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Is Leadership In YOU? (a poem)

The chosen few are the few who chose

To step up and open doors tightly closed

So you call yourself a leader, but what does that mean?

Getting green, turning green, badly running your team?

Sadly killing the dreams of a hopeful teen?

Madly willing your ideas, not even listening?

Does it mean you celebrate on election day

Because you can add your new position to your resume?

Can you handle criticism when your peers dis’ you?

Because you don’t care about theirs but only your issue?

Pass the tissue, makes me sad how some leaders let

Power get to their head, constituents they forget

You’re just a leader in name if you’re just searching for fame

For acclaim, it’s a shame why some get in the game

Leadership ain’t for the lame, don’t take it in vain

Time to rethink your position, understand why you came

You see a leader’s someone who listens firsts then speaks

Someone focused on being the change we seek

Leaders understand they represent all people

Don’t do that your leadership will never have a sequel

Do you seek to understand before being understood?

Do you take time to visit other neighborhoods?

We need real leaders to step up to the plate

To take a swing at racism other types of hate

To stomp out bullying, help end genocide

Do your best to help others hold their heads with pride

A leader builds a team, can’t do it all by yourself

And a leader remembers to practice good health

Because you’re no good to others if you’re no good to you

So let me ask you again, is leadership in you?

Navigating The Path To Great Student Leadership

“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.

GIVE

                  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.

RELEASE

                  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.

OVERCOME

                  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.

WIN

                  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.

GROW!

                  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!

How student leaders can respond to controversial topics in the news

It is beyond an understatement to say that we are living in very dangerous times. It seems as though every time we turn on the television, there is another story on some hot button issue from mass shootings to police/civilian interactions. From racism, anti-Semitism, and islamophobia, to immigration, education, and terrorism, it is very easy to feel overwhelmed by the challenges we face today. In my work as a youth speaker and an UPstander, I encounter leaders like you every single day who may not be sure on how to respond to these challenges from a leadership perspective.

It is easy for any of your peers who are not leaders to say whatever is on their mind with no concern for the ramifications but as a leader, you took an oath to work towards bringing people together, be it in your school community or beyond, depending on the issue. But how can you honestly speak about an issue like #blacklivesmatter or a tragic mass shooting if it is far removed from your daily experience? Here are 3 steps you can take to become a more effective leader on hot button issues.

  1. Educate yourself on the issue

We live in the information age. There is simply no excuse to not be able to educate yourself on an issue. The challenge, however is whether you will diversify your sources of information. For example, if you are reading about the tragic shootings in San Bernardino or the killing of Laquan McDonald in Chicago, you should not only consult one media source, as most people do. Remember, you are a leader! Don’t only watch CNN, MSNBC, or FOX for example. Watch all three plus additional sources like NPR and other reputable websites and journals that can educate you. Require that your team do the same thing and then make an informed decision on how to move forward.

  1. Survey your community

It is very easy to not address an issue because you do not believe it affects you directly but chances are that there is someone in your community that is affected. Is the Muslim student in your school being looked at differently after the San Bernardino killings? Is the police officer in your school or neighborhood being looked at more suspiciously after videos that surface showing police officers on the other side of the country shooting unarmed individuals? Is the Spanish speaking student more on edge over the immigration debate? You have to survey your community to find out who is feeling isolated and engage them. One of the mistakes I made as a high school student council leader was not listening as often as I should have to the people who did not speak up. Remember, silence can speak just as loudly as the loudest megaphone.

  1. Actively reach out to the affected community

The word “active” is extremely important here. Your entire school community needs to see that you are making efforts to be an inclusive community. Yes it’s cliché but you have to lead by example. Be the person to sit at a different table in the cafeteria, which is still one of the most segregated area in many schools today. Create speakout events where opinions can be expressed or have a unity rally. There is no shortage of things you can do once you are committed to be an UPstander and not a bystander. Once people know that they are still accepted in the community they share with you, they may be more likely to open up to you and also less likely to resort to some form of negative behavior due to the isolation or mistrust they may be experiencing.

Leadership is an easy job if you only preach to your choir but here is the problem, preaching to the choir is not leadership. It’s preaching. You ran for office and though you were not elected by everyone, you noe represent everyone. Take that responsibility seriously. Get educated on the issues of the day and use your knowledge to build your community, not keep it divided. That is the sign of a true leader!

Teachable Leadership Moments from the Rachel Dolezal Story

So by now you have most likely heard the story of Rachel Dolezal, the former head of The NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington. Dolezal was born white but started telling people she was a black woman over the past few years. At the time of this writing, she has appeared on national television and is in talks to have her own reality show. We can debate ad nauseam the ramifications of her actions, but there are certain aspects of this controversy that you as a leader must pay attention to. If you miss the key teachable moments from this story, you can hurt yourself in the future.

