Four Lessons Learned
Dr. Adam Hartley, Executive Director
Was it a crazy idea? Was it an ADHD moment with no real depth in the plan and no time to design an implementation model? Was it a risk that could have led to an epic failure? Looking back on how our Heroic Leadership Academy came to be, the answer is yes to all three of these questions. Moving into a new year, these questions are still valid questions we are asking, but from a very different perspective.
Looking at our mission, educating and inspiring youth (and adults) to be heroic leaders, we must realize that by modeling risk taking, and acknowledging the chance of failure and still taking action, is the only way we can truly change the status quo in which we live, work, and play. A quote from Helen Keller sums up 2015 for GEARup2LEAD, “Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.” As Aaron Hogan, pointed out, “All too often we are busy exploring innovation, creativity, and risk in the safest ways we can imagine." The Heroic Leadership Academy is designed to explore true risks, create real solutions, and be as innovative as possible outside of the status quo. GEARup2LEAD is creating opportunities for high school students to build a sense of self-awareness, self-confidence, and self-worth in order to grow as leaders.
I want to personally thank the Swartz Creek Community School District, Graduation Alliance (Rob Belous and Kathy Maier), and the GEARup2LEAD team as we are in the midst of an adventure that could potentially be a game changer when it comes to educating young men and women that many in our society has defined as “at-risk”. I am fortunate to have met so many people within Genesee County and beyond and to be given the opportunity to work with such amazing young heroic leaders. I truly learn more from them than they could possibly learn from me.
As 2015 comes to a close, I wanted to share four lessons I was reminded of over the course of the last 6 months working with our Heroic Leadership Academy. These reminders will help me (and you) create a better 2016 for the young men and women within our communities destined for greatness.
1. It's a Choice
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I - I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.”-Robert Frost
Our children, like the generation before them, are being raised in a short sighted world that highlights everything that is wrong and ignores everything that is right. I do not have to tell you how we are constantly reminded of what’s wrong with this world if you watch the news, read the paper, or talk current issues with family and friends. One study out of The University of Missouri shows how humans are drawn to negative news and most likely negative news pertaining to their own hometown.
We have a choice, we can be passive bystanders and receive the news, analyze the negative behaviors within our society and live with it, or we can be active and not settle for the status quo.
One of our Heroic Leadership Academy students visited her grandma in Texas over the summer. She told a story that when her grandma’s friend learned she was from Flint, she sympathetically said, “Oh, I’m sorry.” The HLA student was of course saddened by this and as she told the story to the rest of the HLA, she became angry. We talked about choice and we discussed the power of perspective.
Let’s do some simple math. There were 52 homicides in Flint in 2013 and roughly 100,000 people living within the city limits. There are many people in Flint not killing, not robbing, and not participating in illegal activity. There are people giving to others, caring for others, working hard, and living life to the fullest. Our HLA students are choosing to see the positive in every situation and not settling for the negative status quo.
Lesson learned: We have a choice in how we see the world around us. Is it easy...no, is it different for all of us based on our past and present situations...yes...but make no mistake about it...it is a choice whether we see the world as a positive place with negative events, or as a negative place with positive events.
2. Kids are Kids
“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” -Frederick Douglass
September 8, 2015 was an awkward day. Six students walked in a dusty office downtown Flint and didn’t say a word. The look on all of their faces said what one HLA student pointed out, “This does not look like the classrooms I am usually sitting in on the first day of school.” The HLA includes students from Montrose, Swartz Creek, south Flint, and north Flint. We have students that have been kicked out of traditional schools, dropped out of traditional schools, and some that will graduate early because traditional schools do not move at their desired pace. We have white students and we have black students. We have students from low income families, we have students from middle class families, and we have a student that is a new dad at 17. I can list more labels and stereotypes but I do not think that is necessary to prove my point.
