“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.”
-John Quincy Adams
We were newly married, Mark and I, and shopping with seven-year-old Matt at Twin Fair, the prototype of supermarket/department store combos. This was a Friday night, and the store was busy. There were many, many tired, unhappy children shopping with long-suffering parents.
One parent in particular gave us pause, though.
A stout little blond boy, red cheeked with tired eyes, turned sudddenly and gave his tiny toddler sister a whack on her snow-suited back. She began to wail, and the mother wheeled around, already swinging.
She started to hit that little guy, hard, over and over.
“I’ll teach you to hit your sister!” she snarled.
And Mark said to her, “That’s exactly what you’re teaching him.”
And she spun around and directed her venom at Mark, but at least she stopped hitting the burly, overheated boy.
That little guy would be around 40 years old now, and I wonder what leadership lessons he learned in his growing up years. I hope that was just one bad night, and that he learned that it’s okay for leaders to say, and mean, that they’re sorry: they’ve made a mistake.
I hope, too, if the mama was a usually angry person, that there were other grown-ups who modeled calm and thoughtfulness, patience and perseverance. I hope he had a big person who listened to him, quiet and patient, deep and true.
I hope his teachers and bosses showed him how good leaders live in this world, and I hope he incorporated those lessons into his own life.
It’s something I’ve been thinking about—how we learn to be leaders. We learn from our most basic, intrinsic models, of course. We learn because we want to lead, and we want to learn to do it well. And some lucky people have the opportunity to study leadership—study it in a more formal kind of way and put it into practice. Ten or so people I connected with who had that opportunity stunned me with their thoughtfulness and generosity, and with the leadership roles they’ve embraced as adults.
Maybe, I’m thinking, we should be teaching leadership in all of our schools…
Of course, our first leadership teachers are our parents. In fact, I typed ‘parents as leaders’ into Google, and got 652,000,000 hits. In the first hit, Brighthorizon.com offered, “Parenting Skills: What Makes a Good Leader.” It pointed out that every situation and every person is different, and that different reactions might be required of parents.
“In every situation, you remember that you are the leader, capable of providing guidance, training, and encouragement,” the article notes, and it goes on to say that trust is the number one ingredient in the successful parent-child relationship.
I can remember, as a shy, shy child, visiting a friend whose house was loud and raucous. The mom in that house often yelled things like, “Who the HELL took my pen?” and stomped around the kitchen.
I was terrified at first, until I learned that family’s culture: they were noisy, loving people, and there was no violence in their noisiness. The kids would yell right back, and in minutes, they would all be laughing.
I had other friends whose homes were quieter, quieter than I was used to, where the rules were very clear, but that sense of love still simmered. Very different kinds of parenting: very different models of leadership. But all of the people in all of those homes trusted each other to be there in need.
“My parents were good leaders,” Liza writes. “They taught me to work by modelling that behavior.”
As she thought about parent leaders further, Liza added, “I think moms historically are the more influential parent as they manage it ALL. It is enormous the amount of leadership qualities mothers have to possess just to keep the world running.”
Things are changing, though, she adds. “Dads these days are stepping in more in the running of the family household…”
My mother used to tell me, “DO as I say, not as I DO.” She was jokingly referring to an important truth: as children we model the behaviors our parents demonstrate way more than we listen to the words that they say…a truth I learned more deeply as a parent myself.
Other family members are important leadership role models, too. Janet noted that her two grandfathers were professional nurturers of people and potential. “One was a minister in Long Beach, California,” she writes, “and the other served as superintendent of schools in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.”
Her minister grandpa built a church; her educator grandpa built a school. Janet is a retired educator who served on her school board and who fills many leadership positions at her church. The lessons she learned from her grandfathers, and the admiration she had for them, shaped her life’s roles.
And then our families, fully believing in the beneficence of the system, launch us.
We go to school, where we have teachers who model leadership in many shapes and forms. There are leadership roles there—in the classroom, on the playground, in clubs and organizations and student government—that give many kids a chance to learn about the challenges of leading and about themselves as leaders.
We go to churches, some of us, and look at leadership through a spiritual lens.
We go to work, and we learn from bosses.
“My last boss,” writes Brian, “definitely had her flaws. But she was no-ego in the sense of digging down and pitching in. She would dive into the dirtiest, sweatiest areas of the restaurant when something needed to be done with no complaints. It was inspiring. She felt that when you accepted a job, you accepted it with all its warts intact.”
As Tracey notes, we learn from bosses both good and bad.
Life thrusts us, at all ages, and often kicking and screaming, into certain leadership roles, and we learn by doing.
Sometimes, we learn by failing.
What we don’t always have are formal chances to learn leadership—classroom training. And when I thought that, I thought of my young colleague, Bob Mead-Colegrove, at SUNY Fredonia in the 1990’s. Bob came in and took over and enriched and enhanced the Leadership Development Program (LDP) there.
Since then, I have taught at some colleges who once had leadership programs for their students; changing times and pressures to trim credits and the ever-present budget concerns crept into play, and those leadership programs disappeared.
I got on SUNY Fredonia’s website and saw that, although Bob now has a position (a leadership position, I might note) at a college in Buffalo, New York, Fredonia’s LDP is going strong.
I messaged Bob to see if he thought college leadership programs were dwindling.
“I don’t know if the leadership program trends have decreased in recent years,” Bob replied. “But I can say I have seen a trend of the interdisciplinary leadership programs being taken in by academic departments. I find this concerning as I truly believe in the interdisciplinary approach to leadership programs. You get the diversity of thought and academic differences more when it is an interdisciplinary program. My proudest moment was when I was able to get the Interdisciplinary Leadership Studies minor approved at Fredonia.”
