Over the last 10 years, the Aspen Institute’s Ascend Fellowship has seen 120 leaders from across the United States join together to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty. The fellowship fosters radical collaboration across sectors—from nonprofit executives and elected officials to university researchers and medical professionals—and has provided invaluable insight into how we help leaders grow.
This month, our newest cohort, the 2022 Ascend fellows, gathered for the first time. Their passion for transforming systems so our youngest children and families can thrive was evident from day one. The gathering was an example of what the future of leadership can look like and why leadership is so powerful.
In their sphere of influence, each Ascend fellow is disrupting the patterns of deeply ingrained oppression that have held back our society and so many leaders, particularly Black, Indigenous, Latino, Asian American, and Pacific Islanders. The 2022 fellows are poised to continue those changes, charting bold new paths for our children and families.
As we grow and progress into our second decade of the Ascend Fellowship, here are 10 actionable insights gleaned from the past decade:
1. Dynamic times call for dynamic leaders who seamlessly work across sectors and segments.
Cohorts based on similar expertise and affinities are valuable. However, the systems work that is needed requires leaders to work effectively across existing silos. That’s why our 2022 cohort includes everyone from doctors to nonprofit CEOs to tech entrepreneurs. We assist leaders who can build trust and partnership across agencies, such as child care and workforce programs.
2. Honor leadership, don’t discount it.
Some programs use terms like “emerging” or “early” to describe their leaders. But there are many models of leadership; there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. Whether one’s leadership comes from lived experience, professional skill development, or both, it is all valuable, and we approach the leaders we work with that way.
3. Encourage leaders to focus on transformations, not tweaking.
While incremental change is part of the work, leadership development needs to create the environment, springboards, and encouragement to get fellows to think big and gain the conviction to transform systems. We need to strip away constraint thinking and create the conditions for breakthroughs that break ground.
4. Create a lifelong we-are-behind-you-100% network of support.
For leadership to flourish, leaders need both peer and institutional support. They need to build and tap the power of trusted relationships. For fellows, peer learning is essential, as is having their home institutions support their leadership. We design leadership experiences to offer both. For peer learning, we create trusted, close-knit groups that stay in touch throughout their careers. We saw this in action when our 2022 cohort received notes of welcome and encouragement from other Ascend fellows immediately after the announcement. When these leaders take on positions of power, their first calls for advice are to other fellows who are piloting innovative work. We also design programs so an institution’s board chair is ready to work with leaders returning from peer gatherings with transformative ideas.
5. See risk as a big reward.
We work with fellows to develop a growth mindset. They work on challenges instead of avoiding them and view failure as a source of valuable lessons for future success.
6. Treat those we work on behalf of as the valuable peers and partners that they are.
One way we deliver on our commitment to equity is by seeing expertise where it lives. Rather than consider parents and caregivers as beneficiaries, we lean on them as partners from whom we have much to learn. We also collaborate with these leaders to view those closest to the issues as having tremendous expertise to ensure the systems around them have the necessary impact.
7. Design a personalized leadership experience.
Many leadership programs, including ours, put racial justice and diversity at the center. This is essential.
Leadership development is a personal journey. Leaders need space to consider what values they live and lead by; what they need to explore to be visionary and ambitious; how they take risks and learn from the results; what their source of courage is; and what mark they want to leave as a person and as part of a collective. They will learn from past leaders but must chart a unique path forward.
8. Move away from “teaching” and on to offering springboards.
Create the conditions for leaders to embark on the brave, vulnerable, and unsettling self-examination and system interrogation that is at the heart of purposeful leadership. Allowing them to express and explore their fears and opening them up to new perspectives, partnerships, and possibilities with trusted peers and support can lead to breakthrough possibilities. It is also beneficial to their health and well-being. Growth happens between discomfort and crisis.
9. Care for our whole selves in our leadership practice.
We have witnessed unprecedented exhaustion among leaders and their teams. Tending to the body is part of leadership. That means we must pay attention to our bodies and whole selves. Inviting leaders to step out of the daily routine and tap into the magic of nature or explore their creative side offers new ways for renewal, reimagination, and hearing what the world is calling us to do.
10. Unlock new possibilities in leadership for the field of early childhood.
The importance of investing in our youngest children, from prenatal to age three, is now widely understood. We have a shared opportunity to build on the field’s progress with an increased commitment to addressing, deepening, and operationalizing racial equity competencies in leaders and organizations—these include practices, systems, and policies. Part of living out our shared commitment to equity and inclusion calls us to look at children and families holistically, while we address the impact of poverty as well as the pandemic.
Leadership is an evolving practice, one that must stay ahead of the times and meet the world at the current moment. At Ascend, we look forward to continuing to create space and experiences with and for the leaders our children and families need to thrive.
For a fuller picture of the future of leadership, read our recent report,Toward A More Equitable Tomorrow: A Landscape Analysis of Early Childhood Leadership.