Kids are kids, and better yet, we can learn from the youth within our community and how they are battling the gravitational pull of the status quo that sucks us all into thinking people are different depending on their demographics, income level, grade point, or skin color. The HLA did have an awkward day, in fact an awkward month. Despite the awkwardness during the first few weeks, a quote from one of our students sums up what the next generation of leaders think when it comes to stereotypes and labels, “We are all friends and sometimes I feel like we are family.” Each kid brings a special talent, an important point of view, and most of all each kid mirrors the other when it comes to wanting to belong, wanting to be successful, and wanting to collaborate with others.
Lesson learned: Kids are kids. We must throw out every thought and every past experience we have had in our lives that were defined by race, income, and cultural differences. Allow kids the opportunity to solve problems together, brainstorm ideas as a team, and help one another succeed based on their needs and wants, not society's need to place everyone and everything in a box and throw a label on top.
3. We Must Build Bridges
“A problem well stated is a problem half-solved.” -Charles Kettering
Changing a schedule, changing a policy, changing the physical structure of a classroom, even changing mindsets is not enough to empower our youth. To create meaningful and sustainable change, we must encourage our youth to build bridges. What I have found is that all kids, no matter what age, where they are from, or what their situation is, are “at-risk”. In fact, we are all “at-risk” unless we identify gaps within our community and work to close those gaps. Abraham Lincoln once said, “You cannot escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today.” The HLA students are all over the place when it comes to grade level competency and completing their work for their high school classes. They are truly working at their own pace. They, like many of our high school students in this country, are on different levels when it comes to reading and writing skills, mathematical skills, and academic success. What I have found however, is that when it comes to building bridges, they are all excited about what they bring to the table. Building bridges and closing gaps does not come with a prerequisite of a 3.5 GPA and a 30 on the ACT. Identifying gaps and providing opportunities for young leaders to take risks, put themselves out there, and build bridges will empower them to lead from within and not look outward for motivation (see below). In traditional educational settings, we will often (directly or indirectly) define students by their academic success, ability to memorize facts, and how well they can show what content they have learned via standardized assessments. If we want our students to be truly engaged and find purpose in learning content and facts, we must allow them opportunities to build bridges to connect existing gaps within our society. Helping students define critical issues, allowing them to find ways to collaborate and create solutions for those issues, and pointing out how they are growing their leadership skills has proven to be an effective way to build bridges and make a positive impact.
Lesson learned: The world isn’t changing...it has already changed. Change creates gaps, gaps create lopsided opportunities, and lopsided opportunities breaks down communities. Want to grow the new generation of leaders that will close these gaps? Allow them to build bridges.
4. Leadership Comes From Within
"Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things." -Peter F. Drucker
Leadership is not a physical characteristic and is not something only a few can accomplish. Leadership is within reach of every human no matter our age or our background. Leadership is that inner voice telling us to do the right thing when no one else is willing. Henry David Thoreau said, "It is not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is: What are we busy about?" The HLA students have proven that leadership does not have a face, does not have an age, and is not limited to the administrators, CEO’s, and “bosses” of the world. Leadership is the act of being busy at something that will have an impact on society while inspiring others to do what Red tells us in the movie, Shawshank Redemption, “get busy living, or get busy dying.” Leadership is stagnate in comfort, yet roars in times of trouble. Our true leadership abilities are born when we are faced with challenges that must be met head on and experience events in our lives that test our perseverance and commitments. The old way of looking at leadership and defining our leaders based on titles, salary, and power must give way to the theory that all humans, all students have what it takes to be a leader. The key is providing opportunities that will get our youth out of their comfort zones, wake up the leadership attributes they hold already, and allow them to see that leadership does have a face, the one they see each day in the mirror.
Lesson learned: Leadership is not limited to “bosses”. Leadership is something that all students can feel, practice, and master when we are intentional in providing opportunities and guidance. Some students have challenging lives, use that as their guide to becoming leaders. Some students need to be given challenges so they can know what true leadership feels like. The key is to create a culture where everyone sees themselves as leaders, busy doing purposeful and meaningful things and inspiring others to do the same.