Our name is The Leadership Program. It isn’t splashy or clever or sexy or cute. It isn’t memorable and is often confused for other places or people (to the point where at least once a year a debate will spring up about changing our name). One thing is certain, though: it is clear in its simplicity. No doubt about it, leadership is our focus. It is what drives our work with kids, adults, and ourselves. We have been doing work in NYC classrooms for 25 years and having real discussions about leadership and personal and social responsibility with kids from the start.
Working for here for much of those 25 years, and leading the company for the past eleven, I have learned that leadership is about what you do for others. It is a pride that no matter where you are in life you know you have something to offer, to give. I am always amazed at the kids in our program that seem to have everything going against them. Maybe they come from poverty or they are recently homeless or they are suffering from domestic abuse, but they manage to mentor younger kids or help their class plan a community garden where no green space currently exists or make it to rehearsal every night because they are the lead in a school musical and their cast is depending on them. What makes these young people excel like this despite their difficult circumstances? Some call it grit or resiliency. Of course it is those things, too. We call it leadership.
We are all students of leadership, and we share that with our kids— no matter what they think they are coming for (believe me, they may think they are signing up for a hip hop dance class but they are about to embark on their leadership journey). We believe that when you step into your leadership, you are stepping fully into yourself and what you have to give to positively impact your life and the lives of others.
We look at leadership in two main ways: first, leadership of self and where you are leading your own life and, second, leadership of others. This is always where we start—whether we are talking about our own new employees or if we are talking with a class of 9th graders in the Bronx. Leadership at first seems daunting and often doesn’t connect with young people right off the bat, so we start with defining it as “Where are you leading your own life?” To which we usually get a sea of blank stares before diving in. We talk about life being a series of choices and decisions—what decisions are they making in every moment and what effect does that have on their life? Do they like the outcome? One of our favorite quotes is by the late leadership scholar and author Warren Bennis, “The most dangerous leadership myth is that there is a genetic factor to leadership. That is nonsense; in fact, the opposite is true. Leaders are made rather than born.” We take them through the process of re-envisioning their lives by developing their own leadership skills in their own ways. Much like adults, in some kids it is brilliantly loud, bright and mesmerizing; in others it is quiet, smoldering and strategic. It all depends on who they are. Once that feels comfortable to them we add in the second part of the leadership equation: “doing for others”.
This is the really exciting time. When you see a student’s eyes light up because of the feeling they get when they are helping others to make a better life in some way. I have seen it on the soccer field or basketball court when a lead scorer will finally understand that their leadership is more than scoring points it is about encouraging other players or guiding a play or even calming an angry teammate who is in a yelling match with the referee. These are the skills that follow them to college or jobs or families.
When I started working at this company and teaching this work, I was not comfortable with seeing myself as a leader, much less teaching the concepts with high school kids. I felt like an imposter. What did I know about this? How could I lead them? Luckily the curriculum and fun activities helped me focus and gave me the confidence to tackle the discussions with kids. I became a student of leadership not because I consciously chose it but because it was my day job between acting gigs. I have long ago hung up the character shoes and now my stage is the leadership-training classroom. I can see the impact that leadership study has had on my life, my company’s, my kids, and all the students and staff with whom we work.
And the imposter? Well, turns out that’s a place most people visit on their leadership journey. Read more on the subject from HBR here.
On this journey of mine, stepping into your leadership is the most compelling way to live your full self, actualized. It is impactful in ways both qualitative and quantitative. It’s the raison d’etre. So, why leadership? It helps us bring our best for ourselves and those around us. What else is there?
Share your leadership journey below. I’d love to help you with any challenges and celebrate your best practices.
"Why Leadership?: The Mission Within Our Name", The Leadership Program, Inc. 2016