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Lessons of Leadership in Outreach Debate

By Sam Chen

Outreach Debate started a year ago, around October 2022. We’ve quickly grown to more than 50+ directors in U.S. states and internationally, and a 100+ staff team. Some of my proudest moments include publishing our blog and newsletter, and collaborating with the Coolidge Foundation as a paid sponsor. Along this journey, a couple lessons of leadership have stood out.

One: Be Ambitious

I always set out to differentiate Outreach Debate from any other nonprofit you would see in the debate community. Part of this came naturally with our mission of an international focus rather than a domestic one. But deeply embedded within my own vision for Outreach Debate is a drive to do what others haven’t done. This can mean us recruiting the best of the best: TOC Champions, members of Team Thailand or Canada, etc. It also means leveraging a mission filled with the pursuit of high quality impact for thousands of debaters across the globe. As we continue into our second year, we plan to reach all 50 states and far more nations.

Two: Just Do It

As we launched our Chapter and Branch system across America, I found myself attending three, four, or even seven meetings per week. Everyday, I was putting in a solid couple hours towards our organizations. This seems ludicrous given I was a junior in highschool, and even now a senior putting in similar amounts of work. But if you care about what you are doing and truly involve yourself, it’s quite manageable.

Really, for leaders across America and the world (including Outreach Debate ones), usually the only thing stopping you from what you want to achieve is yourself. You can make it happen. You can make it work. That meeting you can’t attend, you actually probably can. Nothing is impossible. Try taking those risks and see if I’m right.

Three: Be innovative

Think outside the box. Think about what your “competitors” aren’t doing. Those are very powerful business ideas but they serve just as importantly in the leadership and nonprofit world.

We set out to do this with our Winter Debate Camps that, for the most part, have almost no alternative in the current debate camp “market.” With our Summer Camp, Ilan Arias, Ridwan Siddique, and Grant Goering set out to attract higher signups through guaranteed prep files of which we sent nearly 300 pages of prep to each camper. The Genesis Challenge marked our collaboration with Contention.AI, leveraging the use of artificial intelligence in debate as a prize for our debaters. Seek to disrupt the status quo, not live within it.

Fourth: Form Powerful Relationships

It is so tempting as a leader to only assign tasks, create mandates, and exert your authority. It is natural to berate those who don’t follow your instructions or meet your expectations. Leaders should resist this urge. There is something intrinsic within all of us to have weak habits: to ignore that message, to delay work, or do something else. Great leaders suffer from this equally, they’re simply on the other end. Once you recognize this, utilizing an authoritarian leadership style may seem quite silly given most leaders suffer from the same issue. My advice is to believe in the person who is struggling. They likely joined your mission or team because they saw a part of your vision align with theirs. Each individual has untapped potential that leaders must unlock. The simplest way to create a high-value team is to create high-value energy where team members feel valued and leadership exists beyond the “task” that must be done. It’s quite simple: the more your team likes you, the more workable they will be. All leaders should set standards and enforce rules but they must do so with an understanding of their team and compassion for the individual.

Fifth: Know When It’s Time to Let Someone Go

When the fourth piece of advice runs dry and you’ve seriously wasted hours of your time trying to motivate and getting to know your team member, you must consider letting that person go. It’s hard to do this. No leader likes to tell someone in essence that they are fired. Yet, it’s crucial. Especially, if that team member plays a larger and more important role in the organization, they normalize rule-breaking and ineffective leadership. These individuals can halt progress for weeks, even months so make the shot when it is necessary and don’t be afraid to tell someone that they’ll find more success elsewhere. Act quick to find someone else - exceptional people deliver higher quality results at a faster pace.

Sixth: The Snowball Effect

You’ll be surprised at the number of times one small action can quickly spiral into something incredibly great or disastrous. Typically, in nonprofits, they tend to have positive impacts. One example I can give is an email we sent to the Coolidge Foundation. We were ignored for months but, out of nowhere, they expressed interest in collaboration. We, seeking ambition and collaboration, immediately took the opportunity and now have a paid sponsorship with one of the nation’s most prestigious scholarship programs in America. The same is pretty much true in every single challenge we overcome - small wins snowball, creating massive gains in outcome or results. Another way of saying this is lesson two: “Just do it.” If you have even the slightest idea of an impact you want to create, start somewhere. That somewhere can one day become more than you ever thought you would accomplish.

These are several of the most important lessons I've taken away from managing Outreach Debate’s USA and international branches. We’ve greatly grown our organization but that came through significant struggles. Only five or six months ago, I was experimenting with how branches should work. Constant iteration is a part of the leadership process, and those challenges help you grow immensely. To those who have made it this far, hopefully, you’ve come away with new insights to help your own leadership or lead Outreach Debate’s many initiatives.

I applaud you and wish you the best of luck.

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