• Ashley Lang

A Leadership Speech for High School Students

Lions Club Honors Banquet

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

I was asked to be a speaker for the Lions Club Honors Banquet on Wednesday, May 5, 2021. This speech was shared with local high school students who hold a GPA of 3.5 or higher as a part of the banquet. Lions Club members, high school students, and principals of

Don Bosco & Jesup High Schools were present.

Good evening everyone!

My name is Ashley Lang, longtime Jesup community member, entrepreneur, mom, coach, educator, life-long learner, and founder of Goal Digger, a leadership coaching business focused on helping others help themselves through self-awareness. For as long as I can remember, so many of these titles have been a part of my life. Just like many of you, I grew up in Jesup and was on a mission to figure out my place in not just my school, but my community. I was a student, athlete, musician, and so much more because of the support of my community.

Life is about choices and having a sense of who you are or what you want your story to be. Start considering what you want to be remembered for, what do you want your legacy to be. Yes, there will be obstacles, but know you have supporters, listeners, encouragers, problem-solvers, and so much more here for you in your home community.

As students, athletes, musicians, and community members you have accomplished a great deal already, but there is still much to do. Think of this time as an opportunity to challenge yourself to live out your personal values. As you go to school, start a job or apprenticeship, or even take some time off to figure things out, be curious and courageous in discovering your path, finding your place, and seeking where you fit. Challenge yourself beyond your comfort zone because the answers surely are not there. Take control and create your own story…do not let others do it for you.

I have always been a pretty confident person, but life transitions and that scary place beyond my comfort zone often snuck up on me and let self-doubt creep in. Recently, I was asked to share my story for a conference. What an honor, right? I excitedly accepted and then thought, crap, what did I just do?! I don’t have a story, let alone one that others want to hear. That self-doubt crept in and it settled. Where did that confidence I had always had go? Where did my passion for sharing my experiences and leadership knowledge go? It was just GONE!

Fortunately, I was able to tell myself to just write down whatever came to mind and make sense of it later. Sometimes you just have to go with it and not second guess. Eventually, I was able to articulate something that resembled why I do what I do and how I got to where I am now. Specifically for this speech, I decided it was time to dig back in and pull out some specific lessons that hopefully you can translate into various points of your current or future life.

1. It’s okay to change your mind…even more than once.

I went to the University of Northern Iowa where I decided I was going to be a focused and engaged student and leader. I majored in Textiles & Apparel and Journalism, so I dove into positions to be in charge of our Design Show, be on our TAPP organization board, worked nearly full-time hours in retail, had another job as a writer for the local paper, and joined a sorority where I was able to feed my philanthropic and social life, as well as pursue other leadership opportunities.

Sounds great until you realize your amazing internship (or my “dream job”) between my junior and senior year may just be a dream afterall as it would require a huge move across the country, little pay, and nothing full-time but as a freelancer. I also had a realization that one of the most fulfilling experiences I had in college were the leadership roles within my sorority and the greater fraternity/sorority life community…guess what – those things can become full-time careers too…who knew this?! Definitely not me until about 2 months before I graduated. I realized I wasn’t willing to do more school, so I graduated and settled for a paid internship that led to a job at Marshall Field’s/Macy’s Headquarters in Minneapolis. I was a textile designer…alone for nearly 8 hours a day with my computer, going home exhausted because I had no opportunity to interact with people! This is an extrovert’s nightmare!

Fast forward a bit. I was working a position in Marketing but was having so much more fun in my volunteer roles in a college community about 90 minutes away, so I started applying for positions on college campuses only to realize, I wasn’t qualified to do the work. I had to have a Master’s degree. Shoot, I had some decisions to make.

I did end up pursuing my master’s degree at the university I had been volunteering, Minnesota State University, Mankato. My husband came to Jesup to live with my family and work so we could pay the bills while I became a full-time student again.

