I run a leadership program at a company aptly called The Leadership Program.
My colleagues and I run training and coaching every year for more than 150 people, our team of Leadership Trainers, who go into more than 100 schools every year to work with youth and teachers. We continually proclaim that we are committed to creating experiences that inspire people to step into their leadership and make positive change in their lives and the lives of others.
Yet, I am never sure we really do it. We really do the work, of course we do, but how can you ever prove leadership? How as a teacher do you check yourself? We explain to the students that leadership always begins with yourself and how you are choosing to lead your life instead of allowing your life or circumstances to lead you. Stepping into your leadership is the act of stepping into your full self in the moment. I want to share a lesson on leadership that’s happening in my house right now, and offer ten tips to help kids to step into their leadership.
Last night, my normally outgoing and exuberant eight-year-old daughter worked herself up into hysterics claiming stage fright and anything else she could grab onto to share her fears with me about performing in her class African Dance show next week. She was adamant that she will fail. That she will be embarrassed, that everyone will look at her and say, “She doesn’t know what she is doing—we see her up on that big stage. She can’t hide from us.”
Nothing I said to reassure her was working, including reminding her that her much shyer older brother did it last year and actually enjoyed it. She was having none of it. I also said the stage wasn’t that big and that in all of the years of the third graders at PS 107 doing this performance no one has ever failed—it was impossible. All she had to do was get up on stage and do her best and maybe try to enjoy it. To which she replied, “Oh, someone is about to fail for the first time ever.” I offered to have her practice the dance with me, I told her I would learn it and we could do it every night before bed—nope. She said she could not even remember one move because all she can think about is the failure.
She wants me to somehow get her excused from this performance. She wants me to tell her teachers that she can’t possibly do this—it is too difficult for her. After two straight hours of watching her work herself up and listening to all her deepest fears, I would be lying if I said I didn’t contemplate it. Maybe it is too much for her. Maybe I need to honor her feelings.
I kissed her goodnight and told her I believed in her and that we could talk about it tomorrow and see how she feels.
Later I started thinking about how difficult stepping into one’s leadership really is. About how especially challenging it is for children and adolescents. How sometimes we expect the same from them as if they were just shorter adults. Then I started thinking about what Emma will learn from this experience if she is brave enough to go through with it. How the fear is the very thing that creates an opportunity for her to witness her own courage emerging. I am proud of her school and teachers for providing this opportunity for Emma to look at herself and hopefully to cross the threshold. What will she learn in that moment when she walks on the stage? When the drums begin? When she moves side by side with her classmates on a stage looking out at flashing iPhones and cheering parents? I don’t know what she will learn. I can speculate based on my own experiences, but I do not know what it will be for her. I don’t know if it will be positive or negative. It will be her story, another piece of fabric that she will weave into her development as a person. I do know that she is already a richer person for going through this.
This third grade New York City public school social studies class is studying Africa. What better way than by bringing in an African Dance teaching artist for six weeks to teach every third grade class a different African dance? The classes will also take a field trip to a South African restaurant to taste a bit of Africa. All the time they are covering the Common Core, and learning all the geography that we had to learn when we were their age. The school is committed to providing experiences where students can love learning and step into their leadership. This is one way that they do it. How do you do it? How do we ensure we are doing it at The Leadership Program?
I may not have the answers, but I am committed to the quest.
I know that it would be easier to just teach the kids the African Dance and not expect them to come together on stage with costumes and live music and an audience of parents and school administrators. The kids would still learn about Africa, they would still have a learning experience related to dance and collaboration. They would not, however, be asked to cross that threshold to see what they are made of when the stakes are raised, when the spotlight hits. What opportunity do we lose in not asking that of the kids or ourselves? That is why I am committed to asking myself, my staff, and our students to step into the spotlight—even if it means learning from failure.
Ten Tips for Helping Kids Step Into Their Leadership
1. Talk about leadership.
Introduce the word early on, even with younger kids, and use it often. Give them examples in daily life and make sure your examples are personal and relatable. In the early and middle grades children often recognize parents and teachers as leaders more than they do presidents and sports stars. With older students, allow time during lessons or activities for them to process their own leadership opportunities and experiences, so that they begin to see leadership as a journey, not a destination. Provide an opportunity for them to reflect on the learning that leadership is providing them. This discussion provides time for them to see that failure is not so bad if we learn from it, lowering the risk level.
2. Know their style of leadership and learning.
Not all people learn in the same way and they certainly don’t lead in the same way. Know the students you are working with and watch their styles. How can you make sure introverted kids are having opportunities to lead, even if looks different from the extrovert? Buddy programs where older kids work with younger kids one on one allow for shy kids to blossom.
3. Make it social.
Often older kids think of leadership as a solo endeavor—something that puts one on a pedestal above it all and therefore they stay away from it, as they do with anything that singles them out during those self-conscious adolescent years. Combat that by making leadership a way to connect with others and a social opportunity, such as planning a dance or student lounge or other social event. If that is too ambitious for your group, practice group dynamics exercises where students have a chance to interact with each other in a new and different way.
4. Get an easy win.
This is just as important for you as it is for them. It will give you all more confidence as you grow the level of your leadership practice. Student leadership does not always look like a student government or a functioning peer mediation program. Those things are great but not always achievable right off the bat. A simple community service endeavor requires very little set up and can pack a big punch, like having the class visit a senior center and perform poetry or read to the seniors. If reading is too difficult, bring art supplies and have them make a project together such as a picture frame where they share stories.
5. Catch them in the act.
Point out moments of leadership in everyday interactions and classes so they see how they already have these skills and that they can draw on these same qualities when the project begins.
6. Plan for success.
The more you plan as the classroom leader, the more smoothly projects will go. Even if you are asking the students to plan an event as their project, it still means you need a plan for the lessons to support those student conversations. You will be in charge of follow up. You are a role model for them; they will be looking at you constantly, even when you don’t realize it. Are you prepared for class? Could you create a checklist for them to help organize their discussion? Do you need to get other teachers involved? Other community members? Do you need to make sure the gym is free on certain days? If they’re creating an art gallery of their work, have you thought about how to frame the work, how much time it will take to set up the gallery?
7. Be the grown up.
Be there to help mediate conflict, change course, or problem solve when young people need it. They are students of leadership and your guidance at the right times is just as good a lesson on leadership as anything else.
8. Add the glitter.
When you are preparing for a final project or performance with your kids, ask yourself what you can do to add a little more “specialness” to this? Where can you throw some glitter and heighten this above the everyday? Sometimes it means having the kids simply all wear black and put their poetry in matching binders for a spoken word event. Sometimes it means getting microphones and a better sound system to bring a vocal performance to the next level. Where is your glitter?
9. Expect it.
If the students think you expect it and you believe they can do it, then on some level they start to believe it. You may have to help them cross the finish line but they will get there and their self-confidence will grow incrementally from action more than from any self-esteem exercise you could ever come up with.
10. Make it Fun!
What we enjoy, we want to do again. Remember with all the hard work to keep the joy. Smiles are a great metric for this—your own included. If you stop smiling, they will stop smiling.
Written by: Christine Courtney, President of The Leadership Program, Inc.