In 1898, Inez Knight and Jennie Brimhall were set apart as the first two “proselyting lady missionaries” for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Since, then thousands of women have served full-time missions. While the obvious purpose of serving is religious, our research at the Utah Women & Leadership Project found that the collateral benefits of missions are far-reaching, particularly regarding leadership skills.
We analyzed the responses of 625 women who had served full-time missions to explore the leadership development knowledge, skills and abilities that come from such an experience. Here are the five major themes that emerged.
- Interpersonal and relationship: Nearly all the women surveyed reported gaining skills in this area. In addition to having a companion 24/7, there are mission leaders, investigators and contact with strangers. It is no surprise then that “conflict management” was the most mentioned relational skill and one necessary for leadership. As one respondent put it, “Building and preserving good relationships is essential to leadership.”
- Professional and practical: In this area women mentioned “public speaking,” “problem solving” (both with human and logistical challenges), “teaching,” and “feedback.” One individual observed, “I absolutely loved learning how to give good feedback ... but to be a good leader, it is even more important to receive good feedback.”
- Courage and confidence: In learning to speak out about religion and leave their comfort zones, women reported an increase in self-esteem after their missions. Missions taught them to stand their ground, advocate for themselves and others and take risks. Many women found their voice while serving; one women said: “My voice as a woman in the church is important and should be heard equally among priesthood leaders.”
- Personal growth and maturity: In addition to increased faith, gratitude and humility, returned sister missionaries developed skills like adaptability, open mindedness and self-discipline. Many noted a connection between their increased maturity and their ability to lead.
- Managing challenges: One respondent summed this area up beautifully: “Missions are hard. They push you to your breaking point. But my mission helped me know how to get from my breaking point to my high points.”
Most women who responded to the survey made clear connections between the skills developed on their mission and how they benefit the rest of their lives. Unsurprisingly, women mentioned using their leadership skills — particularly how to teach, plan, listen and empathize — in their callings at church. Women also use their leadership skills in the home, advocating for children, modeling independence and understanding that compromise and collaboration promote harmony in family life. Missions have a positive impact on the desire to complete college degrees. Among our respondents, 36% had bachelor’s degrees and 32% had master’s, compared to 21% and 7% of all Utah women.
Professional roles are also enhanced by mission leadership skills like public speaking, people management, self-advocacy, tenacity and the ability to communicate complex ideas in a simple format all help respondents stand out at work. And these women also saw their leadership success tied to how well they trained those around them to lead as well.
This study illuminates the many ways that missions teach women to be leaders. The competencies acquired while serving not only benefit women while they are on a mission but also help develop skills that will enhance their ability to succeed at church, home, school and work. With more than 20,000 women currently serving full-time missions, it will be exciting to see them lead the way.
Dr. Susan R. Madsen is the Orin R. Woodbury Professor of Leadership & Ethics in the Woodbury School of Business at Utah Valley University and the founding director of the Utah Women & Leadership Project.