I worked in higher education, which is an industry I thrived in for more than 10 years and yet again decided it was time for a change, so pursued a different career path as an entrepreneur. Fortunately, it was related to areas I had become really successful in, education/curriculum and leadership. It helped that I again returned to school, this time for my Doctorate in Interdisciplinary Leadership at Creighton University, even though I may not have ended up needing it because it was more of a next step for my higher education career, but I persevered through the student loans (past and current) and time commitment to be a new business owner, mom to a 7-year-old, wife, and student.

Remember, I said I never planned to go back to school after my bachelor’s degree….there were many times where I questioned what was I doing with this life. Why did my story seem so disconnected?!

I guess this is my long-winded way of saying, it’s okay to make a change, even if it seems like you are doing it too much or with lots of potential obstacles or risks. Find a support system like I have in my family and community and go for it! This is now just another part of my story! This leads to my next point:

2. Don’t just find, but live your passion

I may have started to notice my passion at a time that seemed “too late” in college but I didn’t let it fizzle, I let that passion fuel me to seek out service opportunities and volunteer roles that fed me. I think this is the only reason I am where I am. I listened to that fire and allowed it to take me in various directions that didn’t always make sense to me at the time but I had to force myself to be all in once I made a decision to change direction. Again, these were decisions I made and didn’t let the thoughts and opinions of others heavily sway me, even when it often would have been easier to let that happen.

I also want to share that your passion doesn’t only have to be lived out in your chosen career path. This fire can also be fed through stewardship in your community.

When I was at Wartburg I had the opportunity to go on two life-changing service trips. Now, service has always been a part of my life but typically as a part of a student organization or school requirement and were more of one-off opportunities. Being asked to go on a service trip across the country as an advisor with 2 student leaders, and 10-15 other students in some giant white vans for a week was a big deal! My first trip took me to Corpus Christi, Texas where we spent the majority of our time between Bokencamp, a children’s refugee shelter and a local church where we were housed for the week on the social hall floor with the closest showers being at the Y, a short van trip away.

Now, I always knew I enjoyed helping others and supporting them with my talents and skills, but this experience was somehow different for me. I had the opportunity to see the impact I could have directly on the organization I was doing service for AND the impact this opportunity had on the students on the trip with me. All I can say is WOW! We quickly became aware of our own privilege even being able to do service at this site.

We were told the story of how the children would make their way to the US from South America and Mexico unsupervised in hopes of finding more for themselves. Some were as young as 3 or 4 years old, riding on the top of trains, stealing cars to get as far as they could, surviving the desert or watching their travel pal die along the way, escaping sex trafficking, and so much more. Our group cleaned, painted, played alongside the children, and brought supplies and stuffed animals to share with the children. Our small group processing and reflections were more than I could have ever imagined with people opening up about their emotions, passions, and concerns. The bond of this group from more than 6 years ago is still there because of that one common experience. I still get goosebumps when I see our photos or have conversations of our experience.

Don’t just find your passion, but LIVE it!

3. Learn about and understand yourself because let’s face it…how can you expect others to know and understand you if you don’t have a deeper understanding of self?

This is another piece of advice I share regularly, more than I feel like one should have to, but I cannot tell you how often we lack in taking opportunity to learn more about ourselves and the benefits this has not just for us in knowing who we are, what we do, and why we do it but for our engagement with others.

I have always been one that chose to take advantage of opportunities for personal and professional development because I thought it was simply fun and exciting! It wasn’t until I was lacking that opportunity during one point in my career did I realize why I wasn’t feeling happy, successful or even fulfilled in life and my career. During my tenure at Wartburg I spent much of my time working with students. I attended conferences with them, created opportunities for them as leaders to grow and develop, as well as fun events to entertain them. One day I finally hit a point in my career where I knew I needed to work on myself or I would burn out in my role (which is already a common occurrence with higher education professionals). I mustered up the courage to talk with my boss and share exactly what I felt like I needed. I had already done the research on what would make the most sense for me to attend – it was actually a train the trainer training so it would benefit Wartburg, not just me. Eventually, my boss was on board and I was on my way to the training. If I thought I knew things about myself before, this training blew that out of the water. I spent 4 intensive days learning about my strengths and lesser strengths and what those meant for me in my life. To give you a taste, my top 5 natural talents are: Futuristic, Strategic, Significance, Command, and Competition. I learned that I needed to make time to consider what was to come and plan for that based on a sort of “gut feeling” that how I process and respond was the right way. Additionally, I have the desire to make a difference in the lives of others, know how to take control of a situation and have a presence in the room. I also want to be the best, do the best, and win! Gosh was that a lot to take in, just as it probably is for you all right now as I only shared 5 words with you and took that explanation and so much more from it.

