Hidden Leadership — the surprising way you can change the world

“What I changed, I could; what I couldn’t, I endured.”  

Dorothy Vaughan

Movie and song references typically fly right over my head. I often joke that the only popular culture I’m familiar with is between 1987 and 1995. Aside from that, life’s been pretty full.

So it’s not unusual that I was late to watch the Hidden Figures movie. Biographies, especially inspiring ones, are my favorite. But I did not anticipate how much this movie would move me. The book is even better!

Certainly, the stories of Katherine Goble and Mary Jackson were powerful and inspiring. And John Glenn became even more legendary to me.

Learning about Dorothy Vaughan changed my understanding of leadership.

Dorothy Johnson Vaughan
Dorothy Vaughan

She showed us that we can change the world through work, even when we’re not in charge. She showed us that we don’t need official titles to guide others to a brighter future. And she showed us that we can get around barriers when our skills are so good they can’t be ignored.

Whether your leadership is obvious or hidden, here are four lessons from Dorothy’s story that we can apply.

1. Remind yourself that it’s not about you

Leadership works best when we take the focus off ourselves. It’s amazing what we can endure and accomplish when we visualize the future victories we’re laying the foundations for.

“Not everyone could take the long hours and high stakes of working at Langley, but most of the women in West Computing felt that if they didn’t stand up to the pressure, they’d forfeit their opportunity, and maybe opportunity for the women who would come after them.”

2. Use your influence for good — always good

As our influence grows, we’ll often have the opportunity for payback — to neglect or wound someone symbolic to our oppressors. We must do the opposite. We must be the leaders we wish to have.

“The meeting between Dorothy Vaughan and Henry Pearson ended as they both knew it would, with Pearson offering Katherine Goble a permanent position in his group, the Maneuver Loads Branch, with a corresponding increase in salary. Dorothy’s insistence also had a collateral effect: one of the white computers in the branch, in the same limbo position as Katherine, had herself gone to Pearson to petition for a raise. The white woman’s request had fallen on deaf ears. The rules are the rules, Dorothy reminded Henry Pearson. Dorothy wielded her influence to win promotions for both Katherine and her white colleague.”

3. Look ahead and prepare

Even when we’ve secured a certain level of success, we can’t get comfortable. We must continue to find time to assess threats and opportunities. And we must do the research to determine what adjustments and next actions are needed.

“The female mathematicians’ job security wasn’t immediately threatened by the machines, but Dorothy Vaughan perceived that mastering the machine would be the key to long-term career stability. When Langley sponsored a series of computation courses to be held after work and on weekends, Dorothy wasted no time enrolling.”

4. Impart your vision to your team

Once we’ve done our research and identified the path ahead, we must share it with others. This willingness to be the ‘canary in the coal mine’ is what moves generations forward. Certainly, it is uncomfortable, and often we will be criticized. Regardless, we must do our best to show others the opportunity and how to seize it.

“She had the foresight to not only figure out how to use [the IBM machines], but that they were going to need people to program them. So she taught herself how to program. And she allowed the other women to reinvent themselves by teaching them how to program as well.”

“Dorothy’s hunch that those who knew how to program the devices wouldn’t want for work was a correct one.”

More than anything, Dorothy Vaughan’s story gave me hope and strength. She reminded me that meaningful progress doesn’t happen quickly and is full of complications and unexpected obstacles.

We can be frustrated, even angry. The key is to also be strategic and patient, ready to secure progressive milestones when opportunities arise.

What change are you working towards? How can you better prepare?

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