Is That a Leader or a Follower?

Thinking back to my youth, I can definitively say that 7th grade was the worst ever. I attended a small town “junior high school” that consisted of just 7th and 8th grade. The main form of entertainment at recess for my group of friends was to stand in the far corner of a blacktop lot and smoke cigarettes. I don’t ever remember a single teacher coming over to check on us or to break it up. In fact, the space where we stood was clearly visible from the school and anyone could easily see the billows of smoke rising above us. I remember being much more concerned about how I was being accepted in social circles than I ever was about getting good grades, since that was, if not “uncool”, at least not cool.

Therefore it was with some trepidation that I approached the first day of my own son’s “middle school” experience. He attends a small magnet school that has had its ups and downs. A majority of the student body needs extra academic support, and that’s where the staff puts most of their efforts.

At a recent PA meeting there were two or three students present. They were interested in and involved with the discussion that we were having, and their participation inspired me to email the Vice Principal the next day to propose that I do some leadership classes with students who he thought might be interested. He was enthusiastic about the idea, and we decided that I would come in each Tuesday morning for an hour.

On my first morning, I was just about to start when the Dean of Students came in to the classroom. Most of the teachers and staff know me because of my involvement with the school, so he knew who I was, but he didn’t know what I was doing there. I had noticed in the past that he often moves from classroom to classroom to make sure that the kids are behaving well.

He asked me what was happening, and I told him that we were doing a leadership class. He then turned to the students and said, “Yes, I see some leaders in here. I also see some followers.” While his comment took me aback for just a moment, I quickly turned to the kids, and said, “I only see leaders.” Which I think took him aback. I went on to say, “I don’t have any history with these kids. Who they are is only what they are capable of becoming. And I hold everyone as a leader.”

As I spoke the words, my heart was pounding, because on the one hand I did not want to disrespect someone of authority in front of the students, but on the other hand I felt strongly that the last message I wanted to convey was that we had already made a decision about whether or not they were leaders or followers.

In the excellent book, “The Explosive Child,” which I read (twice) when I was having difficulties with my very explosive daughter, the author states in the very beginning of the book, “Your interpretation of your child’s behaviors will be closely linked to how you try to change those behaviors. In other words, your interpretation guides your intervention.” He goes on to explain that if you decide that your child is behaving a particular way because they are “stubborn” or “manipulative” or purposely being defiant, then you will interact with them on that level and probably punish them for it. But if you understand that your child cannot control their explosiveness (yet), and that, for instance, the seams on their socks really ARE so uncomfortable so as to cause a meltdown, then you will have an opening to interact with them in a way that will have a beneficial effect.

The line “your interpretation guides your intervention” has stuck with me way beyond the challenge of raising my daughter. I’ve noticed that it’s applicable to just about any personal relationship, or anything in life, for that matter. However I interpret the situation is how it will appear to me, whether that is true or not. In fact, that’s all we are as human beings, interpretation machines. All day long we collect observations and apply our historical experience to them, categorizing them in a way we can understand. Sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes neutral… it’s ever changing, because it’s not real. It’s our interpretation of what’s happening, not what’s actually happening.

So if the Dean approaches a child, and in his head he labels them as “follower” or “troublemaker” or even “leader,” his interpretation will guide his intervention and how he will be with that child. Imagine conversely the Dean coming into school every day and wiping the slate clean. No leaders, no followers, no troublemakers, no one to watch out for, just an open invitation for leadership to appear. This lack of interpretation invites the Dean to interact with the kids as though they are already leaders and are ready to step up.

After the Dean left, I got in to a conversation with the students about what a leader is and we named some important leadership figures. We talked about how Martin Luther King, Jr. even paid the ultimate price for his leadership, and some of the kids said that they too would be willing to die for something they believed in. I asked, “Is it up to anyone else to say if you are a leader or not?” They agreed, “No.” I said, “Then how will I know if you are a leader?”

One student nailed it: “Because I said so.”


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