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Four Balancing Acts to Perform on a New Generation of Kids

I took my family to see the movie, “The Greatest Showman” the day before Christmas. They loved it. It’s the story of the entrepreneur P. T. Barnum, who launched what became Barnum and Bailey’s Traveling Circus.

The film showed the development of the different acts, which eventually included not only animals, but trapeze artists, jugglers and tightrope walkers. (I read up on this following the movie). Have you seen any of these acts? They all involve balancing acts, with ropes, balls or swings. You can’t master a trapeze or tight rope unless you learn to balance the weight of competing forces.

Our Balancing Acts Today

Today, we have a whole new balancing act to perform with students and young adults. If you’re a parent, you must feel this challenge daily with your kids who are growing up in a different era than the one you did. Teachers, coaches and employers have all remarked to me how they wrestle with knowing how to lead today’s kids in a world where technology seduces them to think they “know it all.” Let me offer four huge balancing acts we must perform in order to lead students well:

1. Leading Your Kids vs. Listening to Your Kids

A growing number of parents tell me they falter between offering clear direction to their kids and letting them determine what steps to take. The truth is—we must both lead and listen to our young. There will be times that kids actually know more about a subject than we do, thanks to their research on-line. I notice students fact-checking me when I speak on a platform. It’s a natural reflex today. So, I recommend you determine a set of timeless principles you will embrace to lead your classroom, team or family. Then, be open to listening to your students in order to translate the principles into practical, relevant applications for them. Listening is difficult—especially if you feel they don’t listen to you—but I believe it’s how we earn our right to be heard and followed. The days are gone where children are to be “seen and not heard.” I believe kids have a natural need to be heard. Even when their ideas or notions seem ridiculous, listen. The exchange lubricates your relationship. It communicates that you respect them; that you’re teachable and you want what’s best. In our office, I tell our team: The best idea wins, regardless if it comes from me, or our youngest intern. It energizes our culture and makes everyone feel valued. Be sure, however, that you never let go of your compass, as you take the journey. You should know the direction to take, while they may choose how to travel.

2. Being Both Supportive and Demanding

This comes from research out of U.C. Berkeley. Our young need adult leaders who demonstrate support, while at the same time make appropriate demands on them. It’s a tender balance. Kids perform at their best when they feel their parent or teacher really understands them and is responsive to their needs. Yet, they need us to believe in them enough to require their very best effort. I believe we can display both of them at the same time. These two important qualities are combined when we offer feedback on a chore around the house or a project at school by saying: “I’m giving you these comments because I have high expectations of you, and I know you can reach them.” As I interface with students every day, I must ask myself: Do they need me to be supportive now, or demanding? Or, do they need both in the moment? It’s a balancing act.

3. Playing the Alpha Dog vs. the Watch Dog

Due to the complex and uncertain world we live in today, adult leaders must play two roles well. We must offer clear and compelling leadership, which gives them a sense of security and direction. When we do this, we play offense and inspire them to emulate the “alpha dog” in us as they grow in their leadership skills. At the same time, there are moments we must play defense, and become a “watch dog.” We must guard their time on social media (especially if they’re minors) and monitor what they’re consuming. We must watch who they spend time with, especially if they’re prone to be followers of the peers they’re hanging around. They may push back on both of these roles—feeling we are too directive or too protective. Both, however, are essential leadership roles in today’s world. We can be tempted to stray from both alpha dog and watch dog qualities because they seem so controlling—but our kids need us to balance both sides of the spectrum.

4. Giving Them Autonomy and Responsibility

I’ve believed for years that offering these two experiences is what fosters mature young leaders. It’s what launches them into adulthood well. Whenever a teen receives autonomy (meaning they are free to go where they want, spend money and act however they choose), they must also receive an equal amount of responsibility (meaning they’re accountable for the benefits or consequences of their choices.) When a student enjoys autonomy without responsibility, he or she is likely to become an entitled brat—pardon my bluntness. And it’s our fault because we did not distribute a balanced diet of both of these elements. If my children borrow the family car, they must pay for the fuel. If they enjoy the freedom of living at home after graduating from college, they should make some sort of payment—from their income or in household duties. This is how life works and how young leaders are developed.

Here’s to you walking the four tightropes well in the circus you lead.


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