Welcome to Leaders Rising, where we explore the development journey of leaders who’ve risen from the ashes of adversity, examining the leadership gifts born from their experiences, the challenges that have held them back, and the moves they’ve made to transcend hardship and openly face the ragged edges that still remain.
Growing up, Michelle Mitchell often felt she was living in the shadow of her older siblings. The youngest of seven, “It was a full house,” Michelle remembers, even before her mom adopted her two first cousins, bringing the total number of children to nine. “My older sisters were very, very smart,” she recalls. “When I was in high school, they were always in the school newspaper… they could sing, they were in school plays, they lettered in sports-they could do everything.” Michelle’s family, led by a single mother, was marked by inspiringly strong and resilient women. And while Michelle aspired to outshine her sisters’ talents, she often felt like her own gifts would never live up to theirs. “It was a high bar and some big shoes to fill,” she recalls. To try and prove herself, she often worked twice as hard to succeed. “If they studied an hour, I felt like I needed to put in two hours.”
Michelle worked relentlessly, and yet her belief that she could never match the siblings she so deeply admired left her feeling like she didn’t fit in. “My identity was really driven by who they were,” she recalls, “and I was in their shadow for a very long time.” Meanwhile, Michelle wouldn’t often see her mother, who worked two, or sometimes even three jobs to support the family. In the mornings before leaving for work, Michelle’s mother would place lunch money for her nine children on the counter before they were even awake. Michelle’s oldest brother would divvy up the change while they dressed for school. On weeknights, Michelle was often already asleep before her mother would return home-though she tried often to stay up late, hoping to catch a quick glimpse of her mom. “I would often see her crying at night,” she remembers, “and when I got a little older I’d asked her why she was crying. She would tell me she didn’t know how she was going to pay the bills and how she was going to feed all these children.”
Growing up, Michelle watched her biggest role model work constantly in support of others-and not just their family. Her mother, who was active in her church community, advocated for neighbors who couldn’t pay an electricity bill, or who were facing eviction. “I remember seeing her drive a car full of women to work,” Michelle says, “because they didn’t have transportation.” Though her family didn’t have much financially, Michelle understands now, as a child she never felt impoverished. “I cannot ever remember missing a meal,” she recalls, “and trust me, there were plenty of hand-me-downs… but I never realized what we didn’t have because there was always more than enough.” The sense of safety and abundance Michelle felt growing up was a testament to her mother’s faith and strength-defining qualities that still loom, for Michelle, as larger than life.
I knew that in order to succeed I had to work hard. That was something that was ingrained in me.
The importance of hard work was a core value instilled in her by her mother, and as Michelle grew older hard work began to define her path toward leadership. At seventeen-before she was even old enough to enlist without parental permission-Michelle joined the Army. She knew the decision would ultimately provide her with valuable training and education. After three years of enlisted service, Michelle received a Reserve Officer Training Corps scholarship and became an officer after completing college. Over the next twenty-five years she would move progressively up military ranks. “I knew that in order to succeed I had to work hard. That was something that was ingrained in me,” Michelle remembers. Today, she understands deeply that her successes were in many ways attributable not just to being a leader, but to being supported by a team.
Early in her career, she learned to measure success through progress. “I am always driven by being the winner-you always want to do the best, you always want your team to come in first, “ Michelle explains. “But I learned very early on, sometimes you can’t measure success by coming in first. Coming in first is not always the win. Sometimes the win is just doing better than what you did last time.” As a leader and self-described perfectionist, Michelle discovered she sometimes had to adjust unrealistically high expectations. She learned to recognize others’ limitations and to offer praise when her team met or exceeded goals and standards. She internalized the importance of motivating others by praising their success. “Motivate them to do better,” she advises, “and make sure you’re rewarding their excellence.”
As Michelle had learned through her mother’s hard work, there were times when she had to set the bar for herself. “Sometimes if you want your team to do better, you have to emulate better,” she advises. Yet ultimately, her leadership development path offered Michelle the gift of understanding every individual’s contribution to the team’s success as vitally important. “Everybody has something to offer,” she came to understand, “your success is not yours alone.” With this knowledge, helping others to internalize their own value would become Michelle’s gift-one she would employ in her military career and beyond.
Working most recently in support of her husband-a former Coast Guard member-as he transitioned into a career as a pastor, Michelle’s experiences in leadership helped her bring a supportive framework to their music ministry. Both Michelle and her husband sing and play keyboards. In bringing their love of music to the helm of a group of passionate parishioners with varying levels of talent and experience, Michelle knew that in order for her praise and worship team to succeed, she would need to provide them with tools and with structure. So, she and her husband began distributing music months in advance, and encouraging the group to study scores and attend scheduled rehearsals. What had been previously a haphazard effort soon became ministry work clearly invested in a commitment to excellence. By assessing the problem, giving the group tools to be successful, and encouraging them to tap into their potential she and her husband came to realize, “We are only successful when the team is successful.”
