Fighting for the Underdogs: A Leadership Profile with Jake Mossawir

Picture of Jake Mossawir
Wednesday, May 14, 2014
Jodi Mulligan

Welcome to another in a series of profiles of emerging and established leaders in our community. Our featured leader for May is Jake Mossawir, Executive Director of City Year Sacramento. Jake is the recipient of the Legacy Feast 2014 Award in the Equity Category. The Valley Vision Board of Directors focused on young leaders under the age of 40 this year who stood out for demonstrating boundary-crossing leadership, employing innovative approaches to old problems, and collaborating with others to achieve a shared vision. His candor is refreshing as you will read in the next few paragraphs and his outlook reflects the qualities of a true innovator…

Q. Do you think you were born to lead and inspire others to action, did you learn from others along the way, or both?

I think the only way you can be a good leader is by learning from others. Leadership is about others and service to others. I think born leadership is somewhat of a myth.  I think people can be born with traits that lend themselves to strong leadership qualities, but without grooming those traits I don’t think leadership will shine through.  Leadership I think is more often born out of life experience. I am the younger brother of an overachieving sibling, so I think I have always had a tendency to compete and want to lead. I have also been lucky enough to have some incredibly impactful people in my life, in addition to my brother and my parents, and I think it is because of these people coupled with life experiences that I have a tendency towards leadership roles.

Q. Who inspires you and why?

Underdogs.  Anyone who has had to fight his or her way to the top inspires me.  Things have often not been handed to me in life and I don’t like when they are. Having to work at things despite odds and despite failure is where both my greatest peace and anxiety lie.  One of my favorite examples is my college sports experience. I was the captain of my college football team, but that only happened four years after I was nearly cut. I was undersized and had not learned all that I could have. I had moved positions and had resisted the change.  When I was told that I was about to be cut, my anxiety kicked in and I just switched my entire frame of mind and went to work on getting better. The award I am most proud of was the “Most Improved Player Award” I received after that year of nearly being cut.  I use to think that award was a slap in the face that pretty much said “You use to be terrible, now you are not so terrible. Congratulations”.  But over time I realized that it was about level setting, hard work and perseverance.  I had to recognize that at the time, I wasn’t producing the way I needed to. I needed a plan, I needed to work harder and I had to grow in mental toughness.  I don’t like to use sports metaphors too much, because they can sometimes seem shallow, but that is one that I do like. I think anyone who is an underdog in whatever his or her situation in life has confronted those experiences and I am really inspired by those who succeed.

Q. At City Year, you take idealism very seriously. Can you give us an example of how idealism can power our leaders of tomorrow?

I think idealism sometimes sounds like a sneaky word in this community.  Maybe because we are in the Capitol and so often we witness selfish ulterior motives cloaked in benevolence and I think in some sense that leaves us a little bit cynical and cautious. However, collectively our future as a region will only be as bright as our collective idealism.  We witnessed an incredible example of that play out during the ups and downs of the arena fight. The belief in what could be, kept many in this community hopeful and ultimately successful in their plight. I think for future leaders their ability to protect their own idealism and continue to wonder what could be and to fight for those ideas is critical. After all can you be a good leader if you are not idealistic? That is not to say that one should be naïve, but idealism is something anyone can control.  It is an emotion that you as an individual harbor.  It is easy to be cynical. It’s easy to cave into negativity. If leaders of tomorrow can be successful in harnessing those emotions and hold onto their idealism despite the cynicism they might face, they can be successful in changing the outcomes they seek. Plus, it is just a happier way to live life.

Q. I read recently in a bio about you that the best advice you ever got was that just because it’s the style doesn’t mean you look good in it. Can you tell us what that means to you in your own life?

My grandfather use to say it to my mother when she was younger (although my Mom looks marvelous in any style, so I don’t know what he was talking about).  My mom would recite it to me when I was younger.  I think it can mean a lot of things, which is why I love it.  I think often people sacrifice original thought and/or self-esteem to be something they truly aren’t. I think the adventure lies in being who you are and for me the quote means comfort in being who I am. At the same time, it can also be taken literally.  I am a man with large thighs; I’ll never be able to pull off the skinny-jean look . . .

Q.  I understand that you wanted to be a singer at a certain stage in your life. At what age was that and is there any recorded evidence that may have made you choose otherwise? 

In 1981, a star was born… Unfortunately, that star was Justin Timberlake.  

I have always loved music, all kinds of music. As a kid and even as an adult, I always have a stereo on or headphones in.  Because of that love, I really wanted to go into the music industry as a kid.  I remember when I was about 10 years old, looking in the phonebook to find music production companies in San Jose. As you can imagine, San Jose is not really known as being the Motown of the West, so I didn’t get very far.  The other problem was…I have a terrible, terrible voice.  I mean it is really bad.  Unfortunately, yes. It is because of evidence that exists, that at a young age I decided I should hang up the microphone.  It really only took hearing myself sing to realize that some people have it and I am not one of them.  I’ve come to terms with it, but every once in a while, I’ll dust of the microphone at a good karaoke session and breakout into Earth, Wind and Fire’s “Reasons”.  You’ll never see a room clear faster.