Learning to Lead: A Conversation with Ellen B. Kagen Waghelstein


“Leadership is unbelievable discipline in the face of human nature. It’s showing up when you’d rather take a nap. It’s holding your frustration when all you want to do is scream. It’s choosing to focus on the positive rather than always harping on the negative.” These wise words come from Ellen B. Kagen Waghelstein, a woman who teaches leadership as the Director of the Georgetown Leadership Program and who also exhibits leadership every single day as a JWRP Board Member, a founder and board member of numerous other community organizations, and a wife and mother. In our conversation, Ellen shared with us the importance of setting intentions, as well as her universal strategies for becoming a leader.

What are the questions that people most often ask you about leadership?

First, is it really possible to teach leadership? I am an eternal optimist, and I believe that 99% of people can learn leadership. The second question is, how can someone start on the path of leadership? The first step to leadership is gaining clarity about the type of leader that you want to be and what you want to create in the world. So many of us get boxed in by timelines, deadlines, and our own fears. Take some time to practice self reflection and to understand your personal vision for the world. Also, know that you can lead from any chair — not just from the front of the room.

What are some strategies for showing effective leadership at work?

Leverage the collective intelligence. There’s wisdom all around us, and one of the most effective leadership strategies is extracting that wisdom and incorporating it into our own growth and development. When you ask people to share their wisdom, show them respect. Engage in deep listening. Ask powerful questions that open up the conversation. When people disagree with your perspective, know that they aren’t out to get you. Recognize that there are many points of view.

What are some strategies for showing effective leadership in our homes?

Bring intentionality to your home. Ask yourself, what kind of environment do you want to create in your home? What kind of relationships do you want to forge with your partner and each of your children? Spend some time setting your intentions and then be disciplined about reaching your intended outcomes. For example, I’m a working mother and I travel all over the country. When my kids were young, people would tell me that they needed to be bathed and in bed by 7pm. But if I had done that, then I would have spent more time commuting to my office than I spent with my children — and that was unacceptable to me. I decided that it was more important to spend quality time with my children, so we ate a late family dinner together every night.

It’s also important to practice serious engaged listening. Listening is a very hard skill to teach. So many of us can only listen with a fix-it mentality. Our children share their problems with us and we think that it’s our job to fix them. Stop trying to fix your kids’ problems. As parents, our job is to lovingly guide them in fixing their problems themselves.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about leadership?

To be exactly who I am. I’m an energetic, caring, and passionate person, but there was a time in my life when I wanted to be a cool, calm and collected person. Then I realized that who I am and who G-d made me is exactly who I need to be in order to be successful. Inside of each of us is our best selves. Embrace yourself and bring your strengths to the table.

How can we encourage our children to become leaders?

When my kids were growing up, we’d eat dinner together and then my husband and I would run to community meetings. One day, I told my kids, “I want to tell you what I’m doing when I’m not with you. I’m trying to make the world a better place — not so much for me, but for you.” Today, my kids are engaged in their communities. They understand the value of community involvement. Model activism and community involvement for your kids and there’s a good chance that they’ll become activists and community leaders, too.



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