I just dropped my son off at college, as a transfer student, in California. He studied for two years at a local community college and is now off to finish his degree. What’s interesting is, he’s heading out just as many college boards are contemplating their futures. Some educational experts predict loads of universities won’t be around in twenty years. Many four-year institutions will not make it beyond the next four years. Have you looked at the numbers?

photo credit: Christopher Chan via photopin cc

photo credit: Christopher Chan via photopin cc

The business model for many universities (at least the ones that aren’t endowed) is antiquated. Now that millions of parents and potential students are questioning the value of tuition costs, some schools can’t convince a 21st century “hacker” of education to attend. In fact, as I look at many colleges today, I see the newspaper industry ten years ago. Newspapers were once deemed indestructible. Then the Internet came along and took away their classified business. But the problem was bigger than the fact that their classifieds disappeared. They had accumulated huge debt and had overinvested in physical assets that could not adapt to the new, digital marketplace.When revenue fell, the debt was still there — as were all the buildings they’d purchased, presses they’d bought, and acquisitions they’d made. Everything had declined in value, but the debt accumulated to pay for it all never diminished. Sadly for them, people had found a more convenient (even free) way to get the news.

Dallas Mavericks owner, Mark Cuban commented, “For the smart student who cares about getting their money’s worth from college, the days of one school for four years are over. The days of taking on big debt (to the tune of ONE TRILLION DOLLARS as of today) are gone. Going to a four year school is supposed to be the foundation from which you create a future, not the transaction that crushes everything you had hoped to do because you have more debt than you could possibly pay off in 10 years. It makes no sense. Which in turn means that four-year schools that refuse to LOWER their tuition are going to see their enrollment numbers decline. It just doesn’t make sense to pay top dollar for Introduction to Accounting, Psychology 101, etc.”

How Should Colleges Respond to Current Students?

If I am right about this, colleges must make a big paradigm shift. First, arrogance must be thrown out the window. Arrogance put thousands of antiquated businesses and CEOs out of business. Schools must find a new way to reach their goal of educating a new population of students in critical thinking, career skills, philosophy of life and liberal arts. Let me suggest some initial steps:

  1. Interview or survey thousands of students. I am serious. Get a big cross-section of adolescents and twenty-somethings to tell you what they’re after. I realize you have answers to questions they don’t even know to ask, but start with where they are.
  1. Rethink the “how” as well as the “what.” Not only do I believe that courses need to be evaluated in colleges, I believe the way they are delivered needs to be changed. And I’m not just speaking about out-dated pedagogy — I’m talking about new systems of digital delivery.
  1. Get extremely practical. Employers are begging for schools to equip graduates in emotional intelligence, soft skills, social intelligence, etiquette, and even how to conduct oneself in the professional world. I realize a liberal arts degree has not been traditionally about practical skills, but we must rethink this.
  1. Differentiate yourself. Because competition for career preparation is stiff, figure out a way to approach students in a meaningful way that others aren’t — establishing coaching or mentoring relationships, life planning, life skills, etc.
  1. Help students prepare a college value plan. What classes should they take online to enable them to get the most credits for the least cost? What classes are you going to take at a local, low-cost school so you can get additional credits at the lowest cost?

The smart high school grad no longer just picks a school, borrows money and wings it.Are you ready for them? What else do you believe colleges must do to stay relevant?

Help students successfully transition from high school to college and college to career with:

Habitudes® for the Journey: The Art of Navigating Transitions


Rejection Therapy

Do you see what I’m seeing among college students today? As I labor to develop young leaders, I’m finding that an increasing number of them shrink from stepping into leadership positions because they’re afraid of the rejection they could face as a result. For instance, many claim they don’t want to serve as a Resident Advisor in a dorm because they’d have to take so many “hits” from their peers on the floor. The fear of rejection has always existed, but today… it appears to be on steroids. That’s why I recommend “Rejection Therapy” for leaders.

photo credit: Daniel Kulinski via photopin cc

photo credit: Daniel Kulinski via photopin cc

Jia Jiang is a social entrepreneur from China. As a young professional, he’d dreamed of leading a start-up company, and after working at a Fortune 500 company for six years, he knew it was time to take a risk. He knew that if he stepped out of his comfort zone and took this next career step, he’d have to become comfortable with rejection. He was afraid; like all if us, he hated rejection. So he initiated something he called “Rejection Therapy.”

