The Quest for High School Students: Self-Leadership & Getting To Where You Want To Be

Leadership Lesson: For a student (of any kind), learning the lessons of leadership can begin as soon as someone shares with them both the lessons and the reasons why the lessons are important.

I got a good laugh recently when I showed the picture above to the high school students to whom I was presenting a leadership workshop. Right before I showed them this picture, I asked them to answer some questions by a show of hands:

Who here has a cell phone?

All hands went up.

Who here has a smart phone?

All hands went up.

Who here uses texting?

All hands went up.

It was those questions that elicited the outburst of laughter. I saw it coming. It was expected. And I admitted to the students the questions sounded stupid to them because they had never known a world where it would even make sense to ask such questions. To them, these were standard tools of…existence, essentially.

This interaction played out when I presented at the 2018 edition of the Prospanica CT Quest Education Summit. Close to 200 students from across the state of Connecticut attended the one-day summit at Southern Connecticut State University hosted by Connecticut’s Chapter of Prospanica, in partnership with its community and corporate partners. The annual event is typically filled with motivational presentations, speakers, and workshops providing students with tools for the next chapter in their lives.

In each of the workshops I presented that day, I started off with the same picture and questions. From there, I made my case for why it was important for them to consider what leadership is, what their current self-leadership looks like, and how who they are today should reconcile to who they want to be in the future. The point was not only to point out why these considerations are important, in general, but also why it is important to work toward figuring it all out as soon as possible.

The answer: The world is coming at them — and will see who they are and what they have to offer — faster than it came to know who I was when I was leaving high school.

I shared with them that I didn’t have a cell phone until I was about 20. I didn’t use the internet until right before I went to college, and I didn’t text until I was in my early 20s (on my flip phone). I told them all this was the case, because that was when these things started coming out or catching on.

And that lead me back to the picture I showed them.

My generation didn’t have any of those social networking platforms when we were sitting in their seats in high school. We had another 10 years after college before we would really need or want to build any kind of profile, be able to open any kind of account on social media, or have compiled such a public online persona.

Nowadays, it’s pretty standard for most high school students — and even those who are younger — to use most of those networks. Hell, some of the attendees of the workshop actually connected with me on LinkedIn as they were leaving the room.

So this exercise was important to show them how soon they need to start shaping who they’re going to be. And through it I wanted to make some points about leadership: They don’t need to nail it, perfecting a prediction today of who they are going to be. They just need to start thinking about it.

The summit provided a variety of tools and resources, covering the who, what, where, when, and how of proceeding after high school, but I wanted to dig deeper into the why of each student’s world, the manner in which they carry themselves, and their desires for the future.

First, Leadership 

After I shared why I had shown them the Vintage Social Networking picture, I asked them to share with me their definitions of leadership, or at least some words that came to mind regarding leadership. They mentioned “mentor,” “dedicated,” “respected,” and “smart.” They provided examples such as “my father,” “me, because I have younger siblings,” and “my teacher.”

Thank god for these answers and some others they mentioned because, as I shared with them, none of their responses mentioned a great number of followers or people each leader had behind them. It was more about that person’s qualities, character, impact, and responsibilities than power and domination.

So they, in a sense, were already commenting on and attuned to their own leadership potential by responding that, overall, leadership is about the person’s qualities and attributes.

Second, A Side-by-Side Breakdown of Them vs. “Leaders”

In this part of the presentation, I showed them how much they already have in common with professionals or “leaders” who are already well into their careers.  

Side-by-side, I provided a comparison between them and leaders in the areas of Experience, People, Responsibilities, Collaboration, and Adjustments To Date.

In Experience, I asked them to consider everything they’ve seen and learned. They can use the experiences in their life to date to find out who they are and what they stand for. This shows them they have a history to learn from just as their older counterparts do. 

In People, I compared professionals networking to the students themselves meeting people and getting what they want and/or need out of life, whether those connections lead to great friendships, strength, laughs, support, etc. This shows them that they’re already networking to get the most out of life, so, to some degree, they’re familiar with what the process entails.

In Responsibilities, I compared what they’re responsible for against what, generally, professionals need to carry out. Students need to consider, and give themselves credit for, the fact that they’re in school all day, then maybe play on sports teams, then have homework, and possibly hold down jobs, all while carrying out responsibilities to their friends, family, and community. This shows them how much they currently take on.

