Growing Leaders hosted our National Leadership Forum last week. Every year, I love the opportunity I get to meet leaders from all over the world and watch them connect with each other, as they learn, grow, and prepare for their next academic season. This year, we had perhaps our best experience yet. Our theme was: “Leaders at Every Level.” Conversations—both on and off stage—were about building a culture of leadership in our organizations. I decided to jot down nine of the insights that surfaced over the two-day forum. I hope you enjoy them below—and decide to join us next year on June 22-23, 2017 for our next National Leadership Forum (we’re almost half-full already).


  1. Culture works like a movie sound track. It makes or breaks the story we’re telling.

Every organization is telling a story, not unlike a movie: there is a script (our words) and acting (our behavior). But every great movie has a great sound track to match, which provides the tone and energy for the story. This is our culture—and it must match our words.

  1. When students are not winning, it’s the adults who need to change.

Too often, when schools don’t perform well, we automatically blame the students: their apathy, conduct or lack of ambition. Dr. Meria Carstarphan reminded us that we must first look in the mirror and ask, “What are we (the leaders) not doing well?”

  1. The key to academic success for many kids is social-emotional learning.

Two of our presenters reminded us that while most of us focus on hard skills or academic scores, social-emotional learning is the key to engaging students. When kids know that they are known, loved and believed in—they perform better.

  1. The quickest way to influence your culture is to embody your values.

Gene Smith spoke about the fundamentals of a healthy culture at OSU. One of these essentials: “You have to go slow to go fast.” In times of decision, slow down; ensure your choice aligns with your values. If we do this, we will accelerate our success.

  1. Leadership is all about managing people’s energy.

Dr. Ken Blanchard had us laughing and crying as we learned. He reminded us that we often default into an M.O. that de-energizes people. We look for faults. Leaders must direct energy toward an aligned goal, helping people win so the team can win.

  1. There’s a purifying effect when staff know their leader will confront problems.

Three of our speakers mentioned this reality. Dr. Meria Carstarphan called it being willing to go down “rabbit holes” like Alice in Wonderland. When leaders have the backbone to address tough issues, respect rises and conduct improves on the team.

  1. Resilience naturally surfaces in a strength-based culture.

Dr. Wayne Hammond spoke about the connection between resilience and a healthy culture. Leaders must focus on what’s strong—not what’s wrong. When we do, energy comes. Then, staff and students sense enough support to improve weaknesses.

  1. An environment without stress or tension is stagnant.

Far too often, we perceive stress as negative. Distress is negative—but organizations need a culture that invites stress. Tension is what causes growth and improvement. Kyle Stark said the key is to provide support in the midst of the tension. People are resilient enough to face stress if they feel support from peers and leaders.

  1. The only way to create a great culture is through servant-leadership.

Nearly every one of our presenters called us back to the basics—that great cultures in schools or organizations require the leader to turn the pyramid upside down. We are here to serve; we are here to create servant-leaders. When we do, we all win.

The two-days were packed with insights and ideas. If you attended—and want to share with others what you picked up from our forum, please comment below to encourage other readers. In any case, I’d love to invite you to attend next year on June 22-23, 2017.

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Tenacity vs. Talent

You can’t coach well unless you recognize raw talent. The beginning of any winning season is the recruitment of high caliber athletes to join the team. So we’ve become scientists when it comes to evaluating talent in our sport. For that matter, in any kind of performer—football, violin, tennis, singing, basketball, you name it.

But we often fail to assess and groom the quality of tenacity.

I’d like you to consider a statement: All things being equal, I will take tenacity over talent. There’s nothing more common than someone with talent who doesn’t possess the stamina to develop it. Pause and reflect: This generation of coaches and parents has convinced our young performers to focus on their strengths. That’s a good thing. However, students can have “over-sized gifts.” Their gift is so big they begin to wing it in every other area of their life. Their talent becomes a ticket to stop working hard. Many young athletes today have talent without tenacity.

Personal Stamina vs. Personal Strength

I’d like to challenge coaches, trainers and parents everywhere to shift their conversation with performers. No doubt, identifying one’s personal strength is important. But developing personal stamina is just as important. We’ve not done well in that category, because it’s not glitzy or glamorous. We live in a day of quitting when life gets hard. College transfers are common. Long-term commitment is rare.

Sometimes transferring is appropriate. But, often, it’s a lack of tenacity or stamina that makes young student athletes give up.

American novelist, John Irving, once said of his writing … “More than half, maybe as much as two-thirds of my life as a writer is rewriting. I wouldn’t say I have a talent that’s special. It strikes me that I have an unusual kind of stamina.”


