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Behind the Scenes: Developing Effective Leader Skills

Maggie Heeger
Madison, Alabama, USA
LEAVEN, February-March 1996, pp. 7-8

Walk into any Series Meeting, and chances are you'll struck by the number of happy women there: women who bubble over with their love of breastfeeding, their commitment to doing what's best for their babies, and their genuine concern for others. You'll also find Leaders who have done their homework. They've completed a great deal of behind-the-scenes preparation to be sure the meeting delivers its promise: to offer mother-to-mother support for breastfeeding. Part of that behind-the-scenes homework is developing Leader skills that create an accepting atmosphere where all opinions can be heard.

Many times the discussions at Series Meetings seem informal and unstructured. Before the meeting, however, Leaders have organized, researched and prepared to have material and appropriate discussion topics ready. It's more than just a mountain of facts. It's our special blend of information and informality that keeps women coming back month after month. That's where effective Leader skills come in.

* Effective Leaders listen more than they talk. The meeting belongs to the mothers; providing a forum for their concerns and suggestions often works better than merely lecturing women on proper breastfeeding procedures. Many times, the Group mothers will bring out the points on your outline during the course of their discussion.

* Effective Leaders share their personal experiences selectively. Offering recollections of your own parenting experiences is good as long as it's not overdone. Leaders take care that the personal experiences they do share illustrate a point, show empathy, or affirm comments. They don't try to show the preferred way of handling a situation or minimize a woman's own experiences.

* Effective Leaders ask questions to bring out concerns and comments. Questions that can be answered with a simple yes or no rarely spur great discussions. Open-ended questions with many possible replies allows for more participation. Questions such as "What led you to feel this way?", "How did you come to that conclusion?", "What were your priorities in that situation? ", "How did you feel after you did that?" all show interest and respect. Discussion questions that are directly tied to the meeting topic help keep conversations from straying to unrelated tangents.

* Effective Leaders don't give advice or guarantee results. Giving advice deprives others of learning how to solve a problem on their own. Leaders provide information and resources that enable women to make choices that they consider best for their families (See pages 22-25 of THE LEADER'S HANDBOOK.).

* Effective Leaders remember that emotions are at play in many questions and concerns women raise. Rushing in with a factual answer without addressing a woman's feelings can be a mistake. Before information is offered, take a minute to identify a woman's concerns that might be veiled beneath the obvious (See Pages 16-18 of THE LEADER'S HANDBOOK).

* Effective Leaders watch for body language and reactions. Recognizing non- verbal cues helps Leaders avoid misunderstandings that come from seeing and hearing many new ideas at our meetings. Observation skills can tell a Leader when it's time to go on to another topic, continue with a topic even though she'd planned to cover more at the meeting, or even to cut the meeting short .

* Effective Leaders watch for competing aspects of meetings--snacks, toddlers, side conversations. These can distract from the meeting. Having an observant co-Leader responsible for monitoring these areas allows a Leader to focus on the meeting. Discuss with your Leader Applicant ways to reduce or eliminate these obstacles to smooth-running meetings.

* Effective Leaders remember that they're La Leche League International representatives. Our actions, attitudes and behavior may be the only picture of La Leche League that women will receive. LLLI representatives remember that they have limits to the types of material they discuss, and carefully avoid mixing causes.

* Effective Leaders have a few phrases ready to help them cope with surprising situations. Sometimes it takes a minute to catch your breath and decide on the best way to respond. If you've found a helpful response, share it with your Group's Leader Applicant. Some Leaders pause to offer the idea for group discussion. Something along the lines of "Has anyone else experienced this situation?" will help Leaders gather their thoughts while other mothers share their experiences.

* Effective Leaders familiarize themselves with resources. WAB, LH, BAB, reprints, Information Sheets, library books, and our support staff enable Leaders to offer helpful information to mothers with concerns. Take some time to educate Leader Applicants on how and when to consult our many resources. District Advisors, Professional Liaison Leaders, and Human Relations Enrichment Instructors all have reference material and support to offer, but you have to know it's there.

* Effective Leaders know how the Group works. They should be able to accurately record treasury and library information, be familiar with Group procedures and give the impression that the local Group is a great place to be involved. THE LEADER'S HANDBOOK offers general instruction, and your Area Council can provide specific information on how local Groups operate.

* Effective Leaders dress for the role. We want to be seen as being competent without being unapproachable; comfortable yet credible; and projecting a positive image of discreet breastfeeding in public. Take cues from the community you serve; dress for a Series Meeting might be significantly different from clothes worn to a health professional's workshop, but it's always neat and appropriate.

Behind the scenes preparations are what put the sparkle in Series Meetings. When Leaders care enough to create that friendly atmosphere, mothers respond with repeat attendance and willing participation....and isn't that what it's all about?

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