Stephanie J. Armstrong On Heart Of Leadership!
Stephanie J. Armstrong is the founder of Heart Of Leadership, a movement that empowers young women to lead by supporting their personal development and overall wellness. Through sisterhood and service, girls across the world have discovered their potential to be leaders.
In a Q&A with Stephanie, we asked her about her own background in leadership, and why it's so important for women to be represented and take the lead!
Can you tell us a little bit about your own experiences as a teenager? How did that eventually lead to the formation of Heart of Leadership?
As a teen, I was never the best student or athlete, but I generally made honor roll and was a nationally ranked swimmer. I worked very hard and was very driven. For example, I didn't miss a swim practice of my 8-9 per week for almost four years. Through terrible weather, sickness, and injuries, I'd go to practice no matter what.
For the most part, I enjoyed a wide network of friends. While I generally had a group that I considered my "best" friends, I connected with different groups of people and never liked the idea of cliques. That said, as much as I want to think that I was inclusive all the time, I can definitely remember excluding girls and being mean. I am not proud of that.
In retrospect, I can see that I was very insecure. Other people might not have known it, but I cared desperately about what other people thought of me and never felt like one of the "cool" kids. There were always parties I wasn't invited to and people who didn't want to hang out with me.
My insecurity coupled with some hard times (a broken friendship, a bad experience with a boy, and what I considered to be a "failed" Nationals at a big time in my swimming career) ended up leading me down a dark path come my senior year in high school. I was depressed, had an eating disorder, and was making poor choice after poor choice. I didn't know who I was, and the dark cycle I was in fed itself. I had built a life that looked good – perfect, even – from the outside, but felt miserable inside.
Heart of Leadership exists out of my own experience, but more so, out of the shared experience of so many women and girls – who ache to be "perfect." The women and girls who serve and participate in Heart of Leadership understand that the most well intended perfectionism can thwart success, and we are united in helping women and girls understand that true success come from being whole, authentic, unique, and compassionate.
Heart of Leadership was created to help young women navigate the pressures of achievement as they rise as leaders in their schools, communities, and future careers.
We believe that today's young women are our next generation of leaders, and that they have all of the opportunity they need to lead and to lead well. We want to give them the greatest chance to succeed, and we believe success comes from the inside out. We want to see girls build sustainable success and to support one another along the way.
What made you decide you wanted to become a sort of spokesperson for body image and self esteem?
I appreciate that you see me that way, and I can't say that I set out one day to "become a sort of spokesperson for body image and self esteem," per se.
I did, however, decide in 2008 that I was going to stop living the life I "should" be living and to start following my heart. I had ignored what I really wanted in life for so long that I literally made myself sick. I was in recovery from an eating disorder, working in a good job that I didn't love, and had recently broken off an engagement with my high school sweetheart. While I thought my life was in shambles, the truth was that I was being given a chance to re-choose my life and my path. I was being given a chance to this time be true to my heart and to lead with love.
I started volunteering with organizations that supported young women, and at one, I met JC Pohl, the creator of Teen Truth Live. He had talked with over a million teens about bullying through his amazing school assembly program. He and his producing partner Erahm wanted to create a body image program. Six months later, I left my corporate job to travel North America doing school assemblies on body image and self esteem.
Listening to the stories of the students I spoke with lit and fire inside me to do everything I can to support young people in being their best. Girls today have so much opportunity and face great challenge as well. I am incredibly passionate about supporting young people – especially young women – in developing healthy self-esteem. Heart of Leadership was created as an answer to the countless stories I heard from the young women I have spoken to and worked with.
Why are these issues so vital to teen girls in particular, and why are they essential for female leaders?
Leadership begins within. Leadership – the sustainable kind – comes from people who understand their values – and their value – and who lead from that place.
When girls can be comfortable and confident in navigating the issues they face everyday (school pressure, social media, and body image to name a few), they are examples to their peers. When they can help others in navigating the issues their most relevant challenges, that is leadership.
As young women develop confidence to lead by embodying health and wholeness in their teens, they are laying the foundation to thrive as leaders in their adult years.
For a long time, it seemed that females weren't really encouraged to become leaders. Have you seen that change over time, and why is that change important?
We are very lucky to be alive right now. Shortly after accepting an athletic scholarship to the University of Michigan, I wrote my high school thesis on Title IX. The women who came before us have paved the way for this generation to rise as heart-centered leaders. Gone are the days where female leaders need play like the guys. We are rounding the bend to a time when we can be authentic, compassionate, collaborative leaders and still win.
