Leadership as Defined by Michelle Obama

A couple weeks ago, I was working on a summer assignment for the students in the leadership seminar class I’ll be teaching this year. Wanting them to think about what leadership means to them without explicitly asking them that question, I was writing questions about people and characters in popular culture and in their summer reading. I was looking for a question or topic related to politics when I remembered Michelle Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention.

I watched the speech again, anticipating asking my students if (and how) she was acting as a leader at that moment, when something else about it struck me. If you listen closely, you can hear Mrs. Obama not just be a leader but offer her personal definition of leadership. Consider the following:

“Remember how I told you about his character and conviction, his decency and his grace, the traits that we’ve seen every day that he’s served our country in the White House.”

“…doing the relentless, thankless work to actually make a difference in their lives.”

“She never buckles under pressure. She never takes the easy way out. And Hillary Clinton has never quit on anything in her life.”

“You can’t make snap decisions. You can’t have a thin skin or a tendency to lash out. You need to be steady and measured and well informed.”

“Someone who’s life’s work shows our children that we don’t chase fame and fortune for ourselves, we fight to give everyone a chance to succeed. And we give back even when we’re struggling ourselves because we know that there is always someone worse off.”

In her own words, Mrs. Obama is defining what a leader is to her. Sure, she could have just used the buzz words we so often use in talking about leadership – “servant leader,” “ethical leader,” “clear sense of purpose” – but she didn’t. She stuck to her own words, but the picture she painted is clear, simple, and unmistakeable.

Two things occurred to me about this. First, what a great definition this is. As teachers, coaches, and dorm parents, who among us wouldn’t want a team captain, dormitory prefect, or student in class who “never buckles under pressure,” doesn’t “chase fame and fortune” for himself or herself, and does “the relentless, thankless work to actually make a difference” in the lives of his or her peers?

Second, I wonder how it would go if we asked our students to write definitions of leadership that are just this simple, clear, and direct? What if we did it before it was time to choose team captains or student government representatives? How would school look if students first decided what leadership was to them, and then looked for those who most closely met those ideals?

And, to extend Mrs. Obama’s argument to its logical conclusion, what if students held their peers to these self-defined standards and let them know when they had let us down, just like people let their political representatives know every day? How would student leadership, and how would school, look then?

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Resuming an Old Road Trip

Twenty-four years ago, I embarked on an adventure. It started when the wilderness program director at my boarding school invited me to assemble a group of peers to spend the day doing a low and high ropes course at the Santa Fe Mountain Center. It was my first foray into formal leadership and group dynamics work, and it set me down a path that I have pursued off and on ever since – learning about leadership, intentionally developing my own leadership repretoire, and helping others develop as leaders.

I’ve had a lot of great experiences on my travels through the world of leadership. Some of them were planned, like the summer I spent facilitating a low ropes and my participation in the Gardner Carney Leadership Institute. Others were much more spur-of-the-moment, like my volunteering to coordinate prefect training without really thinking about how much work would be involved. Like any good road trip, I’ve had a general plan but have always looked for scenic detours, and I’ve rarely been disappointed with where I’ve been or what I’ve done.

A couple weeks ago, I was offered the opportunity to start a new leg of my trip through the world of leadership. In addition my other responsibilities, I will now be the Student Leadership Programs Coordinator at The Hill School. In this newly-created position, I’ll have the opportunity to work with students and colleagues to advance our current leadership development work, create new programs and activities, and blend it all into a comprehensive leadership program that will define our students’ experiences as we pursue the School’s mission to help them “be prepared to lead as citizens of the world, uniquely guided by our motto, ‘Whatsoever Things Are True.'”

So, here I go again. I’m in the planning stages, looking at possible routes to our destination and things I want to see along the way. I’ll do my best to share my plans here as they develop, and I look forward to the on-going feedback and support of those who are traveling with me or just following from afar.