This self-awareness continues to help me understand what I need in life and ask for it as it will continue to help me grow and develop and live out my passion.

Are you starting to see a pattern here? While all of these tidbits of advice or experience are called out individually, there is so much to be said about how they are also interconnected.

4. Own your place as a leader and recognize that it is more than a title or position

Leadership is not just a title. It is an action. I appreciated the definition of leadership we used at Wartburg, “taking responsibility for our communities and making them better through public action.” Community, in this context, can be broadly defined to include employment community, a spiritual community, and a geographic community, etc. Community is something you can create! Whenever I asked students or other professionals to define leadership they always spoke to specific leaders that popped in their heads due to a title they held. Leadership is more than a title, it is people with traits like honesty, loyalty, trustworthiness, communication, integrity, and knowledge. Do you claim yourself to be any of these things? I am here to remind you that you do not have to have a title or specific role to be considered a leader. We have all been or will be leaders at some point in our lives because it is expected or required of us, the opportunity is available, or we seek it out. There is no right or wrong path. There are many ways to lead (some even include following). We can have vocal leaders, quiet leaders, or even those that prefer to do the work without acknowledgement. I have already shared some of my leadership experiences with you but how will you choose to take responsibility for a community you are a part of? What will your role be? Do you need a title or are you willing to put in the effort without all the accolades?

5. Be your authentic self.

Let's be real for a second, we all want to feel like we belong or are a part of something. It is part of figuring out life. I want to share a few thoughts from someone who I would love to belong to a part of her circle, Brene Brown. If you don’t know who she is, look her up! She is a Texan, university professor, researcher, and speaker who focuses on vulnerability and courage. She shares, “Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we are supposed to be and embracing who we are.”

“True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are; it requires you to be who you are.”

In short – be you and own who that is, not because you need to be something for everyone but because you are you.

“When we have the courage to walk into our story and own it, we get to write the ending. And when we don’t own our stories of failures, setbacks and hurt they own us.”

– Brene Brown

I promise, I’m getting close to the end, but I want everyone in this room to take a moment and reflect on who you are. What do you know about yourself? What is your story? What do you choose to keep to yourself or decide to share with others?

1. Where do you need to consider a change in your path and let yourself do it?

2. How are you or will you live your passion?

3. How will you continue to grow in an understanding of yourself and share that with others?

4. What is required of you to own your place as a leader?

5. What will it take to be your authentic self and what might hold you back or be an obstacle for you?

Leadership is fascinating because it is something that no matter how hard you work at it…there is never an end. This is both frustrating yet very rewarding. You can become a better leader and grow from your knowledge and experiences, yet there is never one defining moment that one has in which they become a leader or even a great leader. Rather it is a lifestyle that one must live every moment of their life. It is not something that can be turned on and off. We must seek to understand ourselves before we can expect to understand others. Leadership is not all rainbows and butterflies as it can be risky, challenging, and it can even defeat you at times. But the beauty of leadership is that you have a choice. You can choose to lead, you can choose to dust yourself off and try again, you can choose what path to take, you can choose how you treat others, you can choose the degree to which you will make personal and professional sacrifices to accomplish your purpose.

During your high school careers I’m sure you have persevered and become stronger, more focused, and more confident leaders and servants. Continue on that journey. Consider your levels of dedication and commitment you have had until now with your academics, with the intent of having a positive impact in your communities and opportunities to lead others. I am sure everyone here would agree with me that we look forward to learning of your future accomplishments.

As I wrap up, I would like you to think about these words from a poem called, “You Must Not Quit.” Think of this as you go forward in your future academics, service, and leadership opportunities:

Thank you!

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