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How to Lead an Outlier Student

A statement made centuries ago may just enlighten us today.

“If he continues to play that way, the organ will be ruined in two years, or most of the congregation will be deaf.” The statement was made by the employer of young Johann Sebastian Bach.

photo credit: via photopin cc

photo credit: via photopin cc

Fortunately, the man was dead wrong about the future of this kid organ player. Bach became a musical leader; he revolutionized how music was perceived by Europeans. Bach simply heard something few others could hear and appreciate at the time. This is true about many emerging leaders. He was, to use a cliché, ahead of his time. He was an “outlier.” Quite often, innovation begins when a new generation swims upstream against the “current” of the current world. They grind away at the patience, the tolerance and the empathy of teachers or leaders. They’re not content to merely fit in. They want to be “thermostats,” not merely “thermometers” reflecting the climate around them. This makes life hard for their educators and parents.

Granted, Bach may have been a lousy organ player in his youth. History tells us he challenged his tutors. Some felt he was a pest. It’s very possible his employer was right—had he continued to play the way he did, he would have ruined the organ. However, if this is true, I wonder if it was simply a case of the proverbial late bloomer. He obviously came into his own at some point, and folks saw it.  Perhaps he was not unlike other late bloomers:

  • It’s common knowledge Michael Jordan got cut from his high school basketball team.
  • As a youngster, Walt Disney got fired by a newspaper because he had no good ideas.
  • Albert Einstein couldn’t speak until he was 4 years old. He didn’t read till he was 7.
  • According to Beethoven’s music teacher: “As a composer, he is hopeless.”
  • As a boy, Thomas Edison’s teachers said he was so stupid, he’d never learn anything.
  • Missile and satellite expert Dr. Wernher Von Braun flunked math as a teenager.
  • A coach said Vince Lombardi, “…has minimal football knowledge. Lacks motivation.”
  • Sir Isaac Newton finished next to the lowest in his class and failed geometry.
  • Eighteen publishers rejected Richard Bach’s bestseller: Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
  • After Fred Astaire’s first screen test, the MGM director said, “Can’t act. Slightly bald. Can dance a little.” (Astaire hung that memo in his Beverly Hills home.)

My point is this. Many—perhaps most—influential thought leaders got off to a slow start. For some, they were simply ahead of their time, but were perceived as slow or simply strange and irrelevant. But they weren’t at all.  What we must do is mold that young person’s perception. We play a huge role in helping them identify their perceived weakness and help them turn it around as a strength.

So how do we lead them?

When you spot irreverence or outlier behavior, pause and consider it. Is it possible this behavior could be transformed into something redemptive? Could this outlier student simply have a gift they don’t yet know how to manage? Can you imagine a way they could monetize it one day? What would happen if you referred to the trait in a positive light and opened their eyes to it? Recently, a woman mentioned to me how a faculty member pulled her aside for talking too much as a young teen. She had done this six times in the same day. But instead of the teacher screaming at her, she said: “You talk a lot. You have the gift of gab. You’ll make a great speaker or writer someday.”  Those words stuck to this young girl. Instead of following in her brothers and sister’s footsteps, she followed her teacher’s words. She told me it was the first time she could envision doing something positive with what her teachers and parents had always treated as negative. Today, she reminded me that her teacher’s words had come true. She now spoke full time and had authored three books. Her words now pay her bills.

Another young man consistently got called into the principal’s office for misbehavior. Once in the office, he would spin the story to make himself look innocent. The principal issued the proper discipline, but pulled him aside and noted, “You have an uncanny way of spinning stories to highlight a certain side. You would make a great attorney one day.” Today, that young man is practicing law in Virginia. His principal found a perceived weakness and helped him see it as a strength. They weren’t late bloomers at all. They just were practicing their strength in a destructive manner. Someone needed to help them perceive themselves correctly.

There’s an old phrase that says, “Don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched.” This means we shouldn’t assume we have something in hand until we actually do. I believe this phrase can be interpreted both ways. We cannot assume we know how a student will turn out (bad or good) by their display early on. Early bloomers may fizzle later, and late bloomers may be the ones who will surprise us all and transform the world.

Is there a student under your nose right now that drives you crazy?  Could it be they’ll one day be a leader? Could their eccentricity really be a leading edge in the future?  Can their weakness really be a strength turned inside out?  What could happen if they saw themselves differently?

May I challenge you to be the first to see them differently. Then, spend time with them in casual, informal conversation. Tell them what you see. Find out what fuels their passion. Help them see themselves as a leader, and see if this doesn’t positively impact their self-esteem.  You might just have the next Bach, Beethoven, Jordan, or Einstein on your hands.

Who knows?

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  1. Ben on March 12, 2014 at 10:32 am

    Great post, but I have to clear up one myth: Michael Jordan wasn’t cut from his high school basketball team, he simply did not make the varsity team as a sophomore. Check out for the story.

    • Tim Elmore on March 14, 2014 at 10:11 am

      Thank you Ben. I’m hopeful you and others don’t miss the point of how to lead outlier students.

  2. Steve Barnaby on September 12, 2014 at 4:50 pm

    Tim, valuable insight you shared in this blog. I was that outlier of which you write. But two high school teachers demonstrated patience and caring by encouraging me and highlighting positive attributes that could make a difference. They certainly didn’t have to take the time. I attended an urban high school of 4,000 students. For most teachers (and the asst. principal) I was just another troublemaker. To those two teachers, I was an individual of value. As an adult, I ran into one of this teachers at a social function. I thanked him profusely. He simply replied: ” if you mean it, pass it on. Mentor someone who needs encouragement and direction.” I have spent a lifetime living up to at challenge.

    • Tim Elmore on September 16, 2014 at 2:05 pm

      Thank you for sharing, Steve. It is incredible how one or two people can change the course of someone’s life. Many famous leaders share a similar story to yours.

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How to Lead an Outlier Student