“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more, and become more, you are a leader.” This quote by John Quincy Adams rings true to me as an educator and as a leadership practitioner. I believe it speaks to business leaders and community leaders as well. All of us must understand why it’s important to develop and inspire tomorrow’s leaders. It’s also important to know how best to do so.
Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of the leadership classic, The Leadership Challenge, tell us that “Modeling the Way” is the first step to becoming an effective leader. Modeling the way means creating standards of excellence, setting the example for others, and leading with the heart.
I have taught leadership development to high school and college students for a decade. I have learned how the younger generation views what it means to be a leader and how I can be a guiding light for them. I hold my students to a high standard of excellence within the programs that I direct. We work together to create a framework of respect and to ensure we have a collaborative and participatory environment. I provide students with opportunities to push themselves, to step outside of their comfort zones and to generate small wins. The same approaches, employed in the workplace, will have the same results.
Personal connections are another key to young people’s growth and development. Our programs provide space for students to learn about other cultures and to share who they are and where they come from. We often include a cultural celebration, a pot-luck meal of favorite family dishes during which we share our stories. I model the way by going first and giving the students an intimate look of my values and beliefs and what I, a Puerto Rican male, hold most near-and-dear to my heart. I share stories of my upbringing, favorite childhood memories and how the love that I have for my nieces and nephew are what drives me to work hard each and every day. I have been told by many students that this is the first time they have heard an adult share on such a deep level. To me, this is the foundation of building a relationship. My students tell me my stories speak to them.
As I reflect on inequities, injustice and violence in today’s world, I think back to one of the best role-models this world has ever seen, Martin Luther King, Jr. He inspires me to dream more and to become more, and to continue to develop my own skills so that I can continue to model the way for my students.
Of course, we have contemporary examples closer to home. All of us, including leaders in business, can learn much from the examples set by three area leaders:
- Candida Flores, Executive Director of Family Life Education, has dedicated her professional and volunteer energies to serving youth, particularly those in greatest need.
- Olivia Ilano Davis, founder and artistic director Spectrum in Motion, has offered city youth with opportunities to become more confident and collaborative leaders through dance.
- Judy Keane turned tragedy into triumph by starting a foundation that serves Wethersfield children in the name of her husband who died in the World Trade Center attack on 9/11.
Leadership Greater Hartford will recognize these women in October with its annual Polaris Awards. Their work in cultivating the next generation of leaders definitely models the way.
Young people have “heart” in abundance. They have a high desire and need for social justice and inclusion. They want to impact change in a major way. They will enter the workforce bringing these same values and motivations. They will look for mentors who will model the way and show them how to become leaders others want to follow. As parents, teachers, colleagues or supervisors, each of us has an obligation to inspire the dreams of those who are following us and watching us. If we want our organizations, our communities and our world to be healthy, strong and yes, kind, we must model the way. Our values, beliefs and actions will shape the leaders of tomorrow.
Andre Santiago, Senior Program Director at Leadership Greater Hartford. Among other programs, he directs Summer Nexus, a summer leadership camp for high school students.