Stamina is king. It’s more common than we realize in athletes like Stephen Curry, or Simone Biles, or Derrick Henry or Serena Williams. But it can be hard for a typical teen or a 20-something to see its importance.

I just read the latest on singer Meghan Trainor. You know her from her 2014 hit song, “All About That Bass.” What most of us don’t know is how many times the 22-year old heard the word “no” from her record label executives in route to a hit song. “I kept coming back and saying, ‘Is this one good?’” she said. In reply, she kept hearing, “Not good enough.” She eventually wrote three albums worth of music to finally get a good song. “I was doing exactly what everyone expected me to do, and I agreed—I could do better.”

When she finally released “All About That Bass” it won her two Grammy nominations and the “Best New Artist of the Year” award that year. Ahhh. It all looks so easy. But Meghan would say—it was all about stamina and tenacity. She’s now glad her mentors pushed her, and her record label told her to try again.

Randy Gravitt said, “Over the last few years it has occurred to me that much of what is accomplished in this world is due more to stamina than it is talent. That is a good thing for most of us.”

Five Simple Steps to Take

I’m sure you know of other steps to take, but try integrating these team habits:

1. Learn to value and reward the process.

Let’s face it. We all naturally value “wins.” Competitors understand the scoreboard. Our players know what we keep score on. We want “W’s” not “L’s.” But, what if we expanded their report card and valued the process, regardless of the game’s outcome. John Wooden knew: What gets rewarded gets repeated. He found ways to talk about and to honor tenacity; he taught the “process” to his UCLA players…and found the “W’s” tended to follow.

2. Practice the “add thirty minutes” principle.

Some of the greatest competitors in history practiced this. Whatever the practice time was, they added 30 minutes more. Michael Jordan continued shooting free throws an extra half hour after his teammates hit the showers after practice. It was a higher standard that gave him greater stamina. Try encouraging your players to set their own standards, beyond what you give them. Discuss what they come up with—and celebrate the second mile.

3. Tell stories of performers who privately displayed stamina.

Players bond over stories. I know a variety of NCAA head coaches who do this; they love helping their team focus on great narratives being lived out each season. They tell the stories of past All-American players who made the Olympic teams. These coaches actually invest time, push “pause” and tell stories. Players gravitate to them. Stories can drive a whole season.

4. Make practice tougher than the game.

Women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance has done this for 37 years at UNC. He’s a “velvet-covered brick” who insures his players know he cares for them—but warns them he’ll make practice harder than games. He rigorously trains his players to acclimate to specific stresses of high-speed, high-stakes, high-risk soccer. When game time comes, they’re tenacious. The stress doesn’t overwhelm them. In practice, he dials the stress way up; in games, he dials it way down.

5. Introduce your team to past stars who illustrate the reward of tenacity.

Sometimes, the only way athletes will learn something is to see it before their own eyes. I’ve watched Coach Mark Richt invite former players, sometimes those who’ve gone “pro” in the sport, to come tell their story, a story that wasn’t so glitzy or sexy. Young athletes hear about grit and stamina from someone they aspire to be like. The fact is: people do what people see.

Again Randy Gravitt reminds us of a simple truth about tenacity. “It is impossible for you to hit a home run every day. But it is possible for you to take a swing. Keep swinging long enough and you are bound to make contact at some point.” Let’s go build some tenacity in the next generation of athletes.

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A clever and pointed obituary was written and published around the world. Evidently, it struck a cord with folks in Europe and Asia as well as America. I join these mourners, who grieve the loss of a once-loved celebrity. Hope you enjoy the memoir below…

Today we mourn the passing of a beloved old friend, Common Sense, who has been with us for many years. No one knows for sure how old he was, since his birth records were long ago lost in bureaucratic red tape. He will be remembered as having cultivated such valuable lessons as:

  • Knowing when to come in out of the rain;
  • Why the early bird gets the worm;
  • Life isn’t always fair;
  • And maybe it was my fault.

Common Sense lived by simple, sound financial policies (don’t spend more than you can earn) and reliable strategies (adults, not children, are in charge).

His health began to deteriorate rapidly when well-intentioned but overbearing regulations were set in place. Reports of a 6-year-old boy charged with sexual harassment for kissing a classmate; teens suspended from school for using mouthwash after lunch; and a teacher fired for reprimanding an unruly student, only worsened his condition.

Common Sense lost ground when parents attacked teachers for doing the job that they themselves had failed to do in disciplining their unruly children. It declined even further when schools were required to get parental consent to administer sun lotion or an aspirin to a student; but could not inform parents when a student became pregnant and wanted to have an abortion.

