Leadership is an Experience, Not a “How To” (Part 1)

As I sit and ponder what good leadership is, I can’t help but to think about the following passage on leadership from Lao-Tzu (600 B.C.)

A leader is best

when people barely know that

he exists,

not so good when people obey and

acclaim him,

worst when they despise him.

“Fail to honor people,

they fail to honor you;”

But of a good leader, who talks little,

when his work is done,

his aim fulfilled,

they will say,

“We did this ourselves.”

What does it mean to teach a child leadership? What are the most important aspects of leadership I can model for a child? What is the purpose of leadership? How can I facilitate the space, so youth can become humble, compassionate, loving, and perceptive leaders? These are questions I continuously asked and meditated on as I worked in a youth leadership program this past summer in Costa Rica. Sure there are your top seven or ten packaged qualities to being an effective leader like  honesty, communication, commitment, positive attitude, ability to delegate, confidence, etc. But these qualities are only as strong as the connection we have with essence of our  being.  Youth are so impressionable and vulnerable, and when I work alongside of them, I have a deep understanding of the great responsibility that I hold as I am guiding them and helping them shape the way they make meaning, and the ideas and perspectives that result from that. They come with their own values and belief systems, and though I don’t want to impose my views and values on them, I do want to instill in them the importance of leadership as a way to build community, expose light where there is darkness and create the kind of love that connects all that seems separate and fragmented.  As I thought about all the things I wanted to teach them in such a finite time, I decided to draw as a way to discover the guidance of my heart.  There were four images that came to mind as I selected the aspects I felt in my heart would make the greatest impact, not only in how they lead, but how they choose to live their lives.


No one person can solve the challenges and obstacles that we face as a community. To believe that, is arrogant and supremest. We have more experts than ever, and yet the problems we are facing seem insurmountable and no-0ne seems to have a solution to any of it. Each one of us has a unique life and a unique story, no one else has experienced the same thing.  While there is wisdom and lessons we share collectively, there are also things that we know that are particular to our individual life and circumstances.  We bring to the whole what no one else can bring, because each of us has an infinite number of decisions and reactions we can have at any given moment.  Each of us knows what no one else knows because no one has lived our lives. We are creators of our own experiences and therefore hold the power to change and recreate our lives, and in turn transform the whole when we each participate.

Similar to how our individual consciousness is connected to our collective consciousness, trees have a particular way of connecting and sharing knowledge with each other.  Even they understand that it takes each individual tree to create a thriving forest.  Scientists have discovered and underground web of fungi that allows trees to share information and resources with each other.  These networks are what allow trees to resist pathogens and adapt to even the most harsh conditions of survival.  Jimi Hendrix once said, “Knowledge speaks, but wisdom listens.”  In other words, your deep telling feeds my deep knowing.  Being in the presence of others whose experiences are vastly different from ours causes us to see the context of our lives in a new perspective and chip away at the limiting beliefs and ideas we have gained up to that point.  This is why 1+1 ≠ 2. Instead  1 + 1 = ∞.  As we turn more to each other and to nature to learn, the possibilities of what can be created from that encounter are infinite.  Neither objects nor people are independently existing entities.  This is why everyone and everything has a leading role to play in the transformation of our world.  To lead, we do not need to know the answers.  “We must only convene the circles, articulate the questions, frame the conversation, and direct attention to the issues that matter.” (Jan Phillips)

Like so many of us when we first begin to serve, the students in the program had an incomplete perspective on why they were in Costa Rica; many felt they were there to make a difference in the lives of the less privileged and to “help” those who otherwise would be destitute.  And like so many of us, the students realized soon enough that the gifts they’d receive from the people had a far more profound impact in the students’ lives than the students could ever have on those they were there to help.  It was especially powerful when the students began to see that many of the issues in Costa Rica were outgrowths of the development and tourism they perceived to be progress for the country and its people.  On the one hand, we were defining our role as service, and on the other, all we were doing was “alleviating some of the damage done by the world of affluence and achievement.”  I remember clearly the first time one of my students engaged in a conversation with an elder who had lived in Coco, the town we were staying in, since 1940.  The question she asked him was, “How do you make your living.”  That was a loaded question, because what he talked about next left us all questioning our role there and our participation in the damage.

He went on to tell his story.  Talked about a time when he was able to go grow rice in the land behind his home and fish the open seas to provide sustenance for his family.  He talked about a time when there was access to the land and abundance from it.  He could no longer  fishing to provide for his family.  Much of the area was being over fished due to commercial fishing, sports fishing, and the demand of the tourism industry.  While ecotourism and environmental protection laws were being created to safeguard the land, these laws were also making it very difficult for people who had made their livelihood from fishing to continue to do so, for they were restricted to when and where they could fish, sometimes forcing them to travel four hours to unrestricted fishing areas.   He explained that fisherman that were simply looking to catch fish to feed their family were being arrested like criminals, while there was little oversight for the people that were exploiting the land.  He was forced to take a