- Always radiate positivity. Attitude is infectious. The people around you will mirror your mood. As a program leader in a room of fifty kids, this became especially apparent to me as I had to consciously work to keep a calm and upbeat demeanour throughout the session. Kids rely heavily on a palpable sense of security and authority to act at ease, so if I started to look stressed or disoriented, I could almost immediately feel their tension rising and my control slipping. The same goes for adults. If you appear happy and lively, others will respond similarly. Another benefit of doing this is that often, in pretending to be cheerful and confident, you do actually start to genuinely feel cheerful and confident.
- Kindness is so underrated. When I lead a group of kids who are divided in teams and competing for points through athletic games, the ones who stand out to me are not the loudest or the most athletically talented. The ones whom I notice most are those who help their opponents up when they’re hurt, who congratulate the winners when they themselves have lost, who are always happy to help a teammate even if that means sitting out. This is something that my program always tries to encourage and I just wish I could see more awards for honour, loyalty, and kindness, as opposed to achievement, in other aspects of my life as well.
- Get excited and believe. There’s something so liberating about the way kids will believe in anything. One of the best conversations I’ve had was with a grade 2 who, inspired by his leader’s time-turner, decided to build his own time machine. It was so uplifting to hear such spirit and fearlessness; the kid was so excited and he really believed he could do it. I miss seeing that passion and excitement in adults. We don’t get so enthusiastic about simple pleasures anymore because we’re taught to look at everything analytically and realistically. However, I think that allowing ourselves a break from skepticism sometimes could really make a positive difference in the way we go about our daily lives.
- So much can be solved with just an apology. I used to be terrified of conflict. I absolutely dreaded having to sit down with two kids who were crying and pointing fingers at each other and make them stop. However, the first time I actually did it, it was shockingly easy. With relatively few prompts, the kids told their sides of the story in turn, then each acknowledged their fault, apologized, and moved on. It took less than a minute and made me wonder how much time and energy could be saved in every fight if the sulking silent treatment part was skipped.
- If you don’t act like it’s a big deal, then it won’t be. Kids cry a lot, and most of the time, it’s over something they’ll be laughing off in a minute. My instinct at first was to comfort them all thoroughly until they stopped. However, I soon learned that that wasn’t the best solution; fawning over them often made it seem like it was a much bigger deal than it was. On the other hand, checking in to see if they were genuinely hurt, then acting casually if they weren’t, yielded far quicker recoveries. 99% of the time, they’d be back in the game in a minute. The same is true with any problem in life; giving an issue more attention than it deserves does nothing to resolve it more efficiently.
- Treat others the way you want them to respond. A lot of adults, when talking to children, will dumb things down and simplify their language. However, I’ve found that taking kids seriously and talking to them as if they were adults brings out intelligence that I never would’ve ever expected. Kids understand so much more than many people give them credit for. I’ve had a 7 year old explain to me in detail how radios work, using terms I’d only learned in grade 10 physics. Even with abstract concepts like honour or wisdom, they responded better than many adults do. I would’ve missed out on so many amazing conversations if I’d just assumed that the other party had nothing to contribute.
- Make a decision and stick to it. Some things are not worth pondering through in detail, and as someone who loves to plan and consider all options, this didn’t come to me naturally. As a program leader, he said/she said problems come up a lot. At first, I’d always panic on the inside as I tried to quickly hear both sides of the story and make a call. However, sometimes, this is impossible because there’s no solution that will satisfy everyone. I can’t keep an eye on everything, and if one team claims they scored while the other team claims otherwise, the best thing to do is make a call, and move on. Considering every detail is a luxury that’s not always afforded. Sometimes, it’s better to not waste time on listing the pros and cons of every decision, but rather to just go for it.
- Acknowledge feelings. This is such an easy thing to do, and yet, it’s one that so many of us forget. We often ignore the fact that our reality is different from the reality of others. A situation that is fun, uplifting, and comfortable for us could very well be terrifying for someone else. If one kid claims that “this game is no fun,” it’s very easy to respond along the lines of “yes, it is! Look how much fun everyone is having!” But that does nothing to help alleviate the problem. Acknowledging other people’s realities is a huge step to understanding and problem-solving, and that can range from “I understand that your shoes hurt your feet” to “I understand that you’re feeling lonely and left out.” Only when we start becoming conscious of how often we contradict other people’s realities can the real healing begin.
- If you cultivate respect, authority will come naturally. I was raised in a culture in which respect for elders is practically law. I would be grounded for not saying hi to elders, and contradicting them was suicide. This always rubbed me the wrong way because oftentimes, they were downright ignorant and I had no respect for any of their outdated beliefs. I firmly believe that respect and authority must be earned, and you don’t get a free pass even if you’ve lived for 90 years. In all those cases, while I put on a polite face publicly, I didn’t actually care for anything they said and didn’t take it in. That’s something I always kept in mind when I began taking on leadership roles. Working with a large group of kids is impossible if they don’t want to listen. And if you want others to really listen to you, you had better work for it every day. Only then will you see results.
As we were completing our university orientation leader training a couple weeks ago, someone whispered beside me, “I wish they’d done a section on leaders being nervous too.” Even though feeling nervous was not something I was struggling with at that particular time, her words really stuck with me. I could immediately relate to the general feeling of inadequacy in a position when I was supposed to be counted on.
Did nervousness make her any less of a leader? Do character flaws make anyone less of a leader? I would argue not. We are all human, after all, and flaws are a part of that, especially when there are others depending on you. There’s an undeniable amount of pressure and responsibility that comes with leadership, which undoubtedly must lead to side effects. Every leader has weaknesses, all of which come in many different shapes and sizes. It’s important that we can come to recognize this, address it openly, and deal with it in a constructive and patient manner.