Then Bob asked if I’d like him to see if any LDP alums from Fredonia would be interested in discussing leadership learning.
SURE, I said, thinking how great it would be if one or two of Bob’s former students responded.
Ha. The response blew me away.
Several students—now established professionals—who responded all had different reasons for getting involved in a college leadership program. Some had no idea what a leadership program was, but a faculty member nominated them, so they figured, “Why not?” They thought it might look good on a resume or something.
“I guess I took it because I was nominated,” writes Jeremiah. “It seemed like a good opportunity not offered to everyone, so why waste an opportunity? I wish I could say there was more thought into it, but that was it. I always volunteer and try to help so, it was easy to say yes.”
Dave notes, “I was ‘selected’ because I showed leadership qualities in other classes, and it probably played into my vanity at the time.”
Kate writes, “I knew my leadership skills were something I wanted to develop, and I wanted to be able to lead my peers and possibly supervise one day.” (Kate is now assistant director for residential life at a major SUNY school.) She adds, “I was also very passive and needed to learn some better assertiveness skills that I seriously lacked when I started college.”
Jason was nominated by an advisor, and he had a work-study job in the student government office, which was right next door to the leadership program. His best friends had signed up for leadership; the people involved looked nice; he thought he’d sign up, too. Jason now is also a student life leader at a SUNY school.
And Ryan Barone freely admits that the only reason he got involved in the leadership program is because he was in trouble. He was sanctioned for underage drinking, and one of his options for getting back into the school’s good graces was to enroll in the leadership program. So, what the heck, he figured, and he applied.
Ryan is now an assistant vice president for student success at Colorado State College.
Some students self-nominated, mindfully seeking out leadership training.
Whatever route they took to the program, their reflections on how it helped them grow were thought-provoking.
Clay writes, “One could write books on [the topic of what he learned]. I learned tolerance. I learned real skills to apply to working with groups of people. I learned how to listen.” He adds, “That last one being the most important.” [Clay is now, by the way, a Vice President of Strategic Initiatives at a $1.6 billion federal contractor, managing large projects involving government bids.]
Holly, who, as an MSW, oversees 50 staff members in a Child Protective Services agency, writes, “I kept very few things from college; however, one thing I kept was my leadership development book.” She attached a photo to prove it, and noted that, as she moved into challenging roles in graduate school and professionally, she has referred to the binder time and again. Jason also mentioned using the binder in his professional life.
Holly also notes that the public speaking exercises she did in the leadership program, among many other real-life skills, have served her well in her career.
Dave agrees the public speaking was a key learning component. He also mentioned learning how to dine formally…a skill he uses in his current federal position.
Ryan A. says, “Oh my gosh, what DIDN’T I learn? I fully believe that being a part of Leadership changed my life. I learned that you don’t have to be extroverted to be a leader…I learned how to work with people, especially how to work with people as a TEAM.”
Ryan Barone mentions gaining the ability and space to clarify his values. The teaching and advising that he received in the program laid a foundation that he has continued to build on in his professional life.
Kristine writes that she learned that there’s a lot more to leadership than “being in charge and making decisions.” She learned teamwork, collaboration, how to foster decision-making to reach a goal, and how to let others participate rather than doing everything herself.
And Kate notes that servant leadership, which she first learned about at SUNY Fredonia, has informed her life. “To me,” she writes, “serving the needs of the group helps move the end results forward.”
Several of the students (errr, sorry: several of these professional, civic, and personal leaders who I can’t help but think of as students still) talked about learning the concept of time management. Many of them shared a mantra Bob taught them: Early is on time, on time is late, and late is unacceptable.
Every one of the alumnae of the Leadership Development Program is in a leadership role, and each of them said the LDP gave them skills and confidence that helped them reached their current pinnacle. One of the many things that impressed me about this diverse group of respondents is that they didn’t complete the program, call it done, and smugly walk off looking to lead.
They all knew they had skills and potential, but they continued to read, seek, practice, and grow.
They talked about using Meyers-Briggs with their staff to foster understanding; they talked about learning to build morale.
They talked about how important it is for people to have leaders who look like they do…so that a leadership program must reach out to a diverse range of people and help them develop their potentials. (And that’s a subject for a further post…)
They talked about insuring the people they work with have the support they need.
They talked about having developed the ability to hear and absorb criticism.
What they learned in the leadership program applies in all aspects of life, not just on the job. “Currently,” writes Kristen, “I’m a stay-at-home mom. I think the things I learned from [the leadership programs at SUNY Fredonia] have always applied to my life. It doesn’t matter if I’m working as a professional or volunteering at my kids’ school. What I learned in those programs is immeasurable.”
“It did get me on a path of leadership roles in my life, though,” says Jeremiah, “and a quest for knowledge on how to be better at leading. I’ve read books and been to countless trainings since college in various fields to better myself as a leader.”
And Ryan A. states, “Leadership taught me that continued personal growth and learning are very important in order to continue being the best version of myself.”
There is more to share, more that these thoughtful young professionals, parents, and leaders had to say, more thoughts for another post. But tonight I am left with this: leadership IS taught, negatively and positively, by the models woven into our lives. But we are not doomed to only try to repeat those leaders’ triumphs or to succumb to their failures; self-knowledge, encouragement, and opportunities can help us become ever better at the challenge of leading.
And leading can be taught, mindfully, with proven success, to a whole range of receptive people.
And it should be taught. Leadership and maximizing potential should be lessons every child, teen, and young adult have the chance to learn. I wonder how, without adding another task to already over-burdened teachers, we could make that happen.