Over the course of 100 days, Mr. Jiang made all kinds of crazy requests from people, knowing that they would reject it. He called it “100 Days of Rejection.” Just like lifting weights, Jia hoped that consistently facing rejection would help him grow stronger and, potentially, desensitize him to the fear of rejection. The experiment was hilarious. Mr. Jiang traveled around to neighborhoods, stores, and restaurants, asking for things like:

  1. Will you let me have a “hamburger refill” at a fast food restaurant?
  2. Can I serve as a live mannequin for Abercrombie and Fitch?
  3. Would you let me give a weather forecast on live TV?
  4. Mind if I make an announcement on a Southwest flight?
  5. Would you allow me to play soccer in your backyard? (He got a “yes”!)

Making these crazy requests did the trick. After asking dozens of people for outrageous wishes (and getting some to say yes), Jia Jiang won the battle over his fear of rejection. But it was like a workout — he lifted the weights of “fear” until he was no longer overwhelmed. He said later, “The only thing standing between me and my dream… is me.”

A Take Away for Leaders

Many of us today need to initiate the same kind of therapy. Leaders must spot their fears or areas where they procrastinate and “run to the roar.” We must create a workout to enable us to overcome our apprehension. For some, like Mr. Jiang, it might be the fear of rejection. For others, it’s the labor of strategic planning, or the art of confrontation, or the necessary shift when we move from a “doer” to a “delegator.” In the same way our muscles develop or atrophy based on how much they’re used, our social, emotional and intellectual muscles do much the same thing. My question for you is this: In what area of fear do you need to create a therapy?

A Take Away for Your Students

Our second application has to do with the young people we lead. Today’s students have an enlarged level of fear when it comes to rejection. They’re a population of students who’ve grown up quantifying approval: they draw their self-worth from how many “likes” they get on Facebook, how many followers they have or re-tweets they get on Twitter, how many “shares” their latest blog gets, or how many views they get for the YouTube video they posted. It’s no wonder an increasing amount struggle with not being liked, loved or valued. We live in a culture that’s driven by consensus. Technology makes it too easy for kids to be targets if they don’t get it.

As we develop leaders, we must be intentional about this kind of “therapy”. We must enable them to take a stand, even if it means standing alone on an issue they believe to be right. Sometimes justice isn’t popular. We must equip them to think critically and not just follow the crowd on issues. A decreasing number of kids think beyond the superficial, so we must incentivize them to read deeply, beyond texts or tweets that contain 140 characters or less. My question for you is: What kind of workout or therapy should you invite your students to enter?

The Fear of Rejection

I happen to believe the fear of rejection looms far too high in the students we lead. I am not suggesting we try to help them to like rejection—only a sadistic person does that. What I am saying is that we must help them build personal convictions to lead well, even when their direction is not popular or they’re un-liked by friends. Even if they’re “de-friended” on social media or — may I say it — rejected. In the words of Jia Jiang:

  • I must become comfortable with people saying “no” to me.
  • I must believe that rejection is universal. All of us face it at some time.
  • I must understand that rejection is really only an opinion.
  • I must never be afraid to “ask” others to commit to a goal with me.
  • I must remember that avoiding rejection from others might just mean I’m rejecting myself or my dreams. I must not do that.

Too many people avoid vocational tasks (like sales or phone calls), not because we lack people skills, but because we are paralyzed by the fear of rejection. I say, let’s launch some Rejection Therapy and push through it.


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Habitudes: Images That Form Leadership Habits and Attitudes


If you have your ear to the ground at all these days, you’ve heard of the significance of stories among students. Narrative has replaced so many forms of argument and persuasion. I wonder, however, if you’ve ever discovered why? Further, have you read how telling stories actually cultivates empathy in students?

college students

A new neuroscience study may explain why telling stories builds empathy and why, when you tell a good one, people act as if they’re watching it unfold before them.

A team of scientists at Princeton, led by Uri Hasson, had a woman tell a story while in an MRI scanner. Functional MRI scans detect brain activity by monitoring blood flow. When a brain region is active, it needs more blood to provide oxygen and nutrients; as a result, the active regions light up on a computer screen. They recorded her story on a computer and monitored her brain activity as she spoke. She did this twice, once in English and once in Russian (she was fluent in both languages). They then had a group of volunteers listen to the stories through headphones while they had their brains scanned. All of the volunteers spoke English, but none understood Russian. After the volunteers heard the story, Hasson asked them some questions to see how much of each story they understood.