A conversation that I feel has always been greatly lacking is displays of weakness in leaders. As much as I would consider myself a strong and highly capable leader, I have always felt inclined to conceal every flaw in my character for fear of being judged as inadequate or unfit for my role. And no, I don’t mean the “I’m five minutes late to everything” type of flaw; I mean the “I’ve dealt with three mental illnesses by the age of 19” type of flaw. I’m terrified of undermining my abilities in any way and fearful that others will do the same.
Many think, as I did, that a leader is supposed to embody and radiate strength and confidence wholeheartedly. Traits like nervousness wouldn’t usually be associated with someone speaking in a megaphone to hundreds of peers. While everyone may have weaknesses, leaders at least aren’t supposed to show them.
When a particular event took its toll on me during the end of orientation week, I was touched by three highly capable and bright women who came up to me and offered consolation. They admitted that they’d cried that day too, and that they faced breakdowns every week, and took daily pills for depression. No one is as put together as they appear. Knowing that, I think, leads to a much better understanding of a person — something especially important in teamwork, and provides an additional level of support and respect that wouldn’t have been possible before.
I dislike the assumption that personal flaws or struggles will automatically mean my work performance suffers. Yes, I have restraints that may occasionally impede me in certain ways, however, I’d like to think that I’ve never once sacrificed any role for personal reasons because I love every position I take on and I will always hold it as a priority. I’m sure any other leader would agree with me.
If the first couple weeks of university have taught me anything, it is that a great leader is not someone who embodies perfection. It is someone people will look up to and follow not just in spite of their flaws, but also because of them. Just as how a strong relationship isn’t a couple who’s never fought, but rather a couple who can accept their disputes and resolve them maturely to ultimately put the relationship first. A leader should be admired for how they deal with their faults, how they overcome them, and how they can assure success by tailoring to their strengths and weaknesses. This communication needs to be made more open so that every leader can feel trusted by their team regardless of their personal faults.
What is the formula for success? How do we get to the top? In modern day societies worldwide, it feels like power and competition are the only things that matter. Whatever happened to “love makes the world go ’round”? In such an ambitious — even aggressive — environment nowadays, it seems that only the loud and the tough succeed, regardless of their other qualities. Ever since grade school, certain “popular” kids rise up to take charge and others get stepped on. But why is it that being “cool” so often entails passing off our emotions and caring less? This lofty rebel image has been glamourized for decades now in films and television. The sensitive kids, the ones who care too much about school, or about books, are deemed “nerds,” and by extension, inferior and weak. This is the group that is mocked on every TV show and every pop culture movie featuring teenagers. This is the group that little kids dread falling into when they grow up. This is the group that is too thin-skinned to experience the world and step outside the box. As a result, these “geeky” ones who feel too much, the ones who care, are often overlooked, as the bossiest rise to power. (John Green discusses the joy of enthusiasm that so many lack.)
Sensitivity is often associated with weakness in our world, as though one cannot be assertiveness, strong, and feel at the same time. It’s as if real emotions can only be reserved for the most significant life changes, like at funerals or weddings. Otherwise, “conceal, don’t feel, don’t let it show.” (Frozen). People seem to think that intelligence and emotion have an inverse relationship. They really don’t. The brain and the heart aren’t separate entities; they work together, in balance. The problem is that the importance of the mind is so emphasized now and compassion is so overlooked. In the elementary afterschool program that I work at, we give out badges for kindness, and it is sad how few of them are awarded (for the record, this is not a badge that I myself will ever be worthy of). It is unfortunate that a special recognition of kindness is necessary at all, and that especially few boys have ever gotten it.
Suppressing our feelings all the time is pretty much the root of what is wrong in our world. “A 2010 University of Michigan study shows that college students today are 40 percent less empathetic than they were thirty years ago, with much of the drop having occurred since 2000. (The study’s authors speculate that the decline in empathy is related to the prevalence of social media, reality TV, and “hyper-competitiveness.”)” (Susan Cain, Quiet)
Genuine kindness is so undervalued now, especially in leaders. The tough guise makes it so hard to reach out without being creepy or intrusive. Everyone is expected to deal with their problems alone, to sort all their messes out independently and put on a composed face for the world. Society expects an unwavering mask that makes it impossible for outsiders to know how much an individual really goes through. (“One person can’t feel all that at once, they’d explode.” -Ron Weasley). As social beings who live in tight communities, we have to share not only milestones, but everyday stresses and trivial excitement as well. It is in valuing these little things that the best leaders are born.
My father once told me that I am a much more honest person than my brother; while his tone was respectful and true, it was also pitying and wistful, as though he knew my future wouldn’t be as easy. When people rise to the top, it is so hard to not be corrupted by greed and arrogance along the way. That is why the greatest leaders, like Mandela and Gandhi, are so special. They are rare because they moved mountains with pure hearts, wisdom, and genuine love for all. We need more leaders like them. With all the weight we place now on strength and intelligence in such competitive settings, it is easy to breed bossiness instead of true leadership.
These terms are so far from synonymous and yet, they are being used interchangeably because it’s almost impossible to be kind-hearted, honest, and a strong, respected leader anymore. The amount of competition has rigged it so that success requires being selfish, stepping on others to climb the ladder. In encouraging this kind of ruthless approach, we are only stepping further and further away from any hope of world peace.
It’s time to start reaching out. Look to the less fortunate. Be passionate, and take it all in, then give back. It is in feelings — of concern, of guilt, of love — that a greater world lies.