Look to youth for leadership lessons

by | Apr 28, 2012 | Blog | 0 comments

Forget about looking for the “adults in the room” to supply all the leadership lessons.

Instead seek out the students who are leading in exemplary ways.

It’s time to stop counting on grown-ups to stand and deliver.

Just think about all the recent surprising scandals…. Multiple Secret Service agents involved with prostitutes…. General Services Administration employees “on retreat” in Vegas… The trial of a former Senator and Presidential candidate allegedly using $900,000 in campaign money to hide his pregnant mistress.

Don’t blame government for all the bad behavior. I’m experiencing a group of people who seem to prefer to bicker rather than figure out how to work together. They need to bring positive change to their organization, yet they spend more energy fighting past battles than looking ahead.

By contrast, many younger people are offering brilliant leadership lessons.

Take the kindergarten classes at the Blue School in Manhattan where kids are learning about the “amygdala hijack.” By understanding what happens to their brains when people or situations hit their hot buttons, they learn how to move from a “fight” or “flee” state to a “toward state.” In the latter, they’re open to others and new ideas, as described in the New York Times article Making Education Brain Science. 

At this school, “meta-cognition”—the ability to think about thinking—is on the agenda. (It’s helpful that the school started as a play group by the members of the Blue Man Group, a creative theater troupe, and their wives. Now David Rock, the founder of the NeuroLeadership Institute which is dedicated to understanding the brain science of leadership, serves on the school’s board.)

Yet these kindergartners could teach us adults a number of important things about harnessing our emotional intelligence. For example, the better we regulate our emotions and focus on the positive, the better we can retain information, think better and be more creative.

As another example, public health students at the University of California—Berkeley just held their second annual DE-Stress Festival during spring finals for fellow students. Yes, you can power through finals, meetings, or work projects. But isn’t it healthier and more productive to take breaks and relax?

The organizers invited Therapy Pets to come to campus to help interested students reduce their stress. My dog Gustav along with several of his pals including Jeffrey, Franklin and Dashiell made themselves available to students for petting, ball chasing and belly rubs.

(The students and dogs did share one notable difference. On this sunny afternoon, the students preferred lounging on the grass in the sun, while the dogs intuitively moved to the shade between de-stressing activities.)

Last but not least is Design for America, a network of student-led studios that solves social issues through human-centered interdisciplinary design. The organization’s mission is to “enable a generation to confront and tackle the most ill-structured challenges of our time.”

Founded by three international students with faculty support at Northwestern University in 2008, the organization has now spread to eight other university campuses. All are tackling “wicked problems” such as childhood obesity and disease, climate change, literacy, etc.

Already they’ve created novel yet workable solutions to hand hygiene, diabetes education and dishwashing practices.

The students practice “innovation self-efficacy” in which they combine the motivation powers of persuasion, learning and mastery with technical knowledge and critical thinking. Their holistic design process encourages them to empathize with the user groups they’re serving. As a result, they’re better able to create innovative products and services that work for real people in communities throughout the country.

In their early 20s and late teens, these students are already making a major impact on society as they also demonstrate the value of creativity, collaboration and drive.

Co-founder Mert Iseri, who graduated in 2011, explained Design for America to more than 200 Northwestern alumni gathered in San Francisco this week. The ease and confidence with which he spoke was just as impressive as the content he delivered.

So stop asking “What were you thinking?” of the adults exhibiting bad behavior. Instead, ask them to start following in the footsteps of these young leaders.

And let’s encourage these young leaders to bring these healthy and productive practices to our organizations.

What do you think?


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