Everybody has something to offer, your success is not yours alone.
In her professional career, Michelle kept moving up military ranks. As she helped others learn to internalize their own value, she still struggled with internalizing her own and was continually haunted with self-doubt. “I always felt as an adult that I wasn’t enough,” she laments. In the Army, her insecurity was compounded further by the feeling that she stood out. Fitting in had always felt like a challenge for Michelle-though she hadn’t experienced overt racism as a child or young adult, she was always one of the few people of color in her high school and college. And in the military, as a woman of color working primarily for white males, she felt as conspicuous as ever. “When I looked around the room,” Michelle recalls, “a lot of people in the room did not look like me.” Moreover, as a self-identified introvert, Michelle also often felt like her personality ran counter to what was being expected of her. She describes herself in meetings among key leaders as “literally shaking in her boots.”
Doubting herself, Michelle began to worry that her superiors might eventually give more attention to her peers than to her. Reflecting on some of the white colleagues with which she worked, she remembers her insecurity vividly: “I kept thinking, ‘These guys are smarter than me’.” Michelle’s central fears, however-her concerns that she didn’t fit in or that she would never be good enough-would ultimately not define her story. She learned how to perform confidently and continued leaning on the steadfast values modeled by her mother. “I knew I needed to work hard… I was ‘work hard’ on steroids,” she puts it bluntly. “Now I’m the perfectionist beyond perfectionists.” Michelle would continue to bring one-hundred-plus percent effort to her leadership. And though her efforts continued to pay dividends as she secured repeated promotions and took on roles with increased responsibility, it wouldn’t be until late in her career that Michelle would begin to stop worrying whether or not she belonged. “Deep down I was always challenged to fit in in the room,” she admits. “What I needed was to just walk in a room and kick the door down.”
Sometimes the barriers we have are the barriers we make ourselves.
And as a woman of color in a metaphorical-and sometimes literal-room of white men, Michelle placed great importance on making an impact. She knew that there were others who looked like her, and who didn’t look like her, who hadn’t been promoted or afforded opportunities that she had been. And so, modeling the same strength she had watched her mother muster again and again, Michelle resolved not to disappoint her peers. She resolved to be an example of how when women of color-and when women, period-were given key leadership positions, that they could and would perform. “It’s the impact that you make while you’re in the room that makes the difference,” she says. “I looked at what I was given and I said, ‘I need to make sure that what I do makes enough of a mark that others will have the opportunities that I’ve been given.’”
In times of self-doubt, Michelle returned again and again to her faith-her belief that she would be provided what she needed to persevere. And ultimately, she came to understand that much of her insecurity had always been just a product of her own mind. “Sometimes the barriers we have,” she confesses, “are the barriers we make ourselves.” Michelle’s peers and her bosses had believed in her. “I reaped the benefits of having a team who wanted me to succeed… the people I worked for didn’t see me as I saw me,” Michelle finally understood. “I was already in the room. I just needed to be me.” By the time she retired after over 28 years of service, Michelle had been promoted through every level of leadership up to colonel. In her last post as the Garrison Commander at Fort Belvoir in Virginia, she commanded nearly fourteen-hundred service members, civilians, and contractors.
Having retired in 2017, Michelle has now turned her efforts toward supporting and advocating for her community. She models leadership today through what she describes as boots-on-the-ground service, volunteering for the American Red Cross, delivering funds, water, supplies, and food to those in need. Michelle recognizes that in the military, she was supported fiercely by teammates and leaders who refused to let her fail. Reflecting now on the societal fractures of racism and poverty that she was lucky to have been largely spared from growing up, Michelle hopes now to see the supportiveness and inclusion that was modeled for her during her career to be realized one day on a global scale. “Some of the challenges are the system,” she recognizes, “and some of it is internal to us.” So, whether through her spiritual ministry or through helping those in need access food and shelter, Michelle aspires now to work toward a just world wherein each individual’s differences are accepted, and their inherent value celebrated.
In dedicating her life to service, Michelle has taken up a mantle that seems ever more like the one her mother once carried. By giving her energy in support of others, Michelle is a role model paving the way for those behind her. Her aspirations are to spread love and healing as far as she can. “You have to work hard,” she acknowledges, “and along the way you have to take care of people. They absolutely have to matter.”
You can learn more about Michelle Mitchell’s work with the Metropolitan United Methodist Church here: https://metroumcindianhead.com
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Originally published at https://www.trueformleadership.com on March 25, 2021.