Lessons from a Young Leader

A good friend recently invited me to write a letter of recommendation for her teenage daughter, who is applying for entry to a Leadership education program.  As I pondered what to include in the letter, it struck me how we adults can be guided by paying attention to the things we value in young people.  See if you can spot some of the features that you would appreciate in adult leaders in the recommendation letter I wrote for this 13-year old:

To whom it may concern:

I am delighted to be providing this letter of reference for Maya* for your leadership program.

First of all—the basics: leaders are organized and motivated to get results for a team.  Maya is young, but it is still very easy to see these qualities in her.  At our annual camping trips, I always share a campsite with Maya’s family.  She assists with all set-up and take-down without complaint, she manages her own items, and at the same time is responsive to what the surrounding camping families need.  Need some help topping up the water supply?  Need someone to run back to the car for a forgotten item?  Maya is on it.  She’s the first person in that setting that I ask for help, to be honest, because she wants to help and for things to go well for the group.  I grew up thinking of this as “servant leadership”.

Second of all—leaders foster a sense of belonging and dignity for those in their realm of responsibility.  I was so thrilled to be able to hire Maya to babysit my young daughter as soon as she was old enough.  Naturally, she was responsible and took a babysitting course.  But beyond her natural inclination to show up in a responsible and prepared manner,  Maya is kind, polite, and capable beyond her years.  She can handle a stove, a bedtime routine, and she is engaged in her surroundings—she is not someone to be distracted by a phone or other devices.  She arrives with crafts, toys, creative ideas, and a genuine interest in my daughter.  And she will leave a “thank you, I so enjoyed spending time with you” letter upon her departure that my daughter can open in the morning. 

And finally—really good leaders, what is sometimes referred to as “Level 5 Leadership”—make those around them feel accomplished, and give that feeling of “we did this” not “I did this.”  These are the most special kind of leaders—not the ones who soak up the spotlight, rather those whose quiet leadership and involvement elevates the outcome.  Again—Maya brings out these feelings in a group.  At the annual cookie-making party that 25 people attend, she arrives knowing exactly how to make this event a success (even though she is not hosting it!).  Year after year, she comes prepared with icings and decorations that all different age groups can use.  She takes time to greet everyone.  She rolls up her sleeves and commits to ensuring the most difficult recipe (the “Bethmaennchen”) is finished and finished well (trust me, all the European friends in the group especially notice this contribution), even when others have drifted away into their conversations and other activities.  She sees it through, rejoices in the outcome—and we’re all just very glad that she’s there because while she is so capable, she is also a lot of fun!

Maya demonstrates the kind of leadership that the world needs today.  It’s not about being “in charge” of something, but rather bringing a sense of responsibility, care, competency, humility, and emotional intelligence to every situation.

*not her real name.

A couple of key inquiries arose for me as I wrote this letter. First, are adult leaders more likely to default to “taking charge” instead of offering leadership that is both humble and elevating? And second, how are we preparing our future leaders, such as Maya, to respond to adversity in ways that still uphold those foundational values of dignity, humility, and belonging?  This is the leadership journey invited by a restorative approach.  If this line of thought is compelling, I encourage you watch our upcoming live webinar and consider joining us for our upcoming Restorative, Equitable and Accountable Leadership training, to further explore how to embed these important principles and methods into your leadership strategies!

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