When I arrived at the University of Virginia in the fall of 1970, I was naively unaware of the challenges I would face as part of the first class of women admitted to this traditional, all male, southern university.
My first inkling of what laid ahead was discovering a urinal in the bathroom of my dorm suite and one shower for ten girls…two simple things that I knew right away weren’t going to work for “the girls”.
These simple things were just the tip of the iceberg during a unique four-year experience as a woman in an institution that had been staunchly male for 155 years. It wasn’t always easy but it was a great character builder. Thirty-five years later at a reunion of “the firsts”, I was gratified to hear the Dean of Admissions from that time say that they purposefully choose women who wouldn’t open doors, but women who would knock down doors. That was in fact what we unconsciously had to do as we redefined the undergraduate culture at The University of Virginia.
The many challenges that I faced and the lessons learned during college proved to be invaluable as I continued to be a pioneer for women in business and aviation over the span of my leadership career.
One of the greatest lessons I have learned is that adversity is a gift. Leaders inevitably face daunting and seemingly insurmountable obstacles. Taking them on as a challenge and as an opportunity is an approach that separates the average from the exceptional. With this perspective leaders can gain new insights, uncover innovative solutions and increase their capacity to lead through thick or thin.
Courage is an attribute that comes on the wings of fear. As a leader there will be times when you have to face the unknown and boldly lead others through uncertainty. Courage is the reward. Many times I have been the lone female, often excluded with no hand to hold and no safety net to save me. I have had plenty of opportunity and occasion to increase my reserve of courage and I am a better leader because of it.
Education is a door opener and expands your ability to move assertively forward in a complicated and changing world. A solid and respected educational background will serve you well as you enter foreign territory and take on new ventures. I grew up in a neighborhood and in a culture where men worked and women stayed home I decided at a young age that that was not for me. I choose to be financially independent. I studied hard and pushed my intellectual limits. I made sure that I received an exceptional education and it too has been a pillar of strength in my leadership journey and has expanded my opportunities.
When I first encountered overt prejudice and found myself the object of unfair discrimination, I was angry and I fought back. But as I continued on a pioneering path for women I realized that it wasn’t about me. Other people’s biases and opinions are their own. I learned to not take them personally or to be a victim. Instead I grew in humility while developing a quiet strength of self-confidence born from perseverance and accomplishment despite “them”.
There are so many lessons to be learned on an uncertain path or when stepping over the edge into uncharted territory, for men and women alike. The greatest of all is learning that you can do it, that you can increase your wingspan. Whatever reality you face, the world is out there with infinite solutions and a universe of possibility. Life is short and time is precious. Don’t waste it by staying small. Step up to the challenges and opportunities that your life offers, rise above perceived limitations and soar.
Betty Shotton is an avid speaker, author and advocate for leadership accountability and contribution. With over 35 years as a CEO and entrepreneur, she has founded and led six companies, including ResortQuest International, one of the world’s largest hospitality companies. She is the author of "LIFTOFF LEADERSHIP 10 Principles for Exceptional Leadership"