by Stephen Scott

28 July, 2021

“A real leader is somebody who, because of his own particular power and charisma and example, is able to inspire people, with “inspire” being used here in a serious and non-cliché way. A leader can somehow get us to do certain things that deep down we think are good and want to be able to do but usually can’t get ourselves to do on our own.”

The American author David Foster Wallace’s description of a true leader here is concise and accessible. Apart from the focus on “gender” and “power” – which I believe are irrelevant to productive leadership – Wallace’s definition is mirrored in The 15 Disciplines, particularly Discipline 1 – Be Your Best Self. It is in that discipline that I implore leaders to start their development journey with themselves, because one has no hope of inspiring others without first living that example.

In The 15 Disciplines – The Essential Checklist for Productive Leaders and more recently in Ethics Trump Power, I dig deeper into the specific actions and behaviour one must undertake and uphold in order to embody this high-level brand of leadership. This is a necessary job, given that this understanding of leadership and leaders can be somewhat difficult to grasp – which is why so many buzzwords around leadership have become “boring and cliché” to great thinkers like Wallace. In the same essay, he acknowledges that, though it may be hard to articulate, there is something universally recognisable about great leadership:

“It’s a mysterious quality, hard to define, but we always know it when we see it, even as kids.” This final detail, I believe, is incredibly important. Even as children, we seem to innately understand that there is such a thing as strong leadership, and recognise it when we see it, even if we don’t yet have the language for it.

The next step, then, is to give our young people that language, and more importantly, it must be a language that they share with the adults in their lives. We as adults, and especially those who teach leadership, must respect our future leaders. For many of us, that extends to trusting them quite a bit more than we currently do.

Recently, during a visit to A.B. Paterson College, a co-educational K-12 independent school on the Gold Coast, I received feedback on The 15 Disciplines – The Essential Checklist for Productive Leaders, from a group of student leaders who had received the book as a gift. I was overwhelmed by the level of engagement and understanding of the book, and indeed had to check my own assumptions about our future leaders. Though I didn’t write the book with a particular reading age in mind, I was quietly concerned that The 15 Disciplines might not land with a younger audience.

How wrong I was.

The young leaders assured me that not only could they comfortably read and comprehend the book, but that they in fact found it particularly relevant to their own leadership roles. The stories within the book were considered compelling and relatable, and inspired discussions that led to students sharing their own stories among their peers, extending the use of the book far beyond its final page.

What struck me the most, though, was how pleased the students were to be engaging with the same materials as their teachers. The students visited me in the same room that their own teaching staff were participating in The 15 Disciplines Leadership Program on that day. I cannot overstate the pride I witnessed in the students when they realised, they were considered peers among the staff. Of equal significance, this shared learning resource served as one of the first times that these students would also share the leadership language of their teachers.

Many of the students expressed to me a frustration with external leadership workshops. Even with the best of this brand of companies, the students return to the regular classroom routine with experiences and language that the vast majority (if not all) of their staff have no connection to or understanding of. The same is true with professional development exercises: teachers may be learning to be better leaders, but without a shared language to use with their students, there’s bound to be a fundamental disconnect.

At best, students have fun and feel like they’ve learned something. However, the momentary nature of the workshop and the disconnection from their teachers means their ideas are gone from their minds in just days. At worst, they feel pandered to; they’re tired of “fun and games” and feel disconnected from their teachers while searching for answers to escalating social issues in their schools and the world around them.

On the contrary, students who’d been given The 15 Disciplines: The Essential Checklist for Productive Leaders, told me that they felt respected merely by the very giving of the book. The competence and maturity their teachers see in them was more than the majority of them could have expected before receiving the book. The book’s use as a shared resource confirmed this beyond reasonable doubt: my teachers believe I would benefit from reading the same book as them.

I was astounded by the depth of some of the questions these students had for me as the author. They know more and think more deeply than I had initially given them credit for, and I’m certain that I’m not alone in this knee-jerk assumption. Our society’s intense focus on the career space can sometimes turn something like schooling into nothing more than preparation for the “real world,” as if our students don’t live in it already. I wonder if this is one of the core reasons so many of our students are not taught leadership the same way we would teach it in a workforce – it’s as though we forget that leadership is (and needs to be) everywhere.

My mind has been opened to the depth and maturity that our nation’s young minds operate with, and I won’t soon forget it. I’m incredibly pleased to see The 15 Disciplines: The Essential Checklist for Productive Leaders, put to such use by an audience I didn’t initially expect to reach.

So, this is a reminder, and a challenge, to anyone who teaches leadership to young people: don’t underestimate them because they will deliver, time and time again. And the simplest first step I can think of is to expect of them what you expect of yourself or of your peers. In the case of the teachers at A.B. Paterson College, this started with The 15 Disciplines.

Since speaking with the student leaders, I have released Ethics Trump Power which is a subtly revised and dramatically expanded edition of The 15 Disciplines: The Essential Checklist for Productive Leaders. With my new insights into the student’s capacities, I have no doubt that they could read either book, however the original, shorter edition, might be more conducive to a classroom format for group reading and discussion across the length of a term or so. In either case, I implore you to assume that your students, or your children, are capable of tackling the work within. If nothing else, they’ll be grateful for the respect that that assumption implies.
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