The Other Kind of Leader -- What I Learned in the Wake of Sandy Hook

I remember the first time I heard the name Victoria "Vicki" Leigh Soto. It was on the morning of December 14, 2012. I was sitting in a waiting room when her picture appeared on the television screen. I remember the news reporter initially describing her as a victim, and then later referring to her as hero. They reported that once Vicki knew there was a gunman in the school, she attempted to hide her first grade students in a closet, but when six of them ran out in panic, she ran after them and put herself in the line of fire. Vicki died trying to save the lives of her students.

On February 15, 2013 President Obama presented the 2012 Presidential Citizens Medal, the nation's second-highest civilian honor, to Vicki's parents in recognition of their daughter's heroism. In June, a playground in her hometown of Stratford was named after Vicki and more recently in November, more than 2,000 adults and children participated in the first annual Vicki Soto 5k. At each of these events, she was described as a hero, but the word "hero" never seemed like it was enough to describe what she did for her students that day in December or even for what she did for people like me.

During this past April I was asked to speak on the topic of women and leadership and so I did. In my remarks I explained to the audience that for the majority of my life I idolized men like Jack Welch and Warren Buffet. As a kid that grew up in a house where we always had "just enough," I became obsessed with the influence of money and power. At the time, the only people that I knew who had both those things were rich, old, white men who were always described as leaders. As a result, I associated leadership with those same rich, old white men.

I told the audience that day that if they had asked me prior to Dec. 14, 2012 who I considered to be a leader I would have instantly given them the names of Jack Welch and Warren Buffet, however, that wasn't the case anymore. Not since I heard the name Vicki Soto. Vicki's act of selflessness on the morning of December 14th transformed what I thought leaders looked like and where I thought they worked. What I learned from Vicki is leaders don't always have teams or followers. Sometimes its just them and hopelessness and in Vicki's case, she starred hopelessness in the face that day and in the process she led her students to safety.

I can't help but wonder if anyone who had met Vicki Soto prior to the day of the Sandy Hook shooting would have guessed she would one day be awarded the Presidential Citizen's Medal. I wonder if she herself would have even guessed that. And sometimes, I find myself in crowded rooms filled with "very important people" and wonder if they would have done what she did that day, but then again I pray I never have to find out. Instead I pray more people were brave enough to lead with their hearts because contrary to popular belief, leading with your heart is a sign of strength and not a weakness. And if you don't believe me, give it a try because the worst-case scenario is someone's life will most likely be better as a result of your trying to prove me wrong.