SA Pros Can Learn from Olivia Hope

By Tolu Taiwo

This week, one of my good friends in the program, an awesome Assistant Director of Residence Life, and I are going to give a presentation called “It's Handled: What Would Olivia Pope Do?” What started as a joke between the three of us has evolved into an awesome session about our favorite Gladiator and student leadership.

Is Olivia Pope the most perfect person on the planet? Probably not. Sure, her fashion game is always on point. But she eats nothing but popcorn and wine, refused to acknowledge important pieces of her past and her kryptonite happens to be the President of the United States. But there are some things that undergraduate student leaders can learn from her. And even though she is in a totally different profession than us, there are a few things that student affairs professionals can pick up from Ms. Pope as well. Here are three lessons that stand out for me:

Instill Trust in Your Team: If you think about it, Olivia Pope constantly has the Gladiators doing the most. They don’t even ask “how high?” when she says jump: they already know the height and aerodynamics needed to complete the leap, and they get on it. I don’t quite know how she does it, but I suspect it’s because she’s built up a system of trust, and she knows exactly how to inspire her team. They believe in her, and knows she usually has their best interests at heart. Lately, she’s also been more transparent in her plans, and her team has appreciated this. I’ve strive to use this approach with my students (I’ve gained and kept their trust, I use different ways to inspire them to do certain tasks, I try to be authentic with them), and for the most part, it’s worked. If you can get a team to get behind you, whether you lead a group of undergrads or professional staff, then you have an army of effective leaders. You’ll be able to build up gladiators.

Don’t Settle: One of my favorite moments of Season 2 is when Olivia Pope turns to President Fitz and demands “if you want me, EARN me.” This is a powerful approach in any situation, but I specifically remember this quote when thinking about upcoming searches. Always remember that you are interviewing a place as much as people are interviewing you. Stay humble (because I highly doubt anyone’s going to higher the professional that goes around acting better than everyone else), but know that you have a lot to offer, and never settle for something that doesn’t feel right or won’t allow you to shine.

Gladiator for Life: Sometimes, when Olivia is downing her 20 ounce glass of wine and is looking completely miserable, I shout to the computer screen “Why are you doing this to yourself, girl?!” It’s because she has this intense passion to help others. Regardless of the means, she has a desire to make society better, to implement justice into the mixed up, whirlwind of a world she calls “politics.” Many of us feel the same way about working with students. I see fire in my colleagues’ eyes when they talk about access, or college unions, or academic initiatives. If you have a student affairs passion, find ways to act upon it. Even if it’s in a functional area that differs from the one you’re working in, or it’s with an educational social justice issue that you want to dive into, never forget that you can always find the time and energy to work of the things that make you feel alive.

Are there other Olivia Pope lessons I missed? Or do you completely disagree with my theory? Let me know via the comments or Twitter!

Student Affairs - the First Years

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