My school has a weekday Chapel program in which faculty and sixth form students (seniors) are invited to deliver a short Chapel Talk on a belief, an interest, an experience, or a lesson learned. The following is the text of a Chapel Talk I delivered on February 23, 2018. I mentioned a few students by name in the talk; I have changed those names here to protect their privacy.
Titles are important.
Titles are how we identify ourselves and each other. I’m a father. She’s a prefect. He’s the Headmaster. These all mean something to us – we immediately know what those titles represent and something about the person who has them.
Except that’s wrong.
We don’t immediately know what those titles mean. We immediately know what those titles mean to us. We have no idea what they mean to the people who hold them. That’s a problem.
See, we can all agree on some things, of course. We agree that “father” means the male parent. We agree that “prefect” means student who helps run a dorm. We agree that Headmaster means the boss, the decider, the face of the school. But that’s about it. And that’s a problem.
There’s a gap – a gap between what the title means to us and what the title means to the person holding it. But the gap isn’t about the meaning of the title. It’s about the expectations that come with the title. What we expect from a person with a title and what that person expects from himself or herself can be very different.
Think about it. How many times has a parent let you down? How many times has a prefect disappointed you? How many times have you wished for something different from your Headmaster, or your teacher, or your coach? For every time you’ve been through that, you’ve experienced the expectations gap.
The expectations gap kills us. It causes misunderstandings, miscommunications, hurt feelings, failed projects. People expect one thing of us. We expect another thing of them. The space in between – the gap in expectations – is the source of so much of our experience each day. So the expectations gap is a problem. And there are things we can do to address that, things that will improve the relationship between the titleholder and the group, between the leader and the group. But when it comes to leadership, the expectations gap isn’t even the real problem.
Eleven years ago, I was in a bad mood. Like, all year. At the time, our Dean of Faculty was Matt Ralston. Mr. Ralston had been here forever, and he had seen and done it all. He was the math department chair when I was hired and we’d always worked well together, but eleven years ago that didn’t matter so much. He and I butted heads a few times because I would get frustrated with one thing or another he said, or a decision the school made, or the fact that I didn’t feel like I could really do anything at the school. It was a pretty rough year.
Ten years ago, I was at the rink watching a hockey game with Mr. Ralston. We were getting along a lot better that year. At one point, he turned to me and said, “You know, you seem a lot happier this year.” I told him yeah, he was right, I was happier. I told him because I was a dorm head now – that was my first year as a dorm head – I felt like I could actually do things at the school, like I could actually make decisions and get things done.
Because I was a dorm head, I could actually do things.
Because I had a title, I could actually do things.
Before, I hadn’t felt that way. Now I did.
I had been living in an expectations gap. This one was different, though. It wasn’t an expectations gap between Mr. Ralston and me. Mr. Ralston’s expectations of me 11 years ago and his expectations of me 10 years ago were exactly the same. The gap I was living in was entirely my own – when I didn’t have a title, I didn’t feel like I could do anything. When I had a title, I did.
Looking back on it, I realize that this was pretty dumb. When I was in school, I didn’t wait to have a title. I did things. When I thought part of our outdoor education program needed to be revamped, I approached the faculty adviser about it, and then I did it. I wasn’t in charge of anything. I didn’t have a title. I just did it. When I was in college and thought we needed to do a better job of pairing students with service opportunities, I got some friends together and we just did it. When we wanted to start an Ultimate Frisbee team, we just did it. Now, all of a sudden, as an adult, I had lost the ability to just do things. I thought I needed a title. I thought I needed permission. I had created my own expectations gap. I didn’t expect anything of myself because I didn’t have the title I thought I needed to have.
We see these expectations gaps all the time at The Hill. I can’t tell you how many conversations I have each year that focus on a student not feeling like a leader because he or she didn’t have a title. I have to tell you, that’s pretty ridiculous. For every student who has that mindset, I can point you to at least one student who refuses to accept the expectations gap.
Look at Mary Jane and Sally, the only two sixth formers in Rolfe who aren’t prefects. Sure, they don’t have a title. But that has not once stopped them from doing what they think is right. They are friends, they are role models, and when it’s called for, they are rule enforcers. They don’t need a title. They just do it.
Look at John, fourth form member of the indoor track team. When some teammates went down with injuries earlier this season, John stepped up – not to be a vocal leader on the team, but to watch out for his teammates and encourage them all to keep training hard. He’s not a captain, but that didn’t matter to him. He didn’t need a title. He just needed to see what the team needed and do his best to fulfill it.
Look at Michael, a fifth former in the orchestra. He had an idea for ways students could gain more leadership experience within the orchestra. He took the idea to Mrs. Neiswender, they talked about it for a while, and he’s moving ahead. He’s not the president of the orchestra, not a leader in the orchestra, just a member of the orchestra. He didn’t need a title. He just had an idea, and he tried to do something about it.
And this is the point: if you’re not careful, you can get stuck in an expectations gap, but 9 times out of 10, it will be a gap of your own creation. It doesn’t have to be. You don’t have to spend a year in a bad mood. You don’t have to wait for permission, for approval, for someone to tell you that you can do what you already know needs to be done. You can choose to expect more of yourself, to do more, to be more. You can choose to lead.
Titles are still important. They are. We need some structure, we need some order, we need to know who’s responsible for what. That’s what titles are for. But that’s all they’re for. They’re not for telling us who is worthy and who is not. Do not sit there and wait for a title. Do not sit there and wait for permission. Do not sit there and wait for someone to tell you what you should expect of yourself. You decide what you expect of yourself. And when you’ve decided, do it. When you do that, title or no title, you will have become a leader.