The day that inspired Walt Disney to create a theme park has been told over and over again. Walt was spending that day with his two young daughters at an amusement park. At one point, his girls wanted to ride the merry go round. As Walt lifted Diane and Sharon onto the ride, he noticed how shabby the horses looked. They were old, stained and the paint was chipped. Once the ride started, he also noticed that only the horses on the outside went up and down. The ones on the inside remained still. He felt this was wrong—every kid should have a horse that moves. Walt Disney scribbled a note to himself as he watched his girls ride: One day, I plan to build a park with a merry-go-round. There will be no chipped paint; all horses will go up and down.
Truth be told, Walt Disney couldn’t stand “mediocre.” His belief that an average amusement park wasn’t good enough led to the construction of Disneyland in 1955. He invented the “theme park,” and it was marked by excellence.
This story vividly illustrates a truth each of us should recognize about leadership development: the appropriate role of negative emotions. On the surface, they appear to be attitudes of judgment, anger or discontentment. In fact, you may assume that a student with these reactions is just one more example of self-absorption or entitlement, and that could be true. But I believe that one early predictor of leadership tendencies in young people is the inward trait of dissatisfaction. There’s a good chance that when they’re seeing what’s wrong with something, they’re actually seeing what could be better. And when we help them identify that negative emotion and channel it into positive action, we have begun to develop a leader.
An Internal Signal
Consider this: the first signal of leadership may not be external… but internal. Before a student displays talent, vision, communication or planning skills, you might just see discontentment residing inside her. It occurs when an emerging leader spots a reality he deems wrong, when she spots something unjust, mediocre or evil that needs to be changed. The feeling inside the young person looks negative, not positive.
In fact, pure leadership often shows up in this way: not through a position but in a disposition that displays itself in raw emotion like anger, grief, disappointment or sadness. We must help them transform that bad attitude into a good action.
Young Martin Luther King, Jr. couldn’t sit still as he watched racial inequality during the 1950s and 60s. The injustice pushed him to speak, to march, to organize sit-ins and demonstrations and meetings and boycotts. He admitted to being angry early on, but his response was very intentional, guided by his study of Mahatma Gandhi and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. He decided the movement must be peaceful and meaningful, impacting southern cities where it counted: their budgets.
Contrast this with the reaction following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. Many protestors began looting and burning stores, often owned by other minorities. It’s understandable why many were angry or confused, but it’s unfortunate that so many weren’t able to translate their negative emotions into positive action. They did not respond, they reacted, and as a result, their negative attitudes gave birth to negative actions.
The point is this: in order to create effective change, good leaders know that moral conviction must lead to a positive response. In other words, a negative reality must foster the belief that something positive not only could be done, but should be done.
How Can We Help Them?
This is where we come in. Most young people don’t have enough experience and very little hindsight or wisdom to know the best way to respond to a negative emotion. Often, they react blindly or do nothing at all.
When you see a student projecting a negative attitude toward a current reality, try walking through these steps:
- Meet with them and get them to articulate what they feel.
- Help them identify the “wrong” they believe needs to be corrected.
- Encourage them to research the issue more deeply to understand it.
- Talk over a variety of options they could take in response.
- Clarify what the long-term ramifications would be for each response.
- Guide them to choose the most productive response, even if they act alone.
- Finally, work with them to turn their discontentment into a duty.
Many leaders throughout history didn’t begin with a title. They simply could not remain silent or still when seeing injustice, mediocrity, or lack of progress. This dissatisfaction started as an internal “burden” and later became a “firestorm” inside of them. Great leaders identify and are moved by this discontentment.
- They must turn a wrong into a right.
- Their journey doesn’t start with a badge but with a burden.
- It’s not about a position at first, but a disposition—that all looks wrong.
- They must turn their sense of dissatisfaction into a sense of duty.
The question they must answer, “What will I do with my discontentment?” The question we must answer is, “How will we help them lead the way?”
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