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14-Year-Old Leaders
July 1, 2010
Written By: Russell Jensen

When my friend Valerie asked me to come along on a church youth group mission trip as a chaperone I declined. Fortunately she heard my “no” as “yes.” So there I was last week, along with several other overmatched adults and twenty energized junior high kids, working our tails off on three service projects in Kansas City. And darned if those kids didn’t remind me of some important leadership lessons.

People want to be part of something important, something bigger than they are. Every day our youth leader and the leaders at our work locations did a great job of helping the kids understand how their work would support that organization, and how that would make a difference in people’s lives. Every minute of every day our kids knew their seemingly small contributions were adding up to big, difference making results.
Message matters. Repeating the message matters. Every morning and every evening for four days we heard two clear messages. First, if you want to be a leader you must serve others. Second, encourage one another.   We reinforced those messages at times throughout the day. By days three and four the kids were living those messages and reinforcing them with each other. Amazing how powerful this is, yet repeating a clear message is something that business leaders struggle with every day.
Set people up to be successful. Match skills and gifts to roles. Our kids did this naturally. As we worked in teams I would see the kids helping one another and even changing roles with one another to help their teammates be successful. With a clear understanding of the work to be done, of the importance of the work, and with a shared value around serving one another, it was eye opening to me how easily teams of 8th and 9th graders matched themselves and their teammates to roles that leveraged their gifts and maximized the performance of the team.
People respond to leading by example. Leaders set the tone in so many ways. Remember that old adage about your actions speaking so loudly that I can’t hear your words? It’s true. What are your actions telling your people about priorities, focus, work ethic, values, results and relationships?
Leadership in many ways really is about serving those who get the work done. One of our long time clients draws their org chart as an upside down pyramid. Their executive team is called the BLT, the Bottom Leadership Team, because they serve the people above them on the chart. Those people are their direct supports, not direct reports. If you think about your role as serving those key people reporting to you does it change how you might approach your day?
Encouragement is gold. Genuine, sincere encouragement goes a long way toward washing away fear and mistrust. It emboldens people to stretch and risk failing. It creates a positive “emotional account balance” that provides cushion for future mistakes and misunderstandings. And it makes work a whole lot more enjoyable.
High performing teams are powerful. We lead client leadership teams through workshops using the Five Dysfunctions of a Team model. Those sessions can become important inflection points in the performance of those teams. I can’t begin to tell you how much fun it was to watch a team of junior high kids display the five components of a highly functional team; building trust, mastering conflict, achieving commitment, embracing accountability and focusing on results.
And as I think about, perhaps the first lesson I learned was that “no” isn’t always the right answer.

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