The art of leadership and helping others

January 25, 2021
Deb Bryant headshots in two side-by-side photos.

Deb Bryant’s undergrad education in the fine arts was hardly the foundation for a career in social services leadership.

Or was it?

Bryant studied drawing and sculpture at Langara College and Emily Carr University of Art and Design, the latter discipline requiring her to start with a lump of clay or hunk of granite and imagine what it could become, visualize what thing of beauty was trapped within its nondescript bulk waiting for her tools to release it.

Thus, by the time the Vancouver native started a career working for non-profits, she was adept at chipping away at heavy tasks, working with bits and pieces towards a larger goal.

Now the CEO of YWCA Metro Vancouver, Bryant worked for years in social development, on the frontlines and in operational management, dealing with women’s health, Indigenous adult basic education and, at the Carnegie Adult Learning Centre on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, literacy.

“I really felt that the work that I was doing, that frontline work, was critical… it really made a difference to the individuals that I was working with, but there was a bigger problem that doing that frontline work wasn’t letting me get to,” says Bryant, one of the students, former students and faculty members featured in Royal Roads University’s Boldly Different  marketing campaign.

“Although I felt like it was critical work to do, I didn’t love facing people in trouble every day and helping them individually. I really wanted to figure out how I could prevent that trouble from happening.

“I think it’s so critical that we… don’t think about poverty or homelessness or those kind of maladies of society as inevitable,” she says. “They’re not inevitable. We create them, so then what do we do to not create them?”

What drew her to study leadership was this goal of solving problems “rather than coming to the rescue over and over again.”

What drew her to Royal Roads, where she earned a mid-career Master of Arts in Leadership and Training in 2005, was the recommendation of two graduates who worked in Powell River when she lived there, and the ability as a working parent to study from home via the university’s distributed learning model.

She says the program was a positive experience both because of its structure — an accelerated schedule, immersion, remote learning plus a four-week residency — and her classmates, who ranged from a concrete company executive to an Indigenous leader to health and non-profit sector administrators.

Learning from them “was really remarkable for me,” says Bryant, calling her time at Royal Roads “a big watershed.” She notes that she absorbed lessons on the importance of relationships, of strong connections within workplaces among colleagues but also between people and the decisions organizations make to ensure everyone has a strong and individual sense of purpose.

Now, she lives and leads with those lessons daily at YWCA Metro Vancouver, which provides housing for single mothers and their children; employment programs for women returning to the workforce; and mentorship for students and young people entering adulthood. The organization also operates child-care services, does violence-prevention work and operates two social enterprises: a hotel and fitness centre in downtown Vancouver.

And while she’s concerned the explanation might be “too esoteric,” she says her artistic background comes in handy.

“Some of those skills — the creative, big-picture thinking, structural thinking — actually come from my art practice… I really do think that’s where I got started with thinking about structure and the kind of whole form of an idea, or of society in this case, and how this all works together.”

This is one of a series of articles on the people featured in Royal Roads University’s Boldly Different campaign. If you want to take your career further, earn a new credential, experience personal growth – or all three – with a boldly different education, contact us to learn more or to speak with an advisor.