Finding Hidden Lessons for Teaching Leadership
As I reflect on my new role with GYLI and the Stuart Center, I have been thinking a lot about leadership, both in terms of what I have learned about my own journey working with students and what we need to be thinking about as we enter a post-COVID world. I believe that there are some lessons and concepts that are difficult to teach, confront and talk about with students and other adults, but that can lead to meaningful conversations and lessons for us as educators and for our students if we are mindful on how we approach these topics.
The first term I want to talk about is failure. We of course always aim for success and positive outcomes in our programs, but how do we process when something goes wrong? How do we teach our students to think about when they have struggled with a task or an assignment and it doesn’t go as planned? Is there a way to fail well? To fail productively?
I think about successful leaders that we look up to and how their stories often comprise some hardship or challenge overcome, but often there is some perceived failure as well. Sometimes, the deeper the failure, the more compelling the lesson and triumph. Failure can be a sign to switch directions, strategy or let go of perfectionism. Failure can force us to reexamine our priorities and help us develop resilience or grit. Perhaps the key is in how we frame the experience and create a new story where failure is replaced with learning.
The second term I grapple with is fatigue. I think about the kind of year we have had as educators and what our students have endured. Fatigue also has some hidden lessons for us, as it can force us to ask hard questions about how we are taking care of ourselves. Fatigue can force us to consider our physical and mental well being and practice self care and self compassion. What if instead of reacting to fatigue, we were proactive about centering wellness as part of the student leadership experience? What if part of a successful education for leadership is also learning how to read the signs our minds and bodies are communicating before we feel like we have hit some kind of fatigue wall? I also think about mitigation strategies we can teach our students around mindfulness, the power of boredom for creativity, the hidden gifts of silence, the importance of rest and the freedom of being ok with doing less. Some of these lessons were imposed because of the pandemic. What lessons will remain?
The third term I think is important to consider is fear. Whether it is that first step off a ropes course, public speaking for the first time, being truly vulnerable in front of strangers or processing the onslaught of terrifying news headlines, our students should understand that fear can also be a positive and even healthy experience, if we use it correctly. Fear can make us plan and imagine different outcomes, it can keep us present, humble and alert, and it can make us realize our limits and potential as humans. We can practice managing fear through enacting challenges by choice or leaving a task for another day, where we feel more calm, prepared or brave. Our students also learn from understanding that even as adults, we are not fearless, but perhaps we have developed more nuanced systems of coping and strategies for confronting and managing our fears. We can model these systems and help our students develop their own. Whether it is fear of our own capabilities, fear of the unknown or fear of others, we can teach our students that the first step in confronting fear is naming it, and then asking deep, introspective questions about where the fear comes from and how it can be useful to our growth as humans and leaders. Reflecting on our fears can lead to unexpected, stronger levels of courage that remain hidden if we ignore the revealing power of fear.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the concept of followership. Rarely have I encountered writings or teachings in leadership programs that talk about followership, and I think this is a mistake. We begin from a place of assuming all of our students want to develop as leaders first. But almost all of us, in some way or another, have to constantly think about not only what we follow, but how we determine who deserves to be followed. What if we asked our students to think about who they admire in their lives and why? What if we first asked them to think about what values they hold, and ask how those values help them decide who they trust to lead? What if we asked them to think about times they have followed and had either a great or not so stellar experience? What makes someone worth following? How does one follow well?
Followership to me means one must constantly ask questions about oneself but also of our leaders, with questions around integrity, trust and accountability. After all, what is a leader without trusting and committed followers? Perhaps there are some good lessons for us as educators and for our students if we reflect critically on why and how we choose to believe in or follow certain ideals, people, sources or causes. Followership determines so much in our lives, from our profession, our passions, policies we support, news sources we trust, elected officials and our worldview. Followership is the often ignored, hidden side of leadership and I think it deserves some attention in helping us think about how we teach leadership.
I am so excited to begin thinking about and discussing these ideas with the GYLI team and our participants, and seeing how these and other concepts help our students make sense of their lives and our world. We can do so by carefully looking for leadership lessons in unexpected, hidden places.