Leadership Niagara 2018: Connection is at the Heart of Leadership

Below is the speech I delivered to my Leadership Niagara Graduation in May 2018. I was honoured to be asked to speak to my class and guests about my experiences in the program.

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Hi everyone,

I’m honoured to have this opportunity to speak about my Leadership Niagara journey with all of you and to highlight the key moments that the Class of 2018 shared together over the past nine months.

Usually at this time of the evening on a Thursday I’m coaching the youth class at Underdogs Boxing Club, which means I’m running around trying to coordinate 8 to 10 kids to throw jabs and hooks on the heavy bags and make sure they actually keep their gloves on for the full hour. So I have to say: this is a really relaxing night off.
Many of the Class of 2018 will know that this past year was one of transition for me. In May of last year I had completed a contract at the Brock University Students' Union and was spending the summer launching my website to give an online home to the programming and facilitation work I’ve been doing over the past 8 years. But I was stuck. I was stuck in a pattern of thinking I couldn’t, in believing I wasn’t good enough, and was finding every reason to not to let myself succeed.

Our first Learning Day was at the Niagara Falls Public Library and those feelings I had before the program of thinking I wasn’t good enough came barreling to the surface when I arrived to our Opening Retreat. A brain running on anxiety can play tricks on you and when I looked around the room I was convinced that everyone else felt comfortable, that everyone else felt like they belonged. Of course I know now this was not the case.

As Shane welcomed us to the Opening Retreat, and as Holly and Jody guided us through the first activity, I started to ease into the day. During one of our get-to-know-you ice-breakers we had to introduce ourselves to three different people in the room. If I’m remembering correctly, the first person I connected with was Michael Wales who spoke so wonderfully of his work in marketing and communications at Niagara College, and I think I stumbled through a nonsensical elevator pitch about my self-employment, mumbling words like feminism and equity and likely an “I’m sorry” 

This brings me to the first of the 3 Takeaways I’ve learned from participating in Leadership Niagara.

Takeaway #1:

We do ourselves a disservice by not believing in our own worth.

Half the battle of becoming leaders in our communities and workplaces is believing that we can – that means taking chances, not being afraid to make mistakes, learning from mistakes, asking for feedback, and being able to non-judgementally take notice of ourselves and have a sense of humour about our own process.

On the first break of the day I went outside to get some fresh air, and Carole Fuhrer, who I had been sitting next to at our table inside, came over to say hello. She asked me about where I was at with my personal work as well as the job search.

Carole would continue to check in with me every Learning Day to see how the job search was going, how things were at the boxing club, and how my personal business was going. Carole, this kind of leadership you displayed to not just take the time but make the time to intentionally connect with so many of us throughout this program is one of the many reasons I look up to you as a leader in our community.

It was the intentional connection that Carole made that has stayed with me since the beginning of this program and is what formed as my second key takeaway from Leadership Niagara:

Takeaway #2:

Leadership is all about connection.

At the heart of leadership is our ability to make and maintain authentic connection.

Who we are and how we make people feel is how we emerge and distinguish ourselves as leaders. Peter Van Hezewyk, President & CEO of CAA Niagara, reminded us that at a work week, at the end of your career, it’s not only or all about what you did or what policies you passed – it’s about how you made your clients feel, how you made your coworkers feel, your staff, your community, and your team.

Who you are as a person is what people will look to as example of leadership.

At our December Learning Day we engaged with Energy Leadership and emotional intelligence to rethink how we frame leadership and to reflect on our reactions, identity, and ways we relate to one another. The speaker who led us through this learning was Lesley Calvin, part of Leadership Niagara’s PAC team, WIN Council member, and Associate Director of Student Engagement, Academic Advising, and Career Services at Niagara College. Lesley is now one of my managers in my new position at Niagara College, in the Centre for Student Engagement and Leadership and I couldn’t be more grateful for how Leadership Niagara lead me to finding a position that aligns my passions and purpose.

The old saying of “it’s who you know” and that’s how you land your job...It’s not only who you know. It’s how you know them and what you do with that connection.

Making the effort to connect and to bring our full selves to our leadership opportunities is what truly makes all the difference.  

And that idea of embracing our full selves as leaders is my third key takeaway from the Leadership Niagara experience.

Takeaway #3:

Leadership is about owning your story.

I think about the activity we did at Heartland Forest where we had choose one of many social issues (the environment, diversity, housing accessibility, among many others) and stand by that sign in the room, then discuss with our colleagues who had chosen the same topic. And each topic had anywhere from 3 to 8 people who then began to discuss their chosen topic. Except for the sign that just said “Water.” There was Dave, our sole defender of Water, standing on his own next to this sign - and I'll never forget what Dave did next. He proudly taped the sign that simply read “Water” onto the front of his shirt and mingled between all of the groups, illustrating how the topic of Water intersected with all social issues.

I share this story with you because I won’t remember each articulate and interesting point that everyone made that day, but I will remember Dave’s commitment to his brand and to his passion.

As Paul Copcutt shared with us in our final Learning Day earlier this month, what people remember is how you communicate what you’re passionate about. They remember your values and your purpose. Not your job description or which company you worked for in which year. People connect to who you are and they connect to your story. When we delved into our personal brands with Paul and practiced how to communicate clearly and concisely our values and purpose, that was when I felt a true Aha moment where each thread from every learning day had woven together into this all-encompassing lesson on leadership.

My Leadership Niagara experience has truly come full circle. from believing I didn’t belong in this program to emerging as confident with a clear focus for my entrepreneurial work: I help empath professionals who work in support-based roles to make time for themselves in their schedules so that they can manage burnout, establish boundaries, and do what they love. I do this through providing staff training on self-care and mental health, presentations and keynotes on establishing and maintaining boundaries, and weaving my lived experiences into my programming and course offerings for one-to-one and group coaching.

I want to thank the Women in Niagara Council for offering me this opportunity and Nicole Regher for being a strong woman leader I look up to. A special shoutout to April Mitchel Boundreau, WIN Council member and long-time friend and mentor who encouraged me to apply to both Leadership Niagara and to the WIN Bursary.

And finally to Shane, our fearless leader, who brought us together every Learning Day and who exemplifies the true meaning of the word leader.

As we hear from our wonderful Keynote tonight, Jessica Potts, and take in the celebrations together this evening, I invite us to reflect on how we will believe in our ability as leaders, intentionally make connections, and own our passions and purpose.

Thank you so much!


Laura Liz Hughes

Laura Hughes is a Niagara-based community educator, poet, and motivational speaker delivering equity and arts-based programming to youth, educators, and organizations on leadership and team-building, addressing & ending sexual violence, supporting students' mental health and wellness, building and supporting girls’ and women’s resiliency, teaching inclusive sexual health education, and creating consent culture. Her Master’s of Education research focused on queering sex education to centre queer, non-binary, and trans youth in Ontario’s Health and Physical Education Curriculum and in classrooms across the province. She is a trained counsellor for sexual violence survivors and advocate for creating space for our stories and experiences to be shared. Laura has facilitated over 60 workshops across Southern Ontario to elementary, secondary, college and university students and is currently booking for Fall 2017 - Spring 2018.