5 Leadership Lessons I Learnt As Club President of Girlup Sydney

My name is Pooja Agrawal, and I am the Founder and President of GirlUp! Sydney, a United Nations initiative to promote women empowerment and gender equality throughout the globe. I’ve always been passionate about this cause, and the pandemic left me with a lot of time for self-reflection – that ultimately culminated in the inception of this club. This blog is about five things I learnt in the process:

  1. Being a good leader is as much about doing as it is about planning – My perception of good leadership prior to setting up the club was severely flawed; I always thought good leaders were visionaries, and the secret to their success was just finding skilled people who could bring their thoughts to life. However, being a good leader is about more than just laying down the path to success – it’s also about taking the first few steps down that path, and encouraging, inspiring, and supporting your team when they follow you. Sure, after a point once you can delegate enough, you may focus more on the planning than anything else, but at the very beginning, good leadership is doing what you think, practicing what you preach, and leading by example.
  • Communication is exhausting – I’ve always had a way with words and thought of myself as someone who is not only good at communicating, but also enjoys the lost art of putting together letters, emails, and prompts. However, as the president of GirlUp! Sydney, I had to be in touch not just with our external stakeholders, but coordinate meetings across time zones, schedule events across continents and attempt to attain majority consensus on important club matters. Needless to say, it can get exhausting to balance expectations, especially ones I know to be valid, along with my vision for the club. It can get even more exhausting to communicate these in a way that is palatable to my audience.
  • You have to let go of your need to be well liked – As far back as I can remember, the one thing I wanted the most after being able to eat without putting on weight, is being liked and accepted. For a good chunk of my life, I did a lot to fit in, and mix with the crowd that was liked and accepted. This behaviour continued well into my junior year of college – when I founded the club. It was in the nascent stages of our existence when I realised that I had chosen a team that was not afraid to stand up to me and speak their mind. I should’ve been proud, but I was scared – I was scared because that meant that I had to do them the courtesy of speaking my mind when the situation called for it. And historically…. Well, let’s just say that my opinion had almost never overlapped with what the majority believed.

During this past year, I have had to make some tough calls, and not all of my decisions were popular with my team. However, I still stand by the notion that they had to be taken. I won’t pretend to fool anyone by saying I have completely let go of my people pleasing tendencies, but I have realised that people respect people who can form and stick to their own opinions.

  • Feedback is money – Well, don’t get me wrong. Time is money too! But feedback? Well, that’s like money but multiplied by an eternally accelerating factor that reaps dividends like nobody’s business. One of my primary love languages, (yes, as in the Gary Chapman love languages) is words of affirmation, and as a result, I have imbibed the very conscious habit of complimenting people. Coupled with my observant nature, this gave me an unprecedented boost into being respected by my peers – I was the first to notice a job well done, support a struggling team member, or comfort an anxiety riddled junior. After the completion of our first big event, I took the time out to write personal feedback for all of my team. To be honest, I did this with no expectations – which is probably why what happened next surprised me so much: My team members not only replied with their own set of feedback for me and the club but internalised my feedback to the point where I saw an increase in productivity, morale and affinity to our cause and club!

The unintentional success of my little activity made me realise the importance of constructive; not necessarily positive, but actionable and helpful feedback, and it’s something I’ve been mindful of ever since.

  • You don’t always have to have it all figured out – Pop culture today would have us believe that the world out there is vicious, unforgiving, and cruel – and that people are manipulative backstabbers who thwart your success every chance they get. I’m sure that such specimens exist, and mingle among us, unbeknownst to the rest of the world. However most people as a rule? Well, they’re not that bad! I know what it feels like to think not knowing something would make you appear weak, especially when you find yourself in a position of authority. Asking for help as a leader is not just looked down upon, it’s considered downright taboo.

However, once I got over my initial aversion to ‘spoiling’ my image of a competent leader – I discovered a beautiful truth: Not only are most people willing to support you, but they’re happy to do so. Some of our best ideas have come from us asking our more junior members for their help. And you know what? I don’t think any of them circled around my position, waiting to pounce as soon as I made the smallest mistake – on the contrary, I feel like being transparent about my shortcomings encouraged them to share theirs; and together, we embarked on a wonderful journey of growing together.

Through this past year, there’s one thing I’ve grasped that will truly stay with me – nothing brings people together like a shared goal. If I have been able to be a successful club president this past year, it’s only because I have been fortunate enough to have members who shared my vision of promoting gender equality and supporting women empowerment. Being a good leader is not a skill, it’s a choice. It’s the conscious choice to prioritise the organisation, believe in your team, strive to be a better person, and above all, realise – realise that you are expendable, your team isn’t.

Having had the honour of contributing to this cause, I would say for a fact that my biggest achievement is not setting up this club, or organising the many events I have, but it is the belief I have fostered amongst the club; that when I graduate, they will be fine – the show will go on, and another doe-eyed, passionate lady will take the stage and guide them as best she knows how to. 

Guest author: Pooja Agrawal is a student at SP Jain School of Global Management. She’s in her senior year and is currently majoring in entrepreneurship. Pooja is an aspiring sustainability enthusiast, and wants to get into the consulting, communications, and people space. She’s passionate about making a difference and contributing to something bigger than herself. Pooja enjoys travel, culture, food and dark humor – https://www.linkedin.com/in/pooja-agrawal-4b3276187/.