Authenticity in Leadership A conversation with W&L trustee Brodie Riordan '03 about leadership, and the importance of diversity on the board and in the student body.
Q: Brodie, you joined the Board of Trustees in February and are one of only a few female members. What does it mean to you to be a woman in a leadership role at W&L?
A: I gave this one a lot of thought, asking myself, “How often have I thought about my gender in these roles?” I was 26 when I joined the Alumni Board, and, at the time, I had the attitude that I needed to adapt my style to fit in with everyone else. We have decades more male alumni we can draw from, so the boards are disproportionately male at this point, but that is changing every year as our alumnae base continues to grow. At first, I tried to think like a man and act like a man. Trying to fit this mold was a short-sighted strategy. To be an effective leader, you need to bring your full, authentic self to the table.
I am delighted that the number of women on the board is increasing. It is an incredible group of women, and I have already learned a lot from them. The increasing diversity of the whole board is exciting. Not just women, but younger alumni and individuals with more diverse backgrounds and experiences. The more we have diverse perspectives, the better we are overall.
Q: What are your goals as a board member? Which committees will you be working with, and what excites you most about the work ahead?
A: W&L is an incredible place, and I think there are little things we can do to make it even better. W&L is positioned to be THE leading institution for developing young adults with integrity, leadership capability, an attitude of service and an entrepreneurial spirit. We need to unleash that potential. I keep hearing this desire to increase diversity on campus, across all categories. I don’t think we will ever achieve our full potential until we can fully embrace a diverse community. I am looking forward to helping W&L become not only a more well-rounded institution but also more inclusive. I would love to get to a point where no student at W&L feels as if he or she doesn’t belong or is not included.
One of the committees I am serving on is capital projects. As a psychologist, I have become more and more interested in how physical space impacts human behavior. The spaces that we create at W&L have an impact on who students spend time with, how they interact and generally how they experience their lives at W&L.
Q: You have studied leadership extensively. Can you share with me your views on the role of women as leaders?
A: There are traditionally more male and more female styles of leadership. But I think what is more important is authenticity in leadership — when you bring your values to the table. It is important to have leaders whom all members of the community can relate to, see themselves in and look to as role models. In women’s leadership in general, I get the sense that in the past, women did not always support other women, but I feel like that has changed, and that the attitude now is if one of us succeeds, all of us succeed.
Q: Tell me about your experience as a founding member of the varsity field hockey team? How did the initiative start and what did the process (and the sport) teach you?
A: As a freshman, I joined the club team at W&L and was fortunate to be part of the transition to a varsity team. I don’t think that transition from club to varsity would have been as successful without a great woman, leader Martha Cornbrooks ’01, who was our team captain and spearheaded the effort. She energized us all and created a fantastic team environment.
Q: Who have been your mentors?
A: This question made me laugh. If I were to name them all to you, it would take up the entire article. I have had so many mentors, at W&L, in graduate school and in every job I have ever had. Anytime I meet someone whom I admire and can learn from, I latch onto them. I also will ask someone to be my mentor with a clear, intentional request, and no one has ever said no. I would advise others to do this. Don’t be shy! People are honored and flattered to be asked. I never see a mentor relationship ending, and every single one of them has served a different purpose in my life and career.
When I joined the Alumni Board, Valerie Gammage ’89 and Liz Brown ’95 were both on the board in leadership roles. They were such incredible role models and helped me navigate my role on the board. I will never forget when Valerie called me in my second year, and asked me to be vice president the next year. That moment was burned into my brain because it meant so much to me — I couldn’t believe I had this incredible opportunity in a group that I so deeply respected. One of the reasons that was so powerful to me is that women, myself included, often suffer from imposter syndrome, meaning they do not credit themselves for achievements and worry they do not have the necessary skills to serve in leadership roles. I have had incredible support from Beau Dudley ’74, ’79L and Tom Lovell ’91 over the years, as well. These mentors and role models have really helped me figure out who I am and what I have to offer.
Q: You have served W&L in many leadership capacities, from president of the W&L Alumni Board and the Cleveland Alumni Chapter to chair of the Science Advisory Board. What do you consider as the most important qualities of a strong leader, and what would you say to encourage more women to pursue leadership roles?
A: For me it has been an evolution. I used to mistake leadership for doing everything myself, which is the exact opposite of leadership. I learned that the hard way. Being a really effective leader means understanding the people you are working with and what they are passionate about. I think one of the best things you can do as an effective leader is empower people to accomplish things that are important to them. A clear vision is also essential. As far as encouraging women to pursue leadership roles, this gets back to my point on authenticity — knowing what is important to you, what you value and what changes you want to make. For women especially, it can be daunting to hear, “Pursue a leadership role.” You don’t necessarily need to start with leadership. Start with what you care about and go from there. And then if you end up in a leadership role, embrace it!
I never could have imagined the impact my involvement at W&L would have on my life. I had just moved to Akron, Ohio, for my graduate degree. I was interested in the alumni chapter to get to know people in the area. The chapter was somewhat inactive, and when I reached out to the current president, he basically asked me if I wanted to be the new president. My dad had led the alumni association chapter in Maryland, where he lives. Tom and Beau really wanted the Cleveland chapter to succeed and were so helpful. A few years later, I was asked to serve on the Alumni Board. None of it was planned. It just happened.
My roles at W&L have absolutely benefited me in my professional life. I have developed from those volunteer leadership opportunities so much more than in any formal leadership training (and that says a lot, given that my day job is in leadership development). I would encourage women to get involved and see the W&L Alumni Association as a field of opportunity to make connections, take on new roles and develop yourself, while also giving back to our wonderful institution and community.
Q: You have supported W&L generously over the years, both through your service and your philanthropy. Can you share your reasons for choosing to remain deeply engaged with W&L? What is most meaningful to you regarding the positive impact you are making?
A: My initial love for and involvement in W&L started from a very young age. W&L has been very formative in my life. If it weren’t for W&L, I wouldn’t exist. My parents met there. My academic experiences there prepared me so well for graduate school — the small class sizes, the independent research opportunities, the support and encouragement of the psychology faculty. I even met my Ph.D advisor, a member of the Class of 1984, at W&L when he came to campus to deliver a lecture. I attended his guest lecture on industrial/organizational psychology, and that’s when I knew that was the field I wanted to pursue in my graduate studies.
I feel a great responsibility to continue to serve the university, and I want to make sure every student has an even better experience at W&L than I did. The more W&L succeeds, the more we all succeed. It truly raises the value of our degree. I appreciate the role W&L has played in my life, and I just want to help that continue for others to an even greater extent.
Q: What would you like to emphasize to fellow W&L alumni and friends when it comes to giving back to the university?
A: In my roles on the Alumni Board and as a class agent I have learned so much more about how the endowment works and the importance of Annual Fund to the university’s operations. Now that I have a better sense of how my gift impacts aspects of the university and specific students, I am more passionate about it than ever. When I know there’s a student who might not be able to afford the same experience I had, I want to help enable that student to enjoy all of the wonderful opportunities at W&L. I would encourage people to give at the level at which they are able. Not everyone is able to give at a leadership level, and that’s okay. Gifts of all levels are so important — they add up to a really significant impact.