Common Sense lost the will to live as the churches became businesses; and criminals received better treatment than their victims.

Common Sense took a beating when you couldn’t defend yourself from a burglar in your own home and the burglar could sue you for assault.

Common Sense finally gave up the will to live, after a woman failed to realize that a steaming cup of coffee was hot. She spilled a little in her lap, and was promptly awarded a huge settlement.

Common Sense was preceded in death

  • by his parents, Truth and Trust,
  • by his wife, Discretion,
  • by his daughter, Responsibility,
  • and by his son, Reason.

He is survived by his 5 stepbrothers

  • I Know My Rights
  • I Want It Now
  • Someone Else Is To Blame
  • I’m A Victim
  • Pay Me For Doing Nothing

Not many attended his funeral because so few realized he was gone.

(This piece is the work of Lori Borgman and was first published in the Indianapolis Star on March 15, 1998.)

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Decision-making. It is one of the most paralyzing acts humans must perform. What with all the information available to us today—we can become overwhelmed with the knowledge we accumulate and the options we must wade through.

This is especially true for students.

Today, scientists have located a specific region of the brain called the “amygdala” which is responsible for instinctual reactions—like fear, anger and aggressive behavior. This region of the brain develops early. The “frontal cortex,” however, which is the part of the brain that controls reasoning, helping us to think before we act, develops later in life. Obviously, this part of the brain is still maturing in teens, and even well into adulthood.  All of this means—good decisions are hard for adolescents, because they don’t have all the tools they need to make wise choices.

This can lead to two extremes in students as they choose behaviors.

Two Case Studies

I know two adolescents, both seniors in high school, who represent two extremes when it comes to decision-making. The first one is Trevor (not his real name). He is a typical teen who loves adventure and has parents who resource him to have most everything he wants in life. He plans to go to college, and make a lot of money in his career. Because he has been afforded so much in his K-12 years, Trevor doesn’t think too long before he makes a decision. His past has assured him that if he makes a bad choice, his parents (or some adult) will swoop in and save him. So, he lives by the mantra: “Ready, Fire, Aim.”

The other student is Carly. She’s also seventeen but struggles with the opposite tendency. She overthinks. She weighs out every option, wrestling with every type of outcome and is often paralyzed from even choosing at all. Or, she wants to keep all her options open. She’s afraid of making a poor decision. She doesn’t want to fail. That’s the key. She’s so frightened of making a bad choice, she never enjoys a decision. When she’s forced to make one, she’s full of angst that another one was better. She lives by the mantra: “Ready, aim, aim, aim, aim…”

Do You Know Anyone Like These Two Students?


1. The student who acts impulsively, without thinking of the ramifications.

2. The student who acts too late or fails to act, overwhelmed by the decision.

I bet we all know grown adults who struggle in the same way. Both extremes are brought on by the realties of 21st century living in an industrialized economy, and by the way our brains develop over time. We are wired to choose, but balancing our impulses and our analysis is tough. So how can we help these students?

For the Impulsive Student

We must raise the stakes.

We must work with them to sit down and develop a system for choosing options. Life has been good for them, and thinking ahead has not been a real need—no real dangerous consequences to speak of; no big costs for not planning ahead. So we need to create those realities by raising the stakes. We must help them think about issues—then let them rise and fall with their decisions. Developing a system for choosing options will result in consequences to endure and benefits to enjoy. This is how life works for adults. And its best to learn it when we’re young before the stakes get absolutely too high to learn—without drama.

For the Analytical Student

We must lower the stakes.

We must set them free from the paralyzing fear of making a bad decision. We all know some decisions are more important than others. Let’s equip our students to weigh out the factors involved, but to choose and commit—especially if the stakes are low. This posture of over-thinking issues; the “paralysis of analysis” can prevent a male from committing to a relationship or a female from committing to a major. We need to lower the stakes for kids (whenever possible) and let them know we often learn to make good decisions by making bad decisions. It’s not the end of the world.

It has been said: The world is full of thinkers and doers. The thinkers probably need to do more, and the doers probably need to think more. Consider how you could counsel a student who falls into one of these extremes. Could you help the “thinker” to do more, and help the “doer” to think more?

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A tragic story broke last week about Brock Turner, a former Stanford University swimmer, who was found guilty of sexual assault against a young woman while she was unconscious. The crime was utterly horrendous, and the jury found Turner guilty on three felony counts. However, shortly after the verdict, the light sentence handed down by the judge made things go from bad to even worse. Some called the judgment “unthinkable.”

