“Leadership ain’t for the lame, don’t take it in vain
Time to rethink your position, understand why you came.”
These are two lines from a poem on leadership that I often recite when I speak around the world to student leaders. I share this line to underscore two points. The first point is that leadership is not for everyone. Though everyone can be a leader, leadership is a calling that few people answer and therefore, it should never be taken in vain. The second point is that leaders must always rethink why they chose to be a leader, and whether they still have the capacity or even the desire to lead. In today’s political climate, these two points are more important than ever for student leaders.
Whether one is a supporter or opponent of President Donald Trump, no one can argue that his presidency has not only shaken up our system of government, but has also had an impact in every aspect of our society, especially in schools. Some students feel that they have a leader in office who can speak for them in ways that President Obama did or could not. Others believe that President Trump’s rhetoric makes them less safe in school, evidence by instances of middle school students walking into their cafeteria to fellow students chanting “Build a wall” and others being told that they are going to be sent back to their country, even though they may have been born here. The bottom line is that there is a level of divisiveness taking place in our schools that require our student leaders to “rethink” their position in order to evaluate if they are built for the task of leadership today.
When I speak to student leaders, I challenge them to jump head first into whatever challenges their schools are facing. The example of America’s political climate is on the more extreme side of challenges students may face in school, but there are a multitude of other challenges that student leaders face in school. There are issues from cafeteria food and infrastructure to the curriculum and school climate. Regardless of the issues, there are four simple steps that I share with student leaders that can help them better navigate these issues. The four principles stem from my book G.R.O.W. Towards Your Greatness! 10 Steps To Living Your Best Life. The steps are Give, Release, Overcome, and Win.
Student leaders must do a review of the quality and quantity of their giving. Dr. Wayne Dyer said that the more we give to the universe, the more it gives to us. Conversely, the more we take from the universe, the more it takes from us. Student leaders cannot be self-absorbed and only concerned with the title of leadership as a résumé builder for their college applications. Their elected position means that they must always remember that they represent their constituents, even those who did not vote for them. To that end, student leaders must be giving of their attention to students in their schools. They need to be able to do more listening than talking to really understand what is transpiring in their schools and they must be willing to be giving of the time requisite to lead their school towards effective change. I remind them as Les Brown said that we have two ears and one mouth and we should use them in proportion.
Student leaders must learn to let “it” go and let “them” go. By “it” I mean they need to let go of any hatred or even simple bias they may have towards certain groups. I study leadership across the globe from corporate CEOs to country presidents. I have seen situations where someone becomes a CEO and actively works to undermine particular departments they simply do not like. I have seen situations where someone becomes president of a country and exacts revenge on the ethnic group they viewed as their oppressors. I encourage student leaders to practice forgiveness and inclusivity, similar to former South African President Nelson Mandela who, upon his release from 27 years in prison, went to visit the home of his former prison guards to express forgiveness.
Once students forgive or let “it” go, they can work towards letting “them” go. Student leaders must let go of people around them who no longer represent where they want to go as a leader. I cite actor Will Smith when I tell leaders that they are a direct reflection of their five closest friends. If their friends are racist, homophobic, anti-Semitic, islamophobic, sexist or anything else, chances are the leaders are as well. Student leaders must associate themselves with people who represent not where they are, but where they want to go. Furthermore, student leaders must understand that with the advent of social media, they need to be even more careful with their “friends” because they will be associated with posts from their friends and it could affect their academic and professional careers, most recently evidenced by the students who had their admission from Harvard revoked after their racist social media posts were discovered.
Student leaders must overcome their fears. Leadership can be a daunting task, but it is a task worth pursuing if they are truly interested in serving their communities. I cite Zig Ziglar who said that fear simply means False Evidence Appearing Real. This means that most of the issues they worry about will not happen so they must work daily towards their goals. Student leaders must be guided by their goals and their vision and not by their fears. One cannot govern effectively if they are governed by fear. Fear keeps leaders from thinking clearly. It keeps them often from even attempting to start a program because they fear what people will think. As Dr. King said: “cowardice asks the question, is it expedient? And then expedience comes along and asks the question, is it politic? Vanity asks the question, is it popular? Conscience asks the question, is it right?” Student leaders must acknowledge the fear they may feel but focus more on what is right.
Student leaders must believe they will win if they do not give in. In this age of instant gratification, student leaders must practice patience. They must realize that some of the changes they seek in their school may not occur during their tenure as a student leader. They must think like some Native American communities who believe that they should think of how their actions will affect people seven generations from now. Depending on the schools they are in, at one point their school may have allowed no women or people of color but people fought for the right to attend those schools even though those fighters for equality never did. Students must believe that they will eventually win. Change does not happen overnight and student leaders must not be seduced by the sitcom nature of society where they see problems resolved in a thirty minute show with commercial breaks.
At the end of the day, if students look at how they give, release, overcome, and win, they can become effective leaders for their school community. If they use these four steps to “rethink” their position, they will better understand the serious job they have undertaken as leaders in their school. As advisers, you can be the ones that can help them along with this process. Your experiences as educators and leaders in your own environments can greatly aid students in their development. Whether it is the National Honor Society or Student Council or any other form of leadership, we need to make sure that students understand the great responsibility of the leadership roles they have undertaken. I fully believe that with your guidance, our student leaders of today can continue on their path to the greatness that we know is inside of them. I wish you the best as you walk this path with them!