In Collaboration, I mentioned they need to consider how well they work with others, in the process bringing the best out of themselves, and of others, for everyone involved. This shows them they need to start thinking about the value they bring to and create in their environments.

In Adjustments To Date, I compared how both they and the leaders ahead of them need to assess the environment and circumstances around them and determine what is working and what is not. This shows them that they should regularly assess and correct where necessary, while reviewing those adjustments later to take stock of how far they will have come – or not.

These are but a few areas I covered. By breaking down a discussion in each, I wanted to make the case to them that leadership is about understanding all the resources they have around them. And that “leaders” may have more years of experience than them, but the underlying rules and foundation of leadership, self-leadership, and self-development are there for the taking, no matter where or how young the students are — if they’re open to them.

Third, Self-Leadership 

Now that they had a base understanding of how they could view leadership, and I highlighted how similar the framework was between what they do and what “leaders” or professionals do. I wanted to get into the ways they think about their journey to today.

What are they considering for themselves, and how are they thinking about their own lives? Self-Development at any age is key!

So I asked them to consider these questions:

  • What have you learned from the past? In the same vein of Adjustments To Date, this question asks them to look back. Looking back doesn’t mean dwelling on but instead learning about what to expand upon and what to limit.
  • What have you wanted for yourself?It’s important that they clarify what they want for themselves and begin putting together a plan for achieving those things.
  • What has set you apart from others? It always amazes me how often people don’t know what sets them apart from others and, in some cases, what they can do better than anyone else. This isn’t driven by ego or selfishness, but one needs to know what they’re good at, or no one else will see it.
  • Have you delivered for others? The other common theme in leadership coaching is making sure we’re coming through for others and keeping our word. That integrity and honor should be fostered and developed from an early age. Much of what sets successful people apart from those who aren’t is how well they follow through with what they say they’re going to do.
  • What makes you amazing? The third question in this list asked what specifically sets one apart, but with this question students need to know what it is that makes them amazing, overall. Period.
  • Are you ready to go for what you want? Some people desire things without understanding or following through on what it takes to really achieve them. The students need to start considering what they’re going to have to put in to achieve their goals.

Fourth, R.E.A.C.H. Forward (Exercise) 

So, up until this point, we walked through some basic beliefs about leadership, highlighted similarities between a high school student and a “leader,” and worked on some self-reflection so as to consider self-leadership.

In the last section of the workshop, an exercise asked the students to work through the steps below. It asked the students to consider, at this point in time, where they stand, where they want to be in the future, and what they can harness to get from the former to the latter.  

We could all use this exercise, no matter where we stand in life.

The exercise asked them to outline how they’re going to R.E.A.C.H. Forward.

  • Review your past, experience, and self – We all have to look back to what we’ve done to date to figure out what we’re all about, how resilient we are, and what we have to offer.
  • Evaluate your goals, drivers, and motivators – We all need to understand what we ultimately want and what is important to us. Doing so – actually thinking about it, articulating it, and even writing it down – allows for better focus. In doing this, one sees what they want; it’s not merely something conceptual and abstract in our minds.
  • Activate your resources, tools, and groups – We all need to look to all the resources around us. What in our immediate circles, or just outside of them, is available to be tapped into. Oftentimes, we all forfeit so much in resources we could have utilized to push forward in a stronger, more efficient manner.
  • Coordinate your short-, mid-, and long-term steps – Much like envisioning goals, drivers, and motivators, it’s important to envision what the next steps are – in the near future, in the mid-range, and in the long-term – so you know what you need to work on today to build into each stage.
  • Highlight what you keep and what you change – Every so often, review and assess how you’ve adjusted, and how you could’ve adjusted. This allows you to keep an eye out for similar positive and/or negative factors or trends rolling out in the present and into the future.

The most powerful part of this presentation – or any, for that matter – is triggering and opening up conversation and discussion.

The great part of this specific presentation is that every group reacts to its material and challenges differently, posing a variety of different questions from the next group.  The customized conversation I facilitate adjusts from group to group. No two groups share the same path, due to their unique curiosity, concerns, and realizations.

Merely lecturing to students or professionals yields little reward or insight, so throughout the presentation I made a reference to each point above and then opened it up to foster conversation, solicit questions, and clarify any confusion.

The important part of the presentation is ensuring the students are not deferring these considerations — even by a few years — for assessing their leadership ability and development, and that it starts with their own self-leadership assessment and awareness today.

Why put off for tomorrow what they — or you — can begin building today?

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