As the woman spoke in English, the listeners understood her story and their brains synchronized. When she had activity in her insula (a region of the brain linked to emotion) the listeners did as well. When her frontal cortex lit up, so did theirs. By simply telling a story, the woman could plant ideas, thoughts or emotions in them. No such activity showed up when she spoke Russian, which they didn’t understand.

The study also showed that the more listeners understood the story, the more their brain activity dovetailed with the speaker’s. When you listen to and understand stories, you experience the exact same brain pattern as the person telling them. It’s as if you are experiencing the story yourself.

Putting this research to work

The fact is, our brains know little difference between a real experience and an imagined one — the same impact on the brain happens. That’s how powerful our brains are. Storytelling, to a degree, can provide instruction closer to a real-life experience than a didactic lecture full of statistics. Here are some simple suggestions on how to capitalize on storytelling as you teach or lead students:

  1. Choose to insert stories in your content. To really engage with you, students need a point for their head and a picture for their heart.
  2. Clarify the point of your story in your mind. Even if it is only to make them question something, know where you’re going so you don’t wander.
  3. Include important details in the story. The more specific you are, the more students can step into the shoes of those in the story. Make it real.
  4. Use colorful adjectives and verbs. Make the story come alive, describing how something felt, smelled, looked or sounded. Help them feel, not just think.
  5. Involve some conflict. We love movies because good ones always center on a great conflict. Leverage this as the story unfolds.

When you tell a story to your students, you can transfer experiences directly to their brain. They feel what you feel. They empathize. What’s more, when communicating most effectively, you can get a group of listeners’ brains to synchronize their activity. They engage. As you relate someone’s desires through a story, they become the desires of the audience. When trouble develops, they gasp in unison, and when desires are fulfilled, they smile together.

For as long as you’ve got your audience’s attention, they’re in your mind. When you hear a good story, you develop empathy with the teller because you experience the events for yourself. This makes sense. Stories should be powerful; they helped us share information long ago, before we had a written language. Let’s use them well.

Help students successfully transition from high school to college and college to career with:

Habitudes® for the Journey: The Art of Navigating Transitions



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Tim Spiker

Tim Spiker

Recently I had the great privilege to discuss with Tim Spiker, who has served as a key note speaker, author, leadership coach, small group facilitator, researcher (both qualitative and quantitative), and in-house leader development manager.

Here are a few notes from our discussion. I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did.

Your recent book Who Not What talks about the fact that 3/4s of your effectiveness as a leader comes from who you are not what you do.What is a broad view of the message of the book?

We found that you can teach people tactics and practices and skills to be a leader, but the research data says that the foundation for enthusiastically following somebody is not those things. It’s something deeper.

In the book and in our conversations, you talked about a ‘Well Developed Who’. Talk about that.

The two aspects of a Well Developed Who are being inwardly sound and others-focused. High moral character is incredibly important in the development of trust, but good leaders are inwardly sound and others-focused, in that order.

Could you talk about the relationship between the Who and the What of leadership?

The analogy I use in the book is that of a very strong tree. When we draw a line between the Who and What of leadership, the Who is everything that lies below the surface, like the roots of a tree. The What of leadership, or everything above the surface, is given nutrition by the Who. As a result, the Who is what makes the What effective.

The phrase that keeps going through my mind is, “People follow a leader only as closely as they trust him or her.” John Maxwell would say people that buy into the leader before they buy into the vision.

It’s hard for us to keep in mind the idea of becoming versus managing. The best question is: ‘What am I doing everyday to make myself a more trustworthy person?’

In one of the chapters in your book, you talked about myths and misunderstandings. Could you talk about some of the myths involving Who Not What?

One leadership myth is that being inwardly sound strictly means having good character. That’s not true. Being inwardly sound is far more than that. Secondly, there’s a temptation to say that Who Not What has only recently become the best way to lead. Though it has become more culturally acceptable recently, it has actually always been the most effective way to lead.

Now that we know the principle of Who Not What, what are some practical takeaways from this leadership truth?

We can apply it as followers by choosing genuine leaders. Another place to apply this is by involving the Who in the nature of our conversations that are used to develop great future leaders.

This might explain the incredible emergence of executive coaches in that industry.

