The City Slickers Model of Leadership Development

(A word of warning: most of my posts over the next few weeks will start with “A few weeks ago…” because, well, when you hit the spring term as a teacher it gets hard to keep up with day-to-day life, much less find time to blog about the important things that are happening around you. My apologies in advance. I’ll start blogging my current ideas soon.)

A few weeks ago, I was interviewing students who had applied to be prefects for next year (prefects are student leaders who help us run the dorms). I always ask the students if they have any questions, and a popular one is, “What’s the most important quality you look for in a prefect?” It’s a good question, one I usually turn around on them so I can learn more about what they think is important for the position.

One student asked me the question, but just a little differently than it’s ever been asked before: “What’s the one thing that’s most important for a prefect?” For reasons only a neuroscientist can explain, the phrase “one thing” immediately reminded me of this scene (caution: profanity approaching):

Instead of turning the question back on the student, I thought about this clip, and I answered it. I talked a little about the many qualities that are important for a prefect to be successful, from being organized to setting aside one’s own needs to help another. I said that all of these things are important, and that most of our candidates have most of these qualities. The one thing that’s most important, then, is the one thing the student doesn’t currently have. It’s different for every student, but when we work together we can find that one thing and then help the student develop in that area.

In a sense, this is how we often think about, and teach, leadership. We do things like Strengths Finder to figure out what our strengths are and how to leverage those, but then we also look at what’s not on the list and think about how we can grow in those areas. This is fine, but it’s also overwhelming, especially for students. It seems unfair, and unhealthy, to ask a student to work on her communication, organization, and public speaking while simultaneously asking her to work on her physics, tennis serve, and college essay.

I think Curly actually has it right: whether you are a prefect, team captain, or student government representative, find that one important thing and focus on it. For Curly, it’s the secret of life. For our students, it’s the secret to developing as leaders.