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Let’s teach our children to become leaders

How can we cultivate a new generation of leaders to match the achievements of those from the past?

6 min read




You don’t have to try very hard these days to worry about the need for leadership. Just turn on the news. There seems to be no end to the political upheaval, violent extremism, threats of nuclear proliferation, dangerous environmental disasters, corporate misbehavior and poverty around the world.

As for me, I watch my 2-year-old grandson playing while trying not to obsess about it. Where are our leaders?

An objective definition of leadership is “the art of motivating a group of people to act towards achieving a common goal.” Viewed through that lens, perhaps the problem isn’t so much a lack of leaders, but that we’re seeing charismatic individuals leading us in directions that have terrible implications for humanity. In other words, we’re letting some bad apples get the better of the apple cart.

When most of us think of great leaders, who comes to mind? Abraham Lincoln? Martin Luther King, Jr.? Maybe Mahatma Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, or Jane Addams?

The historical figures we cherish as great leaders were not perfect people. They didn’t possess superhuman talents, and they didn’t know everything. But each of them was so sure of something that it propelled them forward against many odds and at great personal risk. Each was willing to put themselves on the line for what they believed would benefit humanity.

It would be a mistake to think that being a great leader requires headline-grabbing actions. Consider Dorothy Vaughn, NASA’s first black supervisor and a leader in the (then) new field of computer programming. It took more than 50 years for her story to come to light in the movie “Hidden Figures.” She and her colleagues were not perfect, and they didn’t know everything. They worked hard to develop their unique talents, and believed in the country’s nascent space program so passionately that they pushed against significant social and legal barriers to participate.

In fact, most “great leaders” probably didn’t think of themselves as such. They were more concerned with the change they wanted to see, and the change they wanted to be.

So how can we cultivate a new generation of leaders to match the achievements of those from the past? Whether you are thinking of your role as a parent, mentor, teacher, supervisor, or CEO, my advice is the same: Be the leader you want those around you to become.

Stand for something. Think about your values. Be open about them. And then invite those who look up to you to think about and share theirs. Be respectful when their values do not align perfectly with yours. Even better, ask them why they feel the way they do. You might learn a thing or two, which brings me to …

Be open to new ideas. Know-it-all types get us into trouble, every time. Good leaders know when to balance unshakeable faith with new ideas and information. They are driven by what is right, rather than with being right. 

Serve. If you are of a certain age, you remember when John F. Kennedy (another imperfect individual who is remembered for his leadership) said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” How do you serve your community? Whether you are a trustee of a major philanthropy or you volunteer at the local soup kitchen, let those who look up to you know how it makes you feel. Better yet, invite them to work side by side with you to see for themselves.

Try. Fail. Try again. Given the current conversations about anxiety and fear of failure, I think we may have lost sight of this concept. Demonstrate for others your willingness to go outside your comfort zone, without knowing how things will turn out. Thankfully, there are many ways of doing this without jumping out of an airplane or swimming with sharks. Find an experience you can share. Go to a cooking workshop or public speaking class together, or try a kickboxing workout or guitar class. Cultivating the ability to try new things on a small scale builds the ability to take risks on bigger, more important things.

Ask for and accept help. The very definition of leadership is being inclusive of others. Every leader in every age has had teachers, colleagues, supporters and assistants. Demonstrate your willingness to share the burden and the glory.

Own up. Take responsibility. Show others that you take responsibility, even when it is embarrassing. When you apologize, do so with humility. When you accept the consequences, do so with grace. On the flip side, give credit where credit is due.

Simple, yes, but not always easy. It is tempting to hide in our corners, believing that we are paralyzed by rhetoric designed to divide us into idealogical camps, as if were impossible to find a common human thread. But that wouldn’t be very leader-like, would it?

Instead, turn off the TV and close the newsfeeds on your phone. Engage in life and take your kids with you. Expect to fail, expect to apologize, and expect to be frustrated. You won’t be disappointed. Then expect to see your children (or employees or mentees) outpace you at every turn, becoming passionate, values-driven leaders willing to take risks you never would have considered. You won’t be disappointed on that count either.

I will leave you with good news. There are amazing young leaders around us, right now, working hard for humanity. Malala Yousafzei, now in college, continues to travel the world advocating for girls’ rights to education. Aja Brown, who in 2013 was the youngest mayor ever elected in Compton, Calif., just started her second term.

Naisula Lesuuda is the youngest woman in Kenya’s parliament and a leading advocate for women’s rights. Qin Yuefei and his fellow Yale graduates founded Serve for China, a nonprofit that helps villagers build roads, connect to clean water and the internet, and improve local schools. I could go on, but you get the idea.

And lest you think these are the outliers, consider this: Crowdpac, a nonpartisan crowdfunding platform that supports broad and inclusive political candidacy, reports that twice as many candidates signed up in the first 40 days of 2017 as in all of 2016, and that more than 60 percent of those running for office on their platform are millennials. Now that’s good news about the future of leadership.


Dennis C. Miller is a nationally recognized strategic leadership coach, executive search consultant, author and keynote speaker. He is the managing director of The Nonprofit Search Group, with more than 35 years of experience working with nonprofit board leadership and chief executives across the country. Dennis is also an expert in board governance, leadership development, philanthropy and succession planning. In addition, he is a sought-after motivational speaker, retreat facilitator and leadership performance coach. Dennis can be reached at [email protected]

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