Teachable Moment #1: Be honest to yourself first and foremost

Dolezal apparently told her brother to not blow her cover as her appearance started to change over the years. A statement like this shows a clear aspect of deception on her part. As a leader, you have to come to terms with your identity before you engage the masses for two reasons: 1) You will have more clarity of mind, which is crucial for a leader; and 2) You won’t have to worry about being exposed as a fraud and losing credibility to the people that mattered most—your original constituency. As the African proverb goes, “When you tell the truth, you don’t need a good memory.” Be honest now to save yourself from unnecessary drama later.

Teachable Moment #2: Your diversity is an asset so don’t try to blend in

I work in the area of social justice. On a daily basis, I work to end serious issues like child trafficking, slavery, homophobia, racism, anti-Semitism, and more. In this work, I have met people of all races and backgrounds all dedicated to a common cause. The leaders who were the most ineffective were the ones who believe they have to shun who they are in order to better contribute to a movement. I am reminded of a recent example of Ben Affleck who tried to hide a story about his ancestors possibly owning slaves. Everyone knows that Affleck is a humanitarian and committed to human rights so why does he need to hide “his” history? If anything, his story shows that we do not have to inherit the prejudices of our ancestors. It’s a story to be told! We’re stronger as a community when we embrace our background and use it as a place of reference, not residence.

Teachable Moment #3: Do you want to be Kim Kardashian or a Dr. King?

Wow, tough comparison right? Both are public figures right? Both are talked about throughout the world right? The question becomes: what are people saying when they talk about Kardashian and King? Note: I am not judging or condemning Kardashian. I’m just using her story for comparison purposes. Dr. King’s claim to fame despite any flaws he had was being a servant to humanity. Kardashian will be remembered by many as someone who rose to fame from her recorded sexual encounter with singer Ray-J. Decades from now as we ignore more and more history, Kardashian may be remembered as a great humanitarian on her chosen causes. After all, there are many illegal and nefarious activities behind some of the greatest names and corporations in history but we have selective memories right? Dolezal is about to cash in with reality shows and book deals not based on her commendable work as a civil rights leader, but as someone who turned out to be a fraud. What do you want to be remembered for? A leader is only as good as her legacy.

At the end of the day, you have to decide what type of leader you want to be. We live in a pop-culture world that celebrates the worst of us. Don’t be so hungry for fame and exposure that you’re willing to sell your soul to the highest bidder. Don’t compromise your integrity for a paycheck. You may argue that Kim Kardashian is ultra-rich and can do whatever she wants right now. Yes, that is true. There is great benefit to having wealth but I believe there is a greater benefit to service to others, especially public service if you are a leader. Be honest with yourself, respect the diversity you bring to the table, and do your best to choose a positive legacy to be remembered for despite what others may say about you. The rise, fall, and rise again of Rachel Dolezal is a cautionary story for us all, but only if you read the story!

How student leaders can respond to Ferguson or other tense issues

For the past few weeks, many people across the nation as well as across the globe have been caught in discussion, debate, or even serious violent protests over the death of Ferguson teenager Michael Brown, who was shot by police officer Darren Wilson. If you took a step back to analyze this tragedy like I have, you probably saw how many media outlets and activists were using their camera or blogging opportunities to shout at one another without much listening. I found myself wondering how you as student leaders could take the lead on generating discussions on this issue when you have received such poor examples from adults. Below are some steps that you should take as a student leader to address issues such as Mike Brown’s killing, or any other incident in your school that may bring about tension.

  1. Check the pulse of your community. Whenever an issue that has great potential for controversy occurs in your school, you should conduct surveys of your student colleagues to see how they feel about the situation. Just because you were voted into your leadership role, it does not mean that you should expect everyone to agree with your stance on the issue. Once you know where your community lies on the issue pro, con, or somewhere in between, you can move on to step #2.
  2. Engage those who think differently from you. There are two types of people who may take opposing views to your own: those who will be very vocal in their opposition and those who will not say a word. It is important to engage both because you will be more likely to find common ground on the issue, which is important for maintaining a positive community environment.
  3. Talk to your teachers and advisors about the issue. It is sad that many student leaders do not look to their teachers for counsel. Too often, I come across issues in schools of racism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, etc. where the students think these issues are happening for the first time because it is the first time they are experiencing it. It is very likely that teachers in your school have had similar experiences, maybe even more severe given the tumultuous times different groups have had to endure on the path towards equality. Find teachers of varying opinions on the issue to help foster a conversation. If no one can be found at the school, find someone outside of your school.
  4. Organize a speakout session. Students want an opportunity to be heard so provide the space for them. Sometimes leadership is all about listening. If it is a school-based problem, students may have valid suggestions about how to move forward. If it’s an external issue like the Mike Brown killing or something internal such as bullying, let students vent about their concerns and serve as a facilitator as opposed to a decider. Let them help in the formation of next steps, if next steps are indeed necessary, so that your school can move on together.

At the end of the day, a leader needs to provide an opportunity for all voices to be heard. It is easy for the loudest voice to be heard but not necessary listened to. As a leader, you should be a conduit for others to channel their energy. If you do this, you will be able to maintain an active constituency that will support you because you support and respect them, which was the reason you ran for your leadership position in the first place. Don’t shy away from controversy, no matter how small or large. Embrace the challenge and your colleagues will embrace you!