What I Learned from my Master’s Degree

Today I was supposed to graduate with my master’s degree in Executive Leadership. Like many of you, I’m frustrated that this pandemic has gotten in the way of celebrating this achievement. Whether or not you were planning to walk across the stage, celebrate with a big party, or do something privately at home, I hope that you find some way to commemorate that you’re finally done. Graduation is about more than getting a piece of paper. It is recognizing that you’ve put in hard work, that you’ve grown and learned new things, that you persevered. Congratulations! No matter what degree you earned or what GPA you got, celebrate!

This post is my way of celebrating, reflecting on my journey, and sharing a few thoughts on what getting this degree means. When I first graduated from college, I had no desire to continue my education. It wasn’t until two years later that I started toying with the idea of getting my master’s, and if not for my husband’s encouragement I don’t know if I would have ever done it. I didn’t know if it was worth it to get another degree with everything that medical school was already going to cost. But I finally decided that yes, it was worth it. As a young woman starting out in my career and being the sole provider for the next few years, it seemed to be the right move. And since I worked in the higher education sector and could get a discounted rate, it would have been a missed opportunity to not further my education.

So in the Fall of 2017, right after we moved to Virginia, I started my first class. It was really a God thing because I had literally nothing else to do. I decided to study Executive Leadership because I am passionate about leadership and what makes a good leader. I wanted to share a few things I’ve learned in the last three years, both in and out of the classroom.

  1. Leadership is not about you or your success. It’s about how you can serve others and make them successful. One of my favorite definitions of leadership came from a wise colleague, who said, “A leader is someone whose success is measured by the performance of others.” This really puts in perspective what it means to be a successful leader.
  2. Trusting people is one of the most impactful things you can do for those you lead. In The Speed of Trust, Stephen M.R. Covey writes, “The first job of a leader—at work or at home—is to inspire trust. It’s to bring out the best in people by entrusting them with meaningful stewardships, and to create an environment in which high-trust interaction inspires creativity and possibility.”
  3. You don’t need to be in a position of leadership to lead people. Frank Powell wrote an article on “Six ways to lead when you’re not in charge“, and one of my favorite quotes is, “Leadership is cultivating influence where you are.” For too long I thought that leadership happened within a position, when it’s really about how you impact those around you.
  4. Not everyone will understand your decisions, and that’s ok. As a leader, you have to be ok with people not liking your decisions. I have an especially hard time with this because I like people liking my decisions. But even in choosing this degree (when someone asked me why I was doing a master’s degree now instead of staying home and having kids), I learned that it’s important to let others’ opinions roll off your back sometimes and stick to your guns because you know it’s the right thing to do.
  5. It’s important to develop your own definition of leadership. While it wasn’t part of my classes, I developed a personal leadership philosophy because I wanted to define what kind of leader I want to be. I have the mentality that if you start preparing for a “leadership position” when you get there, you’re already too late. If you are leading other people, you should have clarity on what type of leader you want to be and what your values are as a leader.
  6. To be a great leader, you need to be a great follower. Being a follower means being a team player, collaborating, supporting a purpose larger than yourself. Without these things, you won’t be a great leader.
  7. Jesus is the ultimate example of leadership. Even though he is the Son of God, he humbled himself to become a servant, as lowly as washing his followers’ dirty feet in John 13. If Jesus leads by service in this way, then so should we.

Wherever you’re at, whether you’re a stay-at-home parent, a CEO, a new graduate, or in full-time ministry, you can lead. You have influence. You can serve those around you. You can do good work.

Although I fully believe those things, at times it’s hard to apply the same belief to myself. So often in the last three years I’ve been distracted by getting the grade, or proving that what I’m learning is useful at work, or comparing my studies to my husband’s 80+ hr study week. I’ve struggled between belittling my education and defending it, of feeling guilty for the effort I’ve spent compared to others and being proud of what I’ve achieved.

God has done a lot of heart work through my education as I’m sure he will continue to do throughout my life. He has reminded me that my identity is not in my success or in what I’ve achieved, it is in him. But at the same time, it’s OK to be proud of those things and the hard work that went into them. At work, we like to call this “confident humility.” So today, I’m saying with confident humility that by God’s grace, I graduated with my master’s degree, I am a leader, I have influence, I can serve others around me, and I did good work. Not by my own power, but through Christ who strengthens me. All glory goes to him.

Congratulations, class of 2020! We did it!

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5 thoughts on “What I Learned from my Master’s Degree

  1. Tammy says:

    Jess, congratulations!! Well done and I expect this will give you a huge leg up whatever you do along your career path. I liked the 6 ways blog here, thx for sharing ❤️


  2. Leslie A Winstead says:

    You are an amazing young woman! Congratulations!! I look forward to seeing where God takes you as you use all you/ve learned and serve others!


  3. Janis Williamson says:

    Beautifully written. We indeed are proud of you and all you have accomplished these past couple of years. Your degree took a lot of hard work, determination and sacrifice!! I believe God will use you for His glory!! Love you so much!


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