Coach, mentor, teacher, leader.... there are many words to describe this role and, like we are told about the Eskimos having many words for "snowflake," perhaps this signifies its importance in our society. Even still, it's also a role we at times can take for granted, save for really special, epic moments - like graduating high school, winning a championship, or walking your first born down the isle. We simply expect this position to be fulfilled and things to run relatively smoothly...until, at times, they don't. And we have had a lot of experiences over the past few years where...they haven't. We have expected the leaders of our country to run things safely and responsibly and then to have a smooth transfer of power every 4-8 years like clockwork; we expected there to be new teachers in our kids' classrooms every semester to provide them the education they need; we expected there to be coaches to train, motivate, and protect the health of our athletes...and maybe even win a championship or two along the way; and, if we have children of our own, we have expected ourselves to naturally take on all the responsibilities & duties of keeping these small creatures alive and safe until they become independent, functional members of society. But as we've seen in recent years, sometimes these things don't happen smoothly...or at all. And hopefully, when this occurs, rather than burying our heads in the sand or responding only with anger, we can take it has an opportunity to reflect upon our own experiences as both leaders and students, mentors and mentees, and examine what it actually means and feels like to lead, guide, learn from and bring out the best in others. As I re-read my son's essay, it motivated me to do this very thing. I reflected upon the qualities he pointed out: Respect, Safety, Making Changes for ALL, Love. These might not be the usual signs of strength that come to mind when we think about those who are "in charge," but to me - and according to much of the research out there - they are profoundly important not just in raising/coaching/teaching successful kids/athletes/students, but also in imparting skills and qualities that have ripple effects on society and the world at large.
Respect: Can you appreciate and honor what each individual brings to the "team" - even, or especially if, they have different viewpoints, backgrounds, skills, strengths, and weaknesses than you. Can we find a place for everyone?
Safety: As Maslow's hierarchy of needs clearly depicts, we can't expect people to reach the upper-level goal of self-actualization if they don't, at the very least, feel safe. Are we pushing our kids, athletes, employees to the point of burnout? Are we "coaching" them through force, threats, and control? Or are we ensuring they feel mentally and physically safe enough to fully thrive and reach their potential?
Doing good for all: Sometimes, when we are so focused on winning, on one singular goal, or on our own individual needs, we lose track of the greater good. Putting our egos aside and reflecting on the greater good - whether that's the whole family, classroom, team, or country - may not always give us that instantaneous gratification we were looking for, but it will pay dividends in the long run for society as a whole.
Loving: The Golden Rule. So basic, it feels like it almost doesn't need to be said, but sometimes the simplest things can also be the hardest. And empathy can feel hard. We don't always have to agree, but allowing ourselves to be vulnerable, putting aside our own needs at times and putting ourselves in others' shoes, and making a point of fostering strong connections are worth their weight in gold. At times, this can feel harder than the most grueling workout, toughest exam, or humbling parenting experience - but, I believe it is also how we truly succeed in life - both individually and collectively.
Overall, what I think struck me most about these qualities of leadership was that none of them were really the stereotypical descriptions of strength, such as "power" or "stoicism," that may come to mind when we think of a natural born leader. Instead, they were all about a certain level of vulnerability. It seems leadership, to my son...and, as it turns out, to me...goes beyond teaching concrete skills and techniques, and challenges us to dig deep inside ourselves, to allow ourselves to become raw and vulnerable, meeting our players, students, children, where they are at with each new season, semester or even moment. Luckily, in the midst of some of the chaos over the past few years, we have found ourselves some amazing leaders in our own lives - a soccer coach whose enthusiasm never wanes for any of the children around him, rain or shine; a music teacher who is more of a mentor; and, a swim instructor who doubles as a friend/colleague/cheerleader, I hope you find yours out there too...or try to become one for those around you. It's no small feat....but it also has no small effect either.