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Growing Leaders Blog

on Leading the Next Generation


The Anti-Leadership Vaccine


The late John Gardener, former Secretary of Housing, Education and Welfare was a man ahead of his time. He said years ago that one of his chief concerns about the educational system in America is that it’s unwittingly injecting students with an “anti-leadership vaccine.” It sort of paints a picture, doesn’t it?  He saw the direction education was going, making every kid strive toward not only equality but sameness. No distinction. No doubt, equality for all people is good; but kids are not the same and every one of them needs a caring leader to reveal their distinctions.

Let me provide one example. Our “nurture impulse” has driven many parents and teachers to demand a “zero tolerance” policy in school, not just for bullying, but for any sort of aggression or harassment. Most scholars agree that bullying can have serious effects and it needs to be stopped. However, they’ve balked on the “zero tolerance” policy. A task force from the American Psychological Association warns that many incidents involve poor judgment, and lapses of judgment are developmentally normative, the result of neurological immaturity. This is just a fancy way of saying that kids make mistakes because they’re still young, says author Po Bronson. The task force noted that inflicting automatic, severe punishments was causing an erosion of trust in authority figures. The chair of the task force explained, “The kids become fearful—not of other kids, but of the rules—because they think they’ll break them by accident.”

We’ve somehow come to believe that what kids need are more policies and rules to keep them straight. I believe they need less rules and more relationship with adult leaders who mentor them. Policies can never replace people who lead well.

The fact is, John Gardener is still relevant today. Our education institutions continue to give kids an “Anti-Leadership Vaccine.” They’re conditioned to blend in, not stand out; to go with the flow, not question the status quo; to simply not rock the boat. Consider what real leaders do and how it goes against the grain of our culture:

  1. Leaders must go first
    This flies in the face of teen’s tendency to gain consensus on Facebook
  2. Leaders must empathize
    Media today conditions them to critique contestants and dispose of them.
  3. Leaders must take a stand (sometimes alone)
    Our world celebrates tolerance, pluralism and being politically correct.
  4. Leaders must connect, persuade and motivate
    Technology actually diminishes our emotional intelligence and people skills.
  5. Leaders must confront or correct
    This is disdainful to most students; no one wants to have hard discussions.
  6. Leaders must assume responsibility
    Few students want to bear this “weight” today. Culture tells them to avoid it.

It’s time we remove the vaccine from our policies. I realize it will require work; it will force us to change the cultures we’ve created, and the policies we’ve written, but they’re not helping kids become healthy leaders. John Gardener even felt our schools need this kind of examination. He wrote, “We exist for our benefit, the primary benefit of the teachers and administration not the benefit of the students.”

It’s time we consider the long-term ramifications of our leadership. Is it about us, or about equipping a new generation to surpass us?

1 Comment

  1. Charles House on August 27, 2014 at 12:38 pm

    I came across Dr. Elmore’s essay while doing an online search for John Gardner’s Carnegie Corporation report titled, The Anti-Leadership Vaccine. I read it shortly after it was published. I believe that Gardner’s declaration, that Dr. Elmore summarizes so crisply proves even more powerfully prophetic now than when it was first issued. The distressing fact is that the virus is so embedded in the education culture that the prospects for change are discouraging. I seem to remember that, decades ago there was a study at Teachers College, Columbia, involving Rorschach tests being given to a population of teacher education students and a control group from the general university student body. The responses were congruent between the two groups, with one exception: with significant frequency, the teacher preparation students asked the examiner if t,heir response was what they were supposed or expected to see. The indication, confirmed by my own observations over the years, is that with rare exceptions teachers seek conformity and avoid the confrontations that go along with leadership.

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The Anti-Leadership Vaccine