What’s Up? – The Leadership Question I Couldn’t Answer

Marcella Bremer Leadership Leave a Comment

m_david DyeGuest post by David Dye.

The bell rang.
Forty-one sweaty high school students jumped up, grabbed their notebooks, and swept out the door through a cloud of chalk dust, sickly perfumes, and body spray for a long Labor Day weekend.

Eric had been sitting in the back of the classroom and was one of the last to move toward the door.
“Eric, can you give me a few minutes?”
He cocked his head and looked me over. “Whatever mister.”

Eric sauntered over to my desk, stuck his hands in the pockets of his low-slung jeans, and asked, “’Sup?”
“Eric, I –“

But the words caught in my throat.
You see, I’d asked Eric to stay after class because I wanted to motivate him.
Eric was a solidly built 17-year-old junior. Between the scar on his cheek, the tattoos covering his thick arms, and his relaxed confidence, he exuded tough. The other students treated him accordingly.
Moments earlier, however, he had faltered.

I was in an inner-city high school, teaching a course in community leadership. A major part of the course involved public speaking and so, on the ninth day of class, Eric stood in the front of the room to deliver his first impromptu speech.
He reached into a hat to pull out a topic. He would have fifteen seconds to think, and then could say what ever he liked so long as he talked for one full minute.

m_hand with flowerEric announced his topic, “I got cars, y’all.”
His fifteen seconds stretched to a minute as Eric shifted his weight from side to side, looked out the window, and avoided eye contact with anyone in the class.
Finally, he took a deep breath, shook his head, and began.
“Cars is tight…”
He looked at the ceiling, back out the window, took another deep breath, and turned back to the class.
“That’s all I got,” he said and slid back into his desk.

So I’d kept him behind to encourage him.
To motivate him.
To help him succeed.
Then he asked the question that caught me by surprise: “Sup?”

I tried to encourage him..to help him succeed. Click To Tweet

What’s up?
It was a good question.
This was Eric’s ninth day of his junior year, but it was only the ninth day of my entire teaching career. I was barely six years older than Eric, had obviously led a very different life from his, and had been a teacher for less than two weeks.

What’s up? What was “up” was that I had absolutely no clue.
With the empty encouragement lodged in my throat, I scrambled for something to say.

Eric had a piece missing from the top of his ear. It may have been a shallow observation, but it was all I could muster.
“Eric, do you mind if I ask you what happened to your ear?”
“Ah, yeah mister. Was a bullet…ricocheted off a dumpster and got my ear.”
No bravado. Nonchalant. Like it happens every day.

He pulled up his left pant leg. “Got one in my leg too.” He pointed to a scar on his shin. “Doc says they can’t take it out.”
Then he grinned.
“It makes the metal detector go off at the courthouse.”
If he’d intended to impress me, it worked.

As his story unfolded, Eric explained how he’d been involved in gangs when he was eleven years old. He’d been in several gunfights at age twelve.
As we got to know one another, it became clear to me that he was trying to leave the gang life behind. He’d started his own landscaping business, had been beaten out of his gang, (which is exactly what it sounds like, only worse), and had chosen classes like the one where we’d met.

I learned a leadership lesson - You do not motivate people. Click To Tweet

One day I asked him what had prompted him to change.
“Last year,” he said, “Here in Denver and out in Cali, I went to eleven different funerals. Some were friends, some were family.”
He paused and stared at his shoes.
“After that last one, man I looked up and I was like, ‘This ain’t normal!’ I gotta do something…”

m_hand with clothI had the privilege of being Eric’s teacher for two years. He became a leader within the class, succeeded in giving presentations much longer than just sixty seconds, and became a mentor for younger students in the community.

Teachers often claim that they learn as much or more from their students as they’re able to teach.
I know that to be true. From Eric, I learned an inviolate leadership principle: you do not motivate people.

When I called him up to my desk, Eric had his own motivations.
He was in the course for his own reasons. He had challenges, values, and concerns about which I knew nothing. Until I learned what was important to him, how to help him achieve what he valued, and how to help him get where he wanted to go, I could not lead him.
As his teacher, and a leader of the class, I also had my own vision, my own values, my own picture of a future that Eric could not yet see for himself.

As a leader, your values and vision are also important. Click To Tweet

As a leader, your values, and your vision are also important. You shouldn’t set them aside. However, if you want people to walk with you, you must first walk with them.
Discover what’s important to them.

• Why are they a part of the organization?
• What do they value?
• What do they dream of for their future?

When you walk beside them and support them in that purpose, those values, and their dreams, while also sharing your own, then, and only then, you will see true motivation.
That’s leadership. That’s change.
Thank you, Eric.
David M. Dye works with leaders, managers, and supervisors who want to get more done, build teams that care, and meet their goals. He is the President of Trailblaze, Inc, tweets from @davidmdye, and welcomes your LinkedIn invitation. His book, The Seven Things Your Team Needs to Hear You Say is available on Amazon.com. His recent book is Winning Well.

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