This is the third and final part in a three-part series. If you would like to read the first two parts you can find them here: part 1 and part 2.
I’m sitting cross-legged on the floor, in a ring of 25 fidgety, but rapt with attention, 5th-graders who are waiting for my story.
They’ve worked hard today learning there are many different styles of leaders and, hopefully, they have seen themselves in one or more of them. However, the reason I’m doing this workshop in the first place is that studies show girls don’t want to be leaders, and so I need to address one last important piece.
It’s the, “If I’m a leader and I make a mistake then everyone will be mad at me,” fear. I know my daughter believes this and throughout the day, I’ve heard various permutations of the same concern from both the girls and boys. Many adults share this same worry, but it usually sounds like, “I don’t think I want to be a leader. Who wants that stress?”
There is, however, a concept that, once learned, alleviates a lot of this pressure.
It’s this: a leader is a person but leadership is a process and because it is a process, leadership cannot be accomplished alone.
I decide to illustrate the concept through a story. Every kid likes a story. Heck, every adult loves one too. I’m hopeful they can make the leap. These kids have already proven themselves excellent critical thinkers.
“Once upon a time, a ship sank, and several of its survivors made it, via lifeboat, to a deserted island. They were castaways.”
“Awww, that’s sad,” a little girl moans.
“Now in this story, I’m not going to use any names. The characters are all called “Someone.” We’ll talk about why when I'm done.”
The story synopsis:
One of the survivors steps forward and says, “This is terrible, but before we can get off the island, we need to find food, water, and shelter. Who wants to go and try to find water and does anyone know how to build a shelter or hunt?”
Someone steps forward and says, “I used to hunt with my grandfather. I can try.”
Someone else steps forward and says, “I’ll try to go and find water.”
Someone else steps forward and says, “I used to be in the Scouts, so maybe I can work on the shelter, but I’ll need some others to help me.”
The water and hunter volunteers leave, and the shelter group starts to collect supplies for building. Pretty soon, the group starts to argue.
“No! Not like that! The palm fronds are too short,” and, “The sticks you are collecting are too weak. We need stronger ones.”
Someone steps forward, “Guys, guys. We are in this together. We can do this.”
The group starts to work a little more smoothly, although there are still some grumbles.
Later that night, with a big fat squirrel roasting on a fire someone started, the survivors are all sipping their fresh water and marveling at their sturdy shelter. Suddenly they hear a sniffling noise in the distance. One of the survivors is over by the palm trees crying by themselves. Someone gets up from the fire and makes their way over to the sad survivor to comfort them.
They say, “It’s OK. I know you’re sad. We’re all sad. But we are going to make it off this island. Why don’t you come back to the group where we can all feel better because we have each other.”
I see many concerned little faces looking at me.
“I just want you all to know that they get off the island safely,” I say with levity. They visibly relax, and I have to chuckle to myself. Even though we are talking about grown-up concepts, they are still kids.
“The key question from the story is: Who is the leader?”
Hands shoot up.
“The person who had a plan and said we need to get food and water!”
“The person who said they would hunt and the person who went to get water.”
“The person at the beginning and the person who helped the shelter group get organized.”
I then turn around and reveal a flip chart page I had on an easel behind me.
It’s James Scouller’s diagram from his book called The Three Levels of Leadership: How to Develop Your Leadership Presence, Knowhow, and Skill.
You need all four dimensions to have a real leadership “process.”
Scouller’s book is definitely for grown-ups, and I don’t intend to get into all of the details and nuances here with a group of 5th-graders. However, I absolutely want to get across an important point the author makes: “leadership doesn’t have to rely on one person - anyone in a group could exert leadership.”
Scouller says, “When I ask clients, “What does the word “leadership” evoke for you - what images, words, symbols, feelings or people spring to mind?” I get responses like “vision,” “inspiring,” “greatness,” “Winston Churchill,” “Superman” and “awesome.” The underlying idea is clear: leadership is a major, even heroic challenge, needing exceptional qualities. But do most of us believe we have these qualities? I suspect not.”
Like Scouller, I want these kids to understand that they don’t need a title, to run for Student Council, or to be Superman to be a leader. They have daily opportunities to stretch their leadership muscles.
In fact, they are doing it already but just don’t realize it. I’ve seen it all day.
It’s tough for one person with the sole title of “leader” to be all of these things at once. Believing they must, stresses many people out about taking on leadership roles. In reality, it takes a team of individuals all stepping up to the plate here or there to make world-class leadership. Anyone who has ever been on a high functioning team will recognize this truth.
Scouller goes on, “Yes, the inspirational side of leadership must be present. You do need a purpose, a vision, that excites - or at least motivates - everyone. But it won’t be effective if no one translates the vision into reality or responds to the surprises and failures along the way.”
Sometimes the “leader” just makes sure others are leading.
I tell the kids, “You can be a leader by being strong in any one of these categories. And you don’t always have to act in the same role every time you are on a team.”
I tell them that the highest functioning teams I’ve been on, are when we all are strong in one area but also are happy to move around to different boxes when needed, or when someone gets burnt out or has another project to manage. Those teams are the most joyful to be on.
I don’t tell them that sometimes when you have a weak team you are forced to try to do all of it and that is really hard.
One boy raises his hand eagerly. “I think it would be better if we could choose our own teams so that we could make sure we have all of these parts.”
I hesitate. I hate to burst his bubble.
“Although you are so incredibly right, the tricky thing in life is that you will rarely get to choose your team. Your teacher or your boss will most likely choose the group/team for you. The trick is to quickly figure out who is going to take on the different roles.”
“Now I want to ask you a question. Why didn’t I give anyone a name in the story?”
“You didn’t want us to be distracted by silly names.”
“You wanted us to focus on what they did, not their name.”
“Yes,” I say, “and what if the same person did multiple things in the story? Isn’t that possible?”
“Oh yeah,” one girl can’t help but shout out, “The hunter person could also have been the person who helped the sad person.”
“Correct! Team members can do more than one role in a team. And what if the hunter was a girl? I didn’t want you guys to get caught up in stereotypes.”
“Girls can totally be hunters,” one girl mumbles under her breath.”
“How about quiet people? Is there a place for quiet leaders in this diagram or on that island?”
“Yes!” they all cry out.
“People make the mistake all the time that quiet people can’t be leaders.”
The teacher smiles as she looks at one thoughtful young man in the circle.
One child turns to the teacher and says, “Ms. K, if you helped us to get the goal right at the beginning of each project, I bet we would work better together. We would learn more stuff and get better grades.”
She smiles and replies, “And I think it would be helpful to organize you into groups differently now that I know more about teamwork and your strengths.”
I say, “You guys worked so hard today, and I’m so proud of all of you. I think it’s time for a snack and recess.”
Yay doesn’t even begin to describe how happy I am.