am one of the women who, if I built the Taj Mahal, I would find the missing blade of grass (I know I’m not alone… come on, admit it… many of you are guilty too!) Truth is, I often find myself evaluating the project or program as it is happening. In fact, it happened recently. A couple months ago, at work, I initiated a new celebration. It was highly attended, but my focus was drawn to the reason some did not attend, versus the excitement of the hundreds in attendance. I believe, as a leader, we are wired to look at the glass half empty rather than half full… especially when there is an opportunity for judgement. It is like we practice a self-deprecating, critical view of ourselves to almost beat others to the punch.

So I have really worked to focus on practicing pause, appreciating the work, and laughing at the should’ve, would’ve, and could’ve. I believe the act of practicing pause allows oneself to really honor the work, time, and space.

I desire to practice pause more intentionally, live in the moment without self-criticism, and join in on the shared transformational experience. I am working through this new practice with vigor and vitality!

What resources, programs, workshops, podcasts, etc., do you recommend for women who want to become better leaders?

Ladies, use your resources, locally and nationally! Since being in the area for nearly three years, I have participated and completed Leadership North Carolina (and currently have a seat on the board), Leadership Wilmington, and currently am a part of the Wilma leadership program. Additionally, I am in the administrative leadership program at work, and have completed many of the available training in the area. I have been trained in crucial conversations, solution-focused brief therapy, and online trainings on skill development, such as Excel proficiency, Adobe software training, and a host more.

I encourage you to join local and national nonprofit and community boards, and find ways to practice working alongside teams that include diverse constituents, so you can grow your perspective and be more understanding of someone’s unique experiences around a shared topic. It is amazing how two people at the same time and place experience an action or program differently! Do not be afraid of the tough conversations. As a leader, you will have them, so embrace them and lean in!

I sincerely recommend reading Cleo Wade (Heart Talk), Elaine Welteroth (More Than Enough), Elizabeth Gilbert (Big Magic), and of course, Michelle Obama’s book (Becoming). Or if you can’t read them, listen through an audio book app — convenient and well worth it! Another book I read that I enjoyed was written by Shonda Rhimes, Year of Yes. Rhimes’ book helped me realize that one has more potential beyond their boundaries, and we as women often say no out of fear. We must learn to not let fear paralyze us! There is so much on the other side of fear!

A couple podcasts I enjoy are led by Jemele Hill, Les Brown, Oprah, and Dave Stachowiak. Additionally, after the Rhimes read, I said “yes” more, and, coupled with The Inspiration Lab’s Banner Year Blueprint, I created my own monthly podcast, “Black Woman Working…”, which currently has more than 1,300 plays and over 400 subscribers after just four months! Sometimes you have to create the space you wish existed (thanks, Stephanie)! Black Woman Working... aims to inform, connect, and protect the spirit, honor, and vulnerability of black women as they work on and through life's adversities and possibilities. The great thing about the podcast is [it] has reached past black women and many of the listeners are diverse, including men!

In sum, live your life in leadership in an all-encompassing way, personally and professionally, and exist abundantly and creatively, even through the professional knee scrapes and ego bruises. And ladies, remember… you got this!


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