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Leadership Moments in Young Lives

Jim Mahoney
October 20, 2022

It’s been observed by many that parents are our first and most important teachers and leaders in our lives. It’s undoubtedly true but I’d suggest the list gets expanded as we grow older. School teachers, coaches, relatives, bosses, mentors, and others are added to our leadership cadre who profoundly influence, teach, and genuinely care about us. Leadership moments occur all the time when these folks interact in everyday manner with young people. A comment we make, a demonstrated behavior, or a practice we model can take up residence in a young, impressionable person. It’s simply how we learn and the adults who surround us, whether they like it or not, are young people’s leaders—providing ample leadership moments and opportunities for them to learn from us.

I don’t have any research to support these three lessons, but I’ll offer them anyhow based upon decades of experience working with young people. Feel free to add, eliminate, or alter my list of lessons we should consider teaching young people in everyday leadership moments. Here’s mine:

(1) All work is honorable
We get cues about workers and the work they perform all the time from others. Not long ago, it was common for students to find themselves in academic, general, and vocational tracked classes depending upon their interests or college bound plans. There was rarely equal respect for those choices with the greater value seeming to reside in the college prep corner. Their future jobs would seem by many to hold greater esteem in society. Kids going to vocational schools or receiving trade certificates seemed to be worthy but not quite as so. I was struck when I visited Finland a few years ago that about half of graduating high schoolers went to vocational universities to prepare for anticipated jobs in the economy while the other half attended traditional universities. The message was clear—either route is worthy and contributes to society and your economic future. Also, many routes are a blend of the two, but the point is that all honest work has value.

(2) “I do” is as important as “IQ”
Many times, I’ve shared with kids that the only place I know where success comes before work is in the dictionary. Many adults today can still remember their ACT score because it defined them in that moment and frankly sometimes paralyzed them because they believed it was predictive of life. It’s not. The key to getting somewhere is to get started. The people who start businesses, join music groups that blossom, or work at a hobby see and feel the pride of accomplishment. When I completed Army basic training, the pain was over, but the pride was permanent of having completed something difficult. While we can’t be anything we want, we have tons of options based upon our strengths, interests, and abilities. There is a lot we can be if we get moving. Self-reliance, getting a job, and taking pride in accomplishments can be affirmed by adults in special leadership moments. Doing nothing is a non-option.

(3) Infuse hope
Hope is not wishful thinking or believing that if you feel something, it must be true. Hope is the belief that there are better days ahead, obstacles to be overcome, and paths to be successful. We need people who help us see them, increase our skills, stand as our cheerleader, sometimes irritate us with the truth, and believe in us and the power of positive action. Cynics sometimes say to me, “do you really believe that hope is a strategy?” My answer is always that hope may not be a strategy, but I’ve never seen a good one without it. Leadership moments often occur at the intersection of giving up and someone offering an optimistic word or helping us brush our clothes off and get started again. Hope does that.

We often argue over who is a leader or not based on positional power, influence, or actions they take. Leadership moments occur all the time when others, especially adults, influence knowingly or not to the education of young people. As a 16-year-old, I once took my dad’s car to the garage where they gave me a loaner car to take to him while his was being repaired. Before I took the car home, I decided to take the loaner outside of our small town to burn rubber off the tires and make it squeal. When I got home, my dad was waiting for me to hand him the keys and stop driving. I don’t know how he knew what had happened and so quickly at that. But somebody in the community told him because it was a shared value. What if the three lessons I offered were taught by all of us in leadership moments? I suggest if they were, kids would be more likely to learn them.