I recently had two opportunities to take teenagers on my Gettysburg Leadership Experience. Typically, I’m there with groups of executives, and we use the history to talk about leader development, decision-making, motivation, creativity and other things that keep business leaders up at night. I always come away with new insights from experiences the clients share. Although the teens’ observations about leadership are not earth shattering, I was surprised at the depth of their thinking. I found this encouraging, since these are our future leaders; I also thought, “Maybe I’ve been selling them short; I should have been having these conversations all along.” So, in the interest of jump-starting a conversation with some young people in your life, here are five things they already know about good leadership.

  1. Inspiring is better than directing. When I asked one group for a definition of leadership, N started by talking about “bossing people around,” but he quickly changed course.   “It’s better if you can convince them that what you want is a good idea. Then it becomes what they want, too.” This is the very definition of inspirational leadership, which Dwight Eisenhower said was “when other people are doing what you want them to do because they want to do it.”
  2. Diversity can be an advantage. C said that the leader’s job includes getting the best out of a diverse team. When I asked about diversity, he said, “Well, you don’t want everyone looking at a problem the same way. You might not get the best answer.”
  3. Leaders persuade through inclusion. M said, matter-of-factly, “When it comes down to it, my parents can’t really make me do anything.” Then she added, “But if they let me help come up with the idea, then I’ll go along with it.”
  4. Learning takes place outside the comfort zone. One group of teens had come through the Philadelphia Outward Bound School’s leadership course. They’d each spent several weeks operating past the edge of their comfort zone and recognized that trying new things was a key to growth. They also knew that challenges did not need to be dramatic (like the rock-climbing, rappelling and white water canoeing they’d just done), but might just mean taking on a new challenge at school, like leading a project team or volunteering to be a spokesperson. They had all figured out that being uncomfortable, or even afraid, can be a normal, healthy reaction to a new situation.
  5. When things are most frightening, the leader has to share the hardship. On Gettysburg’s Little Round Top, where brutal fighting pushed both Federal and Confederate soldiers to the limits of human endurance, T said that leaders had to set aside their fears, even their own desire for self-preservation. “When things really suck, people want to see the leader right there.”

One of the nicest compliments ever paid me by a client was, “You got me to think.” I had the same experience with these groups of teens, who challenged my preconceptions about what they already knew or didn’t know, and what interested them about leadership. They helped raise my expectations, and I’ll be a better teacher because of it.

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