While there is great progress being made in the world today, environmental, social, and political exploitation is pervasive. We need people who are smart and ambitious to rise as heart-centered leaders. We need to see people in the top positions leading from love. We need to see this from both men and women, and since I'm a woman and I work mostly with girls, Heart of Leadership's mission is to help girls develop into heart-centered women.
The next generation will innovate in ways we can't imagine now, and part of the innovation will come from women and feminine qualities being accepted in leadership positions.
As girls and women have more access to education and resources, why do you think there is still a leadership gap between men and women?
Great question. The gap still exists for many reasons. For the purpose of this question, I will focus on two: biology and us.
One, men and women are biologically different. The fact that we bear children impacts how we live our lives. While some companies and industries are becoming progressively supportive of working mothers, we still have a long ways to go in learning how to support women in making it through their childbearing years while leaning in to their careers. Research shows that for many women, the purposefulness of motherhood can override her desire to stay in her career, especially if she doesn't find it very fulfilling.
I recommend Loraine Brizandine's The Female Brain. Her research as a UCSF neuroscientist shows that women's brains are biologically different because of the estrogen that floods them at various life stages. Our brain chemistry invokes our desire to connect and collaborate. Estrogen makes us better multitaskers and less single-focused. We are sensitive and empathetic.
We need to see these qualities – such as empathy and connection – in the boardrooms of the world's biggest corporations, its most innovative startups, and its most impactful social enterprises. When we start to see a shift in leadership from being single-focused on producing results, we will start to see a healthier, sustainable world.
Two. While biology is a factor in the gap, the factor that Heart of Leadership focuses on most is that women and girls hold ourselves and each other back. The ways we doubt ourselves and disconnect from our intuition hold us back. The ways we compete with and judge one another hold us back.
Never before have women and girls had more opportunity than they have today. This opportunity means we all have choices to make. Some of us will choose to get married and/or have children, and others will not. Some will choose to work and some will choose to be stay-at-home moms. When we learn to stop judging one another for our choices and realize that we can really help one another, that is when we will start to see a change. When women start to realize that in our collaboration lies our power, we will start to see more women rising to the top…with her friends, family and colleagues cheering her on rather than scowling at her for sending her kids to daycare.
What is the biggest change you plan to make in the world with Heart of Leadership?
You know….when I started Heart of Leadership, I wanted to change the world. I saw a terrible injustice in the fact that 1 out of 4 girls today are suffering from depression, suicidal thoughts, cutting, eating disorders, or other severe mental illness. I know – from personal experience – that some of these girls are our hope for the next generation of leaders. I know from personal experience that while a subset of these girls do have chemical imbalances that need proper medical support, many of these girls are suffering because they are silencing their intuition. They're looking to the world to tell them who they should be instead of becoming who they are. I know this because I did that. I wanted the biggest change Heart of Leadership makes to be that girls have the best chance to be tomorrow's leaders – authentic to who they are as compassionate, wholehearted women.
That said, I have realized in one short year, that the biggest change I plan to make in the world with Heart of Leadership is to be the change I want to see. I want to wake each day and challenge myself to live more wholeheartedly – to choose love for myself and others daily. I believe the greatest impact we can make is what we do with our own lives. Each choice we make matters. The power of our message is in our authenticity.
As I am the change I want to see, others are drawn to that. The biggest change that I plan to make in the world with Heart of Leadership is to be a leader in my home and community who lives and leads from her heart. In that commitment, I will collaborate with women and work with girls who are committed to being that change as well. And we, being both independent and interdependent, will change the world by being people who lead with love. I hope that each of us involved with Heart of Leadership lives what we teach. That is the change I want to see.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
The only other thing I would like to add is that none of this happened overnight. My high school athletic success came from hard work daily over a decade or more; my eating disorder developed through many, many poor choices, as well as some predispositions; and Heart of Leadership has been built one faithful step at time.
I have always been anxious, and I have always wanted to make a difference. This combination has perpetually left me feeling behind and not enough in some way. I have generally had a hard time appreciating the journey, and as I get older, I realize that it is truly the journey that matters. The results will come when we are living well each day – in each moment – present to the people and experiences happening right now.
If you have the desire on your heart to make a difference, don't wait until you're perfect to get out there and start helping. Just do it. The path will unfold. It may get darker before the light shines upon it, but the light will shine. It just does…when we let it.
For even more on Stephanie J. Armstong, check out Heart Of Leadership's official page and Stephanie's social pages listed below. You can also join us at SweetyHigh.com to tell us how you lead!