A Fearless Leader

Happy Sunday everyone!  Today’s post features a local leader who has taken something that was once a dream and brought it to fruition. I also had the pleasure of interviewing this woman who is a leader in her community and in her organization, Joy Nelson Thomas. Joy is Founder and Executive Director of LEAD Girls of NC, a nonprofit that started with a dream of serving girls. She began the organization four years ago and has since grown the organization to serve over 200 girls and managed 80 volunteers to give over 1400 hours of time to make the program a success. My interview with Joy delved into her growth as a leader, both personally and professionally. Enjoy learning about this fearless leader!

Joy Nelson Thomas

Thank you agreeing to do this interview, so let’s dive right in. What have you learned about leadership and about yourself as Executive Director of a nonprofit?

 I have learned that I am a leader who believes in collaboration and the power of it. I keep this same mindset with my staff. I bring them together weekly to collaborate, talk through challenges and check-in mentally and physically. This work can be tough, so it’s important for my staff to know we are in this together.

Your role is a mix of building a vision, managing and supervising others, and really having to be out and active within the community. Are there any fears that you had to combat in order to make LEAD Girls thrive? If so, what were they and how did you do it?

I honestly don’t look at things through a fearful lens. I look at things through an opportunity lens.

Every great challenge is just an opportunity to educate someone. One of the first opportunities I had was to educate our community around girls falling through the cracks and why LEAD is such an important tool for creating a thriving woman and a future leader of this community. A girl can’t go to school and be that productive student if her life is falling apart. She needs resources and tools to learn life skills and a safe place to learn how to navigate her challenges.

Another opportunity I had was to prove to our partners that I would do what I said I would do, and truly make an impact. I heard a lot of no’s along the way, but I was committed and laser focused on my mission and our girls.

One component of leadership is making sure you make time for yourself, which can be a challenge for most people. How do you make time for yourself when you’re constantly called on for so many other things?

Now that’s the question of the year! For a while self-care wasn’t at the top of my list. After running myself down to “voiceless Joy”, a switch turned on in my head. I understood that I can’t fill anyone’s cup if mine is empty. In that case, I don’t have a voice, so how can I advocate for my girls? I started by setting boundaries. If I am off [of work], my staff knew and understood that I may not be available immediately unless it was an emergency. Yes, I was guilty of sending an email or taking a call, but it was an easy transition back to my time off mindset. I also incorporated exercise. I knew I had to find a great place to work out. That’s when I found F.A.S.T. [Families Athletically Striving Together] and my tribe. But I think the biggest thing is listening to your body and giving yourself some grace. Sometimes you can’t check everything off your to-do list and that’s okay!

Lead Girls Event

In one of our talks, you mentioned how important integrity was to you and the way that you conduct business. How do you ensure that others in your organization hold integrity to a high standard?

I remember my dad instilled in me as a child “Be a woman of your word. Your word is all you have and if that’s mierda, then what are you?” I think the most important thing I did was help my staff understand our why and their why. If you lead with your why, everything else falls into place. We serve girls, families and our community. They rely on us and they trust us. Do what you say you are going do!

What is one characteristic that you believe every leader should possess?

As a nonprofit founder and leader, I think in this sector one of the most important characteristics you should have is humility. This work is not about you, it’s about the community, in my case it’s about my girls. One of my favorite quotes is: “Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real” by Thomas Merton. I choose to lead with a selfless heart, focused on a collaborative spirit, to make true impact.

You are also a new mother- Congratulations! Correct me if I am wrong, but I’d say that adding the role of “parent” to one’s life takes the concept of leadership (even in the home) to a whole other level. Has becoming a parent changed or adjusted your view of being a leader in any way?

I think being a mother has changed my view of being a leader with flexibility. To start, I am a natural strategic planner, I am organized, a visionary and a step by step person. I want it done right or not done at all. Since having my baby boy, I have learned it’s great to have a plan, but it’s also important to be flexible. I think things are thrown at us—for example this pandemic—that are out of our control. Yes, I spent some time creating a comprehensive plan, but I also knew there would be things along the way that would take time and flexibility to work out.

This last question is on continual learning. It’s important that leaders spend time being a student, learning, growing, and testing out new ideas and concepts. What are you doing to ensure that you continue to grow and develop as leader?

I have invested in trainings, seminars, workshops and coaching. I have also worked to create an amazing circle of friends that are smart and willing to share their knowledge. They say if you are the smartest one in the room, then you are in the wrong room. They share their knowledge and I get to pass it to my girls, like creating an evolving circle that keeps giving.

Thank you, Joy, for your dedication to girls, your leadership, your authenticity, and your passion!

Joy Nelson Thomas is the Founder and Executive Director of Learning Everyday Accomplishing Dreams (LEAD) Girls of North Carolina. LEAD Girls is dedicated to providing the tools and resources that low-income/at-risk preteen girls must have to become productive citizens and active leaders in their communities. Using an evidence-based curriculum, LEAD equips and mentors girls to aspire and achieve greatness academically, emotionally and creatively.

Joy holds a B.A from Salem College, and she is a certified Life Coach through an ICF (International Coach Federation) recognized institution, safe-talk and suicide prevention certified. She resides in Winston-Salem, NC with her husband and son. Feel free to ask Joy questions about leadership or LEAD Girls of NC at joy@leadgirls.org.

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