Habits and Handstands: Unpacking this Year’s WLC Theme with Liz Sutton

Liz Sutton has a lot of practice at making choices – which is a good thing, since she’s serving as the Seminar Chair for this year’s World Leadership Congress (WLC). The last year of Liz’s life has been filled with a lot more decisions than usual: who to select to work with her on the WLC volunteer team, how to navigate the WLC planning process in the midst of a pandemic, and how to leverage this year’s hybrid format to ensure that ambassadors have the most impactful, enjoyable seminar experience possible. 

As a HOBY alumna and 20-year veteran volunteer, Liz has had a lot of time to think about leadership. One of her goals for this year’s seminar was to shift focus away from the end result of leadership and devote more attention to the process. She feels that the small things people do on a daily basis to work toward their goals or improve their communities are just as important as the big stuff. Her interest in process, combined with her increased awareness of the choices she’s been making over the last year, inspired the tagline and theme for this year’s WLC: Daily actions, lasting impact. 

The idea first occurred to Liz a couple of years ago, during the “Life with HOBY” segment of a previous WLC. As she listened to people share their experiences, she reflected on all of the ambassadors she had watched depart from their HOBY seminars over the years — all of them filled with energy and inspiration to change the world, but many without a clear idea of how to actually implement that change. When she found out that she had been selected as the chair for the 2021 seminar, she made it her mission to create a HOBY experience that would stick with ambassadors and give them the tools to take action and realize their visions. 

Action, Liz knew, came down to habits. Liz has a degree in positive psychology, and she’s utterly fascinated by the science around habits and choices. “I think habits tend to get a bad rap because when people hear the word ‘habit,’ they usually think of bad habits,” Liz told me. She thinks of our habits as accumulated actions, and our actions as reflections of our values. If your habits are aligned with your values, “you can take action in any situation you find yourself a part of. We all have an opportunity to lead in whatever community we find ourselves in.” 

I met Liz five years ago, when I first volunteered as a facilitator for the WLC in 2016. Liz was my section leader for the Purple Section (I still have one of the awesome purple tank tops she made for our section). I was grateful for her calm, grounded approach to leadership, and we bonded over the fact that we were both yoga teachers – another part of her life that was instrumental in shaping and inspiring this year’s theme. 

Yoga is probably something you’ll hear Liz talk about a lot over the course of the WLC. She’s been practicing for 10 years now, and teaching for 8. Yoga emphasizes awareness and regular practice over attainment (think small daily stretches or breathing exercises instead of showy, complicated balancing poses). Liz wanted to bring that same philosophy of dedicated practice and reflection to the WLC. Her goal is to challenge ambassadors to think about the small actions that make up their day-to-day lives and how those habits can be channeled to create positive change. She told me that in her own life, “Yoga has really helped because it’s a practice that creates space for reflection, which helps me be proactive about where I put my attention and where I draw boundaries.” 

She added that as she sees it, yoga and leadership have a lot in common. Both are a process of growth over time, rather than a one-and-done thing. You don’t just decide to do a perfect handstand one day, nor do you just decide you’re going to fix a problem in your community. Both require a lot of work and dedication, and neither are likely to go smoothly right away. “It’s about practice, not perfection,” Liz says. 

When Liz and I talked, the WLC was only a week or so away. I asked her how she was feeling, whether she was getting nervous. After all, she’s been working up to this for a year now — who wouldn’t be nervous? But to my surprise, she seemed just as composed and grounded as she was back in 2016, when she was my section leader. She told me she was ready, and excited — which makes sense. After all, she’s been practicing.

Resources & Recommendations

I asked Liz for a list of resources and recommendations on positive psychology and habit-forming. Check them out if you want a head start!

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Author Bio: Alison Miller is a Copy Editor on the 2021 WLC volunteer team. She is a 2008 HOBY Texas Capital Area Alumna, and serves as the Director of Programs for the TXCA seminar. She currently lives in Alaska with her partner and her rescue pitbull. 

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