Thursday, October 27, 2011

Gut Check

            Consider two people. First, think about someone in a typical student leadership positions—team captain, student council officer, et cetera. Now, think about a student who reaches out to the “weird new kid.” Who shows greater leadership? Who may grow up to become a stronger leader?[i]

Leadership is a hot topic right now, particularly in independent schools. Many schools have added leadership to their mission statements. It seems simple enough. After all, of course we want to foster leadership. And I believe that leadership can be developed in many ways. Plus I think everyone has opportunities to lead and must be ready to grasp them when they appear.
I appreciate all the traditional ways schools have helped students develop their leadership skills. Many schools have added special leadership programs; kids go off for special leadership experiences; and I’ve toyed with the idea of teaching an elective on leadership. Many such programs are excellent, and I’ve certainly grown through participating in some. Still, I feel we’re missing something.
I think about great leaders from history. (Rather than name them, I encourage you to create your own list.) I recall examples of truly inspired leadership shown by young people. They all have one common secret ingredient.
For kids to develop leadership, we have to allow them to face discomfort. Even more, to wrestle with big, hairy challenges. They must be able to stare at themselves in the mirror and promise themselves that they will do what is hard and uncomfortable and right. They have to grow more and more resilient.
Contrast this to another hot topic in schools—snowplow parents. Unlike helicopter parents, who hover and are ready to swoop whenever necessary, snowplow parents try to clear any obstacles from their child’s path. They jump out in front and smooth the way.
That leads to a logical question: How does a child learn to lead if he or she is always following?
The quick answer is that he or she can’t, except in theory. And in theory leadership can be taught. But in practice leadership is learned mainly by discovering what lies in one’s gut.

[i] The answer is, I think, “Depends.” Many factors could come into play here. I’ve seen fantastic student leadership in those positions, but also some poor leadership. Please understand I am not disparaging those roles. It’s just to start myself—and, I hope, you—thinking.

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