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Leadership Lessons from Three Heroes at a School Shooting

Can you believe it?  Another school shooting took place last week. Although youth violence has gone down over the last three decades, we still hear of too many tragic episodes like the one that took place just 20 minutes from my former home, in Highlands Ranch, Colorado (just south of Denver).

The school is just eight miles away from Columbine High School.

According to an ABC report, “The two suspects entered the campus and ‘got deep inside the school’ before opening fire in two separate classrooms in the high school, Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock said. First responders arrived on the scene and took the suspects into custody following a brief struggle.” They were not injured.

Sadly, nine students were shot, one of them fatally. “The deceased STEM School Highlands Ranch student has been identified by his family as 18-year-old Kendrick Castillo. His father, John Castillo, says his son was a hero and he wants people to know what a great kid he was.”

After studying the story, I have to agree. Kendrick is a hero. In fact, three teens were: Joshua, Brandon and Kendrick. Reports say these students rushed the shooters in an attempt to thwart their plan. I’d like to focus on the heroism of these students who took action and see what we can learn about natural leaders.

David Zalubowski / AP

Four Indicators of a Natural and Healthy Leader

Being a hero and being a leader are not synonymous, but they have very similar characteristics. They’re not “twins,” but they are “cousins.” Here are some traits I spotted in these adolescents who were true first responders. They are indicators of potential leadership you can look for in students:

1.  They put sacrifice ahead of survival—in light of a bigger picture.

Kendrick’s father said this kind of service was typical of his son. When in a frightening situation—one that made fellow students run from the gunfire—these three teens ran toward the shooters. Seeing the potential loss of human life, they sacrificed their own safety. In other words, because they saw the big picture they were moved to take a big action. Vision drove them to face fear instead of seek survival, a natural human instinct.

When I attempt to spot potential leaders, I look for this trait. Are they prone to see beyond themselves; to sacrifice their own interests for the sake of others?

Do they put the larger goal above a personal goal?

2. They took initiative without instruction—on behalf of other people.

Police responded to the STEM School Highlands Ranch call within minutes, yet witnesses say the students who immediately responded likely saved this incident from being a worse tragedy. They ran toward the shooters and attempted to take them down. It’s this kind of initiative that is symptomatic of leadership. They didn’t wait for someone to give permission; they didn’t need an adult to empower them. They saw what needed to be done and they pursued it instantly.

When I try to spot leadership in teens, initiative is one of the first qualities I look for, even when the step they take isn’t strategic or brilliant. Leaders have a bias for action and for service. They go first, while others follow.

3. They valued justice in the face of inequity—to protect those in danger.

As I listened to interviews, I noticed all three of these young men had a strong sense of justice. Joshua acknowledged that the school shooting drills students had experienced taught them to run away from the gunshots. However, he said that when he witnessed the dangerous circumstances expanding, he found himself running to the shooters. What drove him? From his testimonial, I believe it was his sense of justice for those who were vulnerable.

This is another quality I seek out when looking for a leader. When a student has a sense of justice, his motivation comes from within, and doesn’t require an external source to move him. It’s passion instead of exterior stimuli or reward.

4. They were prepared for a problem—to circumvent potential damage.

Kendrick’s father said in an interview that his son consistently readied himself for potential problems; he thought ahead and prepared himself for what he’d do, almost like a rehearsal before a show. This made decisions clear and swifter to implement. Leaders are always ready to solve problems and serve people. They embodied the scout motto, “Be Prepared,” which means you’re always in a state of readiness, in mind and body, to do your duty. For these three teens, this is more than a motto for program. Apparently, it was a lifestyle.

At their root, leaders are natural problem solvers, regardless of how many people follow them. In fact, problem-solving is one of the fastest ways to gain influence. Followers naturally surface. Usually, it’s the preparation for a problem that sets them apart.

Do you know any students who model these traits?

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Leadership Lessons from Three Heroes at a School Shooting