Your life experiences help shape your approach to being a leader

Leadership approaches are not boxed sets of applications that are neatly shelved, then pulled down when you need them. It is better to think of these approaches as an accumulation of interrelated experiences and skills that serve as the foundation for your current responsibilities and future growth.

This integration is one of the essential cornerstones of my own leadership model, and specifically what I call the three essentials of leadership: education, experience and exposure.

The second of these, experience, certainly includes one’s ascension through various jobs and the knowledge accrued in the process. The experience most instructive to me was my bout with Hurricane Katrina while I served as chancellor of Delgado Community College in New Orleans. The lessons learned from this episode transformed me into a more tactical, deliberate, patient and sensitive leader.

Looking back, however, it seems I have been working, and learning, all my life. I remember my first job at age 11 in New York City, bagging groceries for tips. I shined shoes on Times Square and 42nd Street, before the glitter and activity it now exudes, and worked in a barbershop brushing off customers and sweeping up hair.

When I was 14, I worked in a summer program for youth funded by President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty. The small earnings from these jobs were liberating, but the work in the youth program, especially, provided more satisfaction. I was rewarded by connecting with the children and inspired by the senior counselors — all college students — who first planted the dream of a college education in my head.

Another experience instrumental in shaping my leadership approach is a personal one: my segregated early childhood in Concord, North Carolina. Although the landmark 1954 U.S. Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board of Education launched the modern-day civil rights movement, it did not transform my experience in that small town 17 miles east of Charlotte.

I continued to enroll in schools and worship at a church built for black folks only. I attended a segregated movie theater, where blacks sat in the balcony. And my family shopped at a department store where we were not permitted to try on the clothes before purchasing them.

Even in this environment of separation and exclusion, my parents, James and Betty Davis, taught me that to gain equality, I must first respect, work and persevere. My maternal grandparents, Willie and Marion Johnson, encouraged me to strive for educational attainment that would lead to a livelihood.

And, above all else, to apply what I learned in the classroom, in the crucible of work and beyond to become an active citizen committed to causes that improve the lives of my neighbors.

This experience, and my parents’ and grandparents’ lessons, are even more critical during our nation’s current period of divisiveness and upheaval. Creating a new generation of leaders depends on empowered, responsible individuals with dreams bigger than themselves, who not only live in their communities, but also live for their communities.

This is adapted from Alex Johnson’s forthcoming book, “Change the Lapel Pin,” published by Smart Business Books. Alex Johnson, Ph. D., is president at Cuyahoga Community College.