My First Lesson in Leadership

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Growing up in a large, Italian family is a lot of fun—when you’re not the baby. As the youngest of seven grandchildren, I was always the one who was left out at family gatherings. I was “too short” to play basketball with the boys, “too young” to watch TV with the girls, and “too fidgety” to listen to the grown-ups in their robust discussions. I was always told to “go somewhere else.”

So, naturally, I went to the one place I knew someone would welcome me—the kitchen. No matter what circumstance, my Nana was always in the kitchen preparing food for the family. Whether she knew of my ostracizing or simply wanted company, I’ll never know. But, she always welcomed me and found something for me to do, somehow weaving in a life lesson with each activity.

Thus, it only seems appropriate that one summer evening she taught me one of my first lessons in leadership. Engrossed in a picture I was drawing, I remember becoming upset that I didn’t have the color I wanted to complete the picture. (I guess you could say I was a bit of a high maintenance child.)

My Nana told me not to cry, because she had just bought a new set of crayons that she left in the cellar.

I was petrified of the cellar. Old, dark and smelly, the cellar was my least favorite part of my house, and she knew it. I told her I didn’t want to go into the cellar, and that I’d just leave my picture unfinished.

She turned around from the stove, placed her hands on her petite frame, and uttered a statement I’ll never forget: “Nicole Marie Lavella. How dare you abandon all of that hard work! Some of the hardest things in life require the scariest steps.”

My Nana taught me many leadership qualities—patience, the ability to work with others, encouragement. But, most of all, my Nana taught me courage. She taught me how to tackle my fears—and how to lead others in the same way.