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Should We Teach Our Students to Pursue Leadership Positions?

I founded Growing Leaders in 2003. From the beginning, our mission has been to partner with schools and organizations to help them develop emerging leaders. Today, I have a confession to make that might sound surprising.

For most students, leadership should not be a pursuit. I don’t believe we should send the message that everyone should chase a position of power and prestige. Instead, leadership should be a by-product, not a pursuit. We must first teach our students to pursue service, and watch their influence and leadership naturally expand as a result. In fact, except for those young people who are “gifted” leaders, (those with a take-charge temperament that genuinely find it natural to organize or direct others), service should be the target. Why? Our motives can easily become warped when we pursue power—we begin doing things for the wrong reasons. When we choose to serve, everything else seems to fall into place.

Let me remind you of a classic story that illustrates this truth.

In the late 19th century, a poor boy went door to door in neighborhoods trying to sell whatever he could to make money and pay for his upcoming school tuition. At one point, he only had a dime left in his pocket and he was very hungry. He decided to ask the people in the next house for some food, instead of trying to sell something.

Upon knocking on the door, an attractive young woman answered. She was so beautiful the boy lost his nerve to ask for a meal and simply asked for a cup of water. The woman felt he must need more than water, so she brought him a tall glass of milk. “Thank you,” the boy said. “How much do I owe you?”

You don’t owe me anything,” she replied. “Mother has taught us to never accept payment for a kindness.” He smiled and thanked her again. As he walked away, the boy, Howard Kelly, never forgot that encounter. She gave him more than he asked for, wanting nothing in return. Although he’d considered quitting his work, his hope grew, and he later chose to go on to college, determined to serve others.

Years later, the young woman became critically ill. She was taken to a big city to get treatment. Specialists were called in to study this woman’s rare disease. Howard Kelly, now a medical surgeon, was called to help as well. When he heard the name of the town this woman was from, he remembered the door-to-door sales he’d done as a boy in that town and wondered if he might have met this person.

DR. HOWARD A. KELLY
(Feb. 20, 1858 to Jan. 12, 1943)
Surgeon, Professor & Writer

Out of curiosity, he visited the patient’s ward and recognized the woman at once. He returned to his consultation room resolute to study her case and do his best to save her life. In fact, from that day on, he gave special attention to the case. It became central to his work.

After investing long weeks on the disease, Dr. Kelly succeeded in coming up with a cure for this lady, who was eternally grateful. He asked the hospital authority to pass the final bill to him for approval before sending it to the woman. When the invoice was eventually sent to her, she feared opening it knowing it would take the rest of her life to pay it off. After an hour, she finally gathered the courage to open it, and found some words scribbled over the top of the bill:

“Paid in full with one glass of milk.”
 Dr. Howard Kelly

Years earlier, this woman had simply chosen to solve a problem and serve a person. In response, Howard Kelly simply chose to solve a problem and serve a person. His life’s goal was to “pay it forward” and along the way, he paid her back. In time, his influence grew naturally, without his even trying to make it happen.

This is the course I believe we should encourage students to take. Just serve and solve. It will feel less intimidating to most of them, and it will ensure their motivation is about adding value—not gaining power. Let’s inspire them to look for problems to solve and people to serve. In the end, many of them will be asked to be leaders.


New Podcast Episode of Leading the Next Generation:
Six Secrets of Successful Mentors

In this episode, Andrew McPeak and I discuss the importance of mentorship, including why it’s essential and how to effectively do it. We describe six metaphors that portray what it looks like to be a life giving mentor. These six principles are the foundation that you need in order to successfully invest your life in mentoring someone else.

Listen Here

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Should We Teach Our Students to Pursue Leadership Positions?