FILE - This undated booking file photo provided by Santa Clara County Sheriff shows Brock Turner, a former Stanford University swimmer, who received six months in jail for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. With the jail sentence Turner received last week generating widespread publicity, some parents are using the case to talk with their own children about sexual misconduct, binge drinking, personal responsibility and other topics. (Santa Clara County Sheriff via AP, File)

(Santa Clara County Sheriff via AP, File)

I have been following this case closely and observing the reactions seen in those here in the US and around the world. This situation struck a nerve for many, many reasons, primarily about how our culture views and responds to cases of sexual assault.   I have also reflected on what lessons we can glean about the handling of student disciplinary issues, knowing that many of you are responsible for handling difficult cases of student misconduct.   Today, I would like to submit three insights we might want to consider in the aftermath of this heartbreaking case. They surround the messages that were sent by three parties involved.

I offer them to you here and welcome your feedback and additions.

  1. We Must Never Defend Wrong Conduct to Ease the Tension

When Brock Turner’s case went to court, his father was understandably concerned for the future of his son. He was likely dismayed and disturbed by the inexcusable behavior his son was found guilty of that January night in 2015, but knew the negative impact a prison sentence would have on his son’s life forever. Unfortunately, he communicated a message we should never give our children. It’s the message that downplays the gravity of such a crime (or any type of misconduct) in favor of easing the tension and pain it creates.

Brock’s father wrote the judge a letter, saying his son was young. He dismissed the crime as “20-minutes of action”, and suggested that any more than six months in prison would harm him forever. He reminded the judge that his son had a clean record and was a good kid and a star athlete. While the latter may be true, when we say such things, our students receive the message: “Do what you must to relieve the pain; avoid the consequences due you. Find a way to negotiate a lighter sentence.” What a parent should say when they are in this situation is: “Son, I love you and will stand with you every moment of this trial. But what you did was wrong, and we can’t remove the consequences for your actions. You must take responsibility for what you did, and do everything within your power to make restitution.”

  1. We Must Never Communicate It’s Not a Big Deal

As I mentioned above, for many, the sentencing that Judge Aaron Persky gave Brock Turner was appalling. CNN reported “Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge Aaron Persky said on Thursday that Turner’s age and lack of criminal history made him feel that imposing a six-month jail sentence with probation was appropriate. Turner also has to register as a sex offender. ‘A prison sentence would have a severe impact on him,’ Persky said. ‘I think he will not be a danger to others.’”

This sentence was seen as such a miscarriage of justice that a million people signed a petition to remove the judge from his position. I think we have all had such a negative reaction to the sentence because it sends a fundamentally wrong message to the perpetrator. It basically says: “What you did isn’t a big deal. Now let me slap your hand and you can get on your way. Just be careful in the future.”

The truth is, the initial sentence Judge Persky gave Brock allowed him to be out of jail in three months with good behavior. This screams the wrong message to today’s emerging generation. While I agree that we must consider restoration possibilities as part of a long-term plan for those found guilty of crimes, we must not remove appropriate retribution. The two are not mutually exclusive.

  1. We Must Never Forget the Power of Ownership

When the victim in this case heard the verdict, she was understandably devastated by the injustice. At Turner’s sentencing, she read a twelve-page letter to her attacker. In words filled with both anguish and anger, she described what happened to her during and after her attack. Through pointed and emotional language, she reminded the judge that Turner is an adult who should be held responsible and penalized for his actions.

One portion of her letter struck me in particular. She said, “I thought there’s no way this is going to trial…He’s going to settle, formally apologize and we will both move on. Instead, I was told he hired a powerful attorney…to show that this sexual assault was in fact a misunderstanding. That he was going to go to any length to convince the world he had simply been confused.” Did you catch what she said? She initially felt that if he would fully acknowledge what he had done and formally apologized, there could be a way for them both to move on. In other words, she wanted him to own what he had done and not displace the blame to anyone or anything else.

I cannot underscore how vital this stance is when a wrong action has been done to another person. Is there genuine remorse and are there signs the person who acted wrongly owns his or her actions?

Although you and I may never be faced with a situation as atrocious as this case, we may have to lead young people, or even our children, who have acted in a way that requires discipline. We need to model for them responses that demonstrate our firm resolve to never minimize actions. We must not aid them in attempting to push blame to others. And we must teach the power of ownership as the first step in making restitution. Anything less ultimately damages those we lead.

Talk to Me…

I welcome your additions to my observations. I encourage staff and students to discuss this issue. Is there a balance to strike between the discipline we must offer to students and the possibilities that open up when they fully own their behavior?