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Two Powerhouses (and Graceful Leaders), Mother and Daughter, Reflect on Their Leadership Journeys Together

A conversation with Ann Terrell, PhD, author of “Graceful Leadership in Early Childhood Education” and Jenise Terrell, CEO of Public Allies.


JT: Everything about my leadership style has been informed by watching my mom lead. And the first leadership lesson I learned from her was to master your craft and always be prepared. Mom, I remember you pouring over your binders late at night on the kitchen table.



AT: Knowing your craft and being prepared is important, but what I’ve learned since then is that you also have to take care of yourself in order to do all the good work.


JT – My second most significant take away from watching you lead is to honor those who came before us, recognizing that we’re standing on their shoulders. That it’s not enough to be the first if we are the last. It is our obligation to make sure we are not the last. That there is a robust pipeline that follows us through the door. 


AT: Send the elevator back down and bring somebody up. Lift as we climb. That is so important and so key as we move along our leadership journey. Honoring those who supported us and bringing others along with us.


I’ve been fortunate enough to have many women in my life who have mentored, supported and opened doors for me in this journey. It is so important to honor those folx whose shoulders we stand on. The people who opened the doors, believed in you, mentored you. In turn, it is our responsibility to bring others along. I’ve tried to do that. There are 20+ women whom I’ve mentored. I’ve seen you do that in your leadership style too, Jenise, bringing others along. 


Why else are we here – at this table? Shirley Chisholm said, “if they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” I respect Shirley Chisholm but that statement implies that someone else owns the table and that your own table isn’t valid. What I see now with this new generation is “we’re going to make our own table and we’ll invite you to it.”


JT: That is a big part of how I choose to lead. And it IS a choice. To be able to see people for who they are and who they have the capacity to become if given the opportunity. Most importantly for me, looking beyond the shiny penny and seeing into people who are not typically seen to be or recognized as leaders.


In leadership sometimes it’s the small decisions we make on a day to day basis that have enormous consequences. Just asking the question, “What does this human being need in this moment” can be powerful. I remember going with you to your classes at MATC (Milwaukee Area Tech College) – you were pursuing your associate degree in early childhood education. I sat in the back of the room with my crayons and papers trying to be quiet. That one kindness that teacher gave you, to allow you to bring your child to class so that you could continue your education, that decision mattered… to see into someone’s humanity and choosing to make a decision to not uphold a standard but to choose to do the right thing in that moment and asking “what are the implications for this human in that moment?” What it meant for you and what that meant for a little girl in that classroom to bear witness… that is powerful..


AT – Seeing the humanity – that’s what leaders do. Real leaders look beyond the position and see the human that they are working with. As a young single mother, that decision the teacher made had a real impact on my future. I was recently asked to speak at that teacher’s funeral because she had such a profound impact on my life and on my career. She saw something in me that I didn’t necessarily see in myself at that time. That she heard me and saw me was profound.


JT – Understanding the power and impact of seeing beyond the traditional definitions of “talented” and traditional requirements that dictate who gets a chance, that’s what pushed me to Public Allies. That is what we represent. So it was easy for me to wrap my arms around this vision. Because I understood it fundamentally in my own life. That is why I dedicated my life to it. It has informed my own leadership style and choices and how fiercely I protect the mission, vision and values of this organization. Because I lived it. 


AT – What I hear from you also is this idea of “servant leadership.” It’s a part of your leadership style but it’s also what Public Allies is about. You create leadership opportunities for people in the community. You truly serve your mission by sharing power and putting the needs of your people and community first.


JT – It also represents to me the power of people to do right for themselves when the table is set for them to do so. There are so many barriers that exist for us, as we all know. Traditional leadership models say you have to have to look a certain way, have particular credentials, education, background, cadence to your speech. None of that addresses your innate giftedness, creativity, ability to manage and manifest a future. I am in service to a mission and a servant leader. Sometimes it’s about me as a leader just getting out of the way. I want to set the table and then get out of the way. Allow the talent to emerge.


AT:  A true leader doesn’t have to be out front and have their name on things. A true leader allows others to bring forth that talent. I remember this billboard in Madison, it read: Lead, follow, or get out of the way. 


JT – I would change that billboard. Lead, follow AND get out the way. Good leadership encompasses all three.


AT – I was asked once what is one characteristic of good leadership. Good leaders know when to follow. And some of us are more quiet in our approach and who we are. I like to call it graceful leadership. Why? We have this image of what typical leadership is. We don’t have to lead that way. It doesn’t have to be ferocious, mean, top-down. It can be collaborative, compassionate, inclusive. The last person you want to underestimate is a quiet leader.


JT – Mom, do you have any advice for me as I step into this next phase of my leadership journey?


AT – Believe in yourself. You are so smart and so capable. You are a wonderful leader. You have it. So lead with this belief in yourself, and take care of yourself so that you can lead. Everything we’ve talked about, continue to do what you do. Bring others along with you. Just be Jenise. I’ve watched you from the time you were a little girl and I knew there was something special. 

JT – Thank you mom. Thank you. I’m Ann Terrell’s daughter and I have to show up! I’ve got big shoes to fill. I appreciate you being open to this conversation. This felt really important to me. As you noted, leaders don’t make themselves out of nothing. It means something to me to honor the shoulders that I’ve stood on. Mainly yours.