The Better than Average Effect means we generally see ourselves better than we are. So it is important to assess yourself with a leader you feel comfortable with. If you don’t have these conversations in the workplace, then you may need to reach out in the world of executive coaching.

What are some specific steps a person could take, if they are in an unhealthy work situation to become a better Who Not What leader?

Engage with the first Habitutes book, The Art of Self-leadership. To amp it up, take a book like that and walk through it with other people. Another possibility is to find a leader you trust to become a coach or mentor.

For more about Tim Spiker and the work his organization does, visit TimSpiker.com.

To be emailed about the release date for Who Not What: The Hidden Truth About Leadership and to receive other postings from Tim Spiker and his organization, click here.


Check out Growing Leaders. If you’re new to the podcast or blog, visit our website to learn more about the resources Growing Leaders offers to equip those who lead the next generation.

What topic would you like for us to address on the next episode of the Growing Leaders Podcast? Leave a comment.


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photo credit: camerazn via photopin cc

photo credit: camerazn via photopin cc

I just read a fascinating study published by Education Professor Linda Darling-Hammond at Stanford University. The study demonstrates that U.S. faculties have a more difficult job and work under more challenging conditions than teachers in other industrialized nations. Hmmm. Imagine that.

You and I both know that for years, educators have observed international test results as a gauge to measure how well U.S. students are learning 21st century skills compared to their peers around the world. The answer? Not so well. We have fallen further behind other nations and have struggled with a large achievement gap.

Federal policy from the Department of Education sought to address this problem by beefing up testing policies and enforcing tougher penalties on schools. Unfortunately, this strategy hasn’t worked. In fact, U.S. performance on the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) declined in every subject area between 2000 and 2012 — the years in which these policies have been in effect.

So what have we learned from this latest study? Linda Darling-Hammond writes:

“Now we have international evidence about something that has a greater effect on learning than testing: Teaching. The results of the Teaching and Learning International Survey (TALIS), released last week by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), offer a stunning picture of the challenges experienced by American teachers, while providing provocative insights into what we might do to foster better teaching — and learning — in the United States.

“In short, the survey shows that American teachers today work harder under much more challenging conditions than teachers elsewhere in the industrialized world. They also receive less useful feedback, less helpful professional development, and have less time to collaborate to improve their work. Not surprisingly, two-thirds feel their profession is not valued by society — an indicator that OECD finds is ultimately related to student achievement.”

Three Ideas for School Administrators

I want to concede something at this point: I have a leadership bias. I see everything through the lens of a leader. My experience, however, is deep and wide. Our organization Growing Leaders works in partnership with more than 7,500 schools and youth organizations worldwide. Based on my findings, allow me to offer some ideas on how to address this issue in our schools. I write to administrators:

1. Don’t allow your faculty to become “Starving Bakers”

Too often, American teachers work under emotionally taxing conditions. Picture yourself in front of dozens of not-yet-mature people for six to seven hours a day. Your goal is to teach these often-unwilling listeners, who usually have different priorities in mind. To balance out this draining work, I believe teachers need consistent vision-casting, professional development that actually equips them as communicators, as well as emotional fuel—inspiration. Let’s give them tools and encouragement; many are baking bread for others but starving for it themselves.

2. Recognize Your Top Job is to Create Culture

Administrators often fail to understand this. The school culture (meaning the tone and atmosphere on campus) trumps almost every other component in determining teacher and student performance. Culture trumps strategy, vision or salary as factors for success. Regardless of what mission statement you’ve framed and hung on the wall, if you don’t have a positive, life-giving, growth-focused culture, the words won’t matter. As my friend Andy Stanley says, “What’s hanging on the wall is not nearly as important as what’s happening down the hall.”

3. See your Students as End-Users but your Faculty/Staff as Direct Customers

This may sound strange, but while the students’ achievement and success is your ultimate goal, your staff and faculty are your direct line to that goal. Instead of blaming them when things go poorly, why not look in the mirror and ask yourself: What must I do to better equip and engage these adults in our mission? The effective principals and deans I know all do this—they are equippers of their team, knowing that the students will ultimately be the recipients of a happy, growing staff.

I have said this a million times: teachers are my heroes. Far too often, however, they work under emotionally expensive conditions, and we, the leaders, have not given them the ongoing tools and feedback to be the professionals they need to be.

What do you think?


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Habitudes: Images That Form Leadership Habits and Attitudes