How to Build Leadership Skills Personalized to You and Your Career

During her first year at Bradley, Lindsey Donlan didn’t feel much overlap with her own conceptions of leadership. She was shy and reserved and a transplant to the Midwest — a native of Bossier City, La., the smaller sister town across the river from Shreveport, La.

“My idea of a leader was the loudest person in the room,” Donlan said. “I just didn’t see myself as that.”

But as someone who chose Bradley for its highly ranked nursing program , Donlan knew she wanted to grow her own self-confidence in the health care setting after college.

Signs around campus for Bradley Fellows advertised a leadership development program for students, which captured Donlan’s interest. The promise of $2,000 in annual scholarship money didn’t hurt, either.

What Donlan learned in the two years of participating in the Fellows program completely shifted her perspective on leadership, gave her a better understanding of the Peoria community and even changed the trajectory of her career aspirations.

That’s the type of outcome Bradley staff members hoped for in pausing the long-running Fellows program in 2020 to re-shape its priorities for the modern student. Donlan and the others in her cohort who completed the program this spring were the first since its revision two years ago.

“The program is designed to encourage students to explore important aspects of leadership including multiculturalism, personal responsibility, global perspectives and community engagement,” said Cara Wood, Bradley’s director of student activities. “When they graduate, participants are better prepared to become leaders in the workforce and their community.”

The topic of the program’s first semester — personal responsibility — hooked Donlan right away, especially its focus on emotional intelligence and compassion. In order to understand others in a workplace or professional setting, she learned, it’s vital to gain a better awareness of one’s own self.

“Understanding yourself, being able to regulate your emotions and understand how other people impact your emotions ... it almost gives you a leg up in the world, “ Donlan said.

While these seminar topics better informed her own sense of leadership, Donlan’s Fellows experience transformed in the time she spent at her continual volunteer site, Central Illinois Friends, a free sexual health and wellness clinic addressing vulnerable and underserved populations in central Illinois. Fellows participants must volunteer with local organizations to translate some of the leadership principles from the seminars into a practical, real-world setting.

Donlan developed a passion for public health during her volunteer work and saw the leadership traits she learned in Fellows embodied by everyone at Friends: nonjudgmental, compassionate and advocating for those who need help the most.

“They’re not outspoken leaders; they’re leaders by action. It was such a great example for me to observe and participate in for two years. And I’m really glad Fellows gave me that.”

Donlan started her post-graduate job as a nurse at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis last month but didn’t leave behind the spirit of the Fellows program. Bradley’s Smith Career Center worked with her to identify organizations in St. Louis that mirror the mission of Central Illinois Friends and allow her to continue volunteering in the public health space.

She now hopes her career path includes working at a community-based nonprofit, where her own brand of leadership complements the organization.

“Sometimes the best leaders are the ones that you don’t realize are leading you,” she said.

— Thomas Bruch