One of the most powerful lessons I ever learned about leadership, I learned at age 16-17, as a Senior Student and Lead Actor in our yearly high school productions, having been trusted by two of my Teachers and Mentors to run several rehearsals with about 150 students involved, on their behalf.
Simultaneously, I’d also been a peer support leader, assigned, along with 2 other year 11 leaders, to a group of year 7’s, who through regular group sessions and one on one, we’d support through their transition into high school life and do our best to help them realise their highest potential in all aspects of life. So wether it was in the yard or a corridor somewhere, in the gym rehearsing, or in the change rooms afterwards, lots of the younger kids would often come and find me wanting to chat when they were either worried about something to do with their role in the production, or just when stuff was going on at school or in life full stop.
My big lesson though came the week ahead of one of the particular productions, at which time I was also trying to rally the students for funds to buy a thank you present for our Drama and Art Teachers who run the school productions. And had asked at each of the last few rehearsals for donations, but hadn’t seen much coming in yet for our thank you present and was starting to both worry and was feeling in myself frustrated as to why this was happening and why I felt like they weren’t listening or taking action.
I had a great deal of empathy and compassion for why I imagined many of the students may not have money to give or parents supportive of them doing so. And any number of reasons they’d not yet made it a priority. But when giving and gratitude innately in my head go hand in hand with leadership and service, but also receiving support, especially when people are going above and beyond for you, I found myself asking, are they not also grateful? Do they not get what a gift this is? What am I doing wrong here? How do I motivate them to care as much about this as I do to inspire action taking here?
I wanted to be a positive role model and help them grow in positive ways through this production. I wanted to do a great job as a Leader, on behalf of my awesome leaders, who were so good at encouraging kids highest potential to come forward and inspiring them to grow, through focusing on their strengths. And it was obviously the one thing I couldn’t ask my Mentors for help on!
Standing in front of that room that day, in front of in the vicinity of 150 students, this is where I messed it up:
There was a part in my address about our shared vision, a reminder about donations for the present where I thanked and expressed gratitude to everyone who’d paid and to all for their hard work.
BUT then there was the part where I lost it and went the way of “do you people not get how much our teachers and everyone are giving up so that not only we get this opportunity, but many of you get a space where you can get out of classes you don’t want to be in, seriously, 50c of your lunch money instead of that extra chocolate frog you’re going to buy in half an hour, it’s not that hard, get some gratitude" route, with my best condescending parent guilt tripping tone.
In other words, i went the way of the GUILT TRIP.
Four things happened after that little speech.
But then D…..and this is where the lesson is.
And I learned some of the greatest lessons you will ever learn about leadership that week:
You might win the respect of a few as a leader for standing for something and being willing to hold your ground. BUT, you don’t win respect or follow-ship through judgement and moral condescension. And you don’t bring you and your people closer through it either.
People will do what you ask because you’re the leader, but secretly hate you for not seeing and recognising the good in them and honouring and rewarding their good behaviour, talents and efforts. And they will resent you for not showing more compassion and acknowledgement when they’re going through stuff or compassion when somebody is believed to be at fault, when really they didn’t mean to let anyone down and their hearts are in the right place. And if you don't own your sh#t, they'll resent you even more.
Many of those kids already copped enough of that at home every day. And maybe they had parents who, like me in that moment, feared and doubted in themselves, in their own authority and the innate power of their own voices and ability to have a boundary or request be respected. Thus would resort to TRYING to be powerful and intimidating, or morally condescending, trying to bring about behavioural change. They didn’t need me to be another moral guilt tripping parent figure, trying to exact an old-school B.F. Skinner style Operating behavioural modification through punishment alone, as a Leader..
They needed me to, especially in THIS challenging moment, show up in my heart. To see and meet the part of them eye to eye, heart to heart, that WAS loving, WAS grateful, that WAS struggling, that was the highest version of themselves already in expression.
They needed me to encourage them and acknowledge all the little things I see them doing where they’re already being all the kinds of awesome that they already were. And to do what I would normally do in just reminding them (as I had done every other time prior) about contributing by today if they want and are able to and for me to get over my shit if I got a no. And keep doing what I would always do in being there if they needed and being generous with insight or advice if they asked for it too.
I needed to consciously show up as the version of me that both trusted in how powerful we are alone when you own your truth and speak from your heart. And understood how impactful words can be without you ever having to TRY and put force behind them. In fact, words a so powerful we need to be careful to always stay heart connected , speak kindly and stay attuned to the non verbal feedback we’re receiving about how the words we’re choosing are impacting the person we’re speaking to. To be sensitive to and adjust our tact as may be required based on the reaction of the person or audience on the receiving end of whatever it is you’ve just said.
Thus a few things to remember about how to be a great Leader, the kind the truly motivates and inspires, that brings people closer and unites them to work together for a cause, side by side:
People will be far more willing to grow with you and support your cause if you give freely of yourself and your wisdom to them, give gratitude often and focus on the growth people are achieving over punishing fault and failure.
Sometimes that means asking how things are going or went and how could we do this better or bring about a solution in regards to this, instead. E.g. Go for the positive trip, instead of the guilt one.
And PRACTICING (hence role modelling) OWNERSHIP if you make a mistake, APOLOGISING for the impact when you do and practicing compassion and forgiveness with self and others when a mistake is made, so that we can all get back to being the best versions of ourselves as we continue to work towards our shared vision and mission.
In the end, you build connection and trust by looking at what we have in common, over our differences
That’s how you create trust and closeness in your tribe and be positively influential, in inspiring people to be and do their best.
Until next time, have fun take care.
Nat talks about Self Expression, Heart Centred Communication and Lifestyle for Leaders.