This is What a Leader Looks Like: Back Country Edition

Naomi Hall


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‚ÄúThis is What a Leader Looks Like‚ÄĚ is a series adapted from an interview project on women in leadership¬†conducted by Naomi Hall. Naomi recently served as a student intern with the Center for Transformation Leadership, a joint endeavor of the Free Methodist Church of Southern California¬†and Azusa Pacific University.¬† You can read the more about this project that focuses on the female leader in Part 1.

Meet Katie Burns.

Katie is the Director of Student Life & Co-Curricular Administration at Azusa Pacific University’s High Sierra campus.¬†The High Sierra program¬†integrates rigorous Great Works courses with challenging outdoor programs, and encourages students to explore leadership in a nontraditional setting. Katie also serves as Professor, Devotion Group Leader, and Trek Leader. This combination of roles gives her a unique perspective on¬†what leadership looks like in the lives of young¬†adults.

What influences came into your life to lead you to a leadership role?

The main influences were professors and student affairs professionals who were a part of High Sierra and Residence Life at APU. I was challenged to think outside the box and to remember that I didn’t have to follow my childhood dreams of teaching in a traditional classroom; dreams were allowed to change.

I loved being a Resident Adviser Рmaybe a little too much! I came to see that working with college students and providing safe environments for students to explore, question, dream, struggle, and celebrate was truly what I wanted to do with my life. It was this incredible extension of the traditional classroom that allowed me to invest in people and still be involved in education. It captured my imagination and my heart.

When I am not working on the college campus, I enjoy picking up side work as a backpack and rock climbing guide in the Yosemite area. I found myself attracted to this field because it added another extension to the traditional classroom. Interacting with students in settings that are unfamiliar allows me even more opportunities to challenge and engage in meaningful ways.

What challenges did you face to get into this leadership position?

I think the challenges of getting into higher education included completing more school ( I kinda loved doing this part!), learning to come to the table as me, and most recently learning to be more vocal.

I’ll unpack that a little. The first one – more school – is pretty obvious. The second one – coming to the table as me. I use to think that to be respected at the table of leadership meant that I had to be 110% confident, not have emotions and be the picture of perfect and efficient. I have come to learn that, at my core, that is not who I am – really, no one is. ¬†I lead better when I am simply honest with who I am.

The last one – I have been learning to ¬†say something or ask for things when I believe they have been earned or would be beneficial. It took me a long time to learn that I wasn’t doing anyone any favors by not standing up for myself or others.

What does female leadership look like to you?

In 2011, I started wearing skirts on all of my backpacking trips. At first it was silly and was meant to be ridiculous. But I never stopped wearing that skirt, in fact, I started wearing skirts more often! For me this is the symbol of female leadership – “I can do all the same things the men around me can do but I can’t, shouldn’t and won’t stop being me to do them. I do not have to sacrifice my personality, my beliefs or my femininity to be a successful leader.”

Wearing a skirt while doing activities previously believed to be only acceptable for men (like running a marathon or backpacking) reminds me that we have come a long way in women’s rights and we are still making progress. It is simple but it reminds me! It also is a great conversation starter – I always get to talk to students or other guests about why I wear a skirt!

All this to¬†say the female leader who garners the most respect from me is the one who has figured out how to be successful while remaining true to herself. If we don’t show up with our true selves at the table – emotions, feelings, perspectives, thoughts – we are failing as female leaders.¬† Also, I just feel more confident in a skirt, inside outside it doesn’t really matter!

What is the toughest part of your job, as a woman? What challenges do you face in your job that are unique to being a woman?

Working in a male dominated office space, I think the biggest challenge is overcoming the stereotype: “Burns cares for the emotions and the faculty (men) will take care of the mind”. ¬†It is frustrating that faculty make comments along these lines, even in jest. Please, don’t get me wrong. I am happy to hold the hand of any student who is hurting. I just don’t want to be stereotyped into a place where that is all I do. I have to work hard to earn my spot at the academic table.

group of students - female leader post

What advice could you offer to younger women working toward leadership roles within the church?

This is something that is really hard. I meet these amazing young women who are brilliant – honestly brilliant! I have the utmost confidence in them and believe so deeply in them. I know they will challenge ideas and lean in to the table. They will bring their whole selves to the table and lead from a position of wholeness. But then I learn they want to work in the church and my heart just sinks a little.

As a whole, the church has a long way to go when it comes to empowering women in leadership. That being said, my advice to younger women is always to “keep dreaming, keep reaching for your¬†goals. Don’t abandon who you are. AND pray, pray, pray – you will need lots of wisdom, grace and love.” I would also say – STAY POSITIVE!!!

How does God speak to you in your role as a female leader?

Two fold answer here. He calls me out to creation – sometimes on a backpacking trip and sometimes just out on a run. Places where I can get away from the ringing phones, excitement of college life, and the never-ending emails. Here in these moments I find myself able to slow down enough to actually hear or see God. For me these are wonderful times of prayer.

The second way is in the students that I meet each and every semester. I think God often uses my students to teach me the biggest lessons! It is a beautiful reminder to be humble and to remember that God will speak to us in many ways.

From the author: “This project aims to broaden the horizons of what women in Christian leadership look like in our world today. When you search Google for female leader, women in leadership, or women in ministry not much comes up. But let me tell you, there are amazing women out there who deserve to be highlighted who¬†are representative of women in similar roles”. Read Part 1 – Seminary Professor Edition.

Photo Credits: Naomi Hall

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  • Katie Burns! So excited to see you here! I will affirm that you are an amazing leader. Thank you for the influence you had on my daughter as a leader!

  • This is my daughter. i am so very proud of the woman she has become and the leadership she offers others. i have learned so much about myself in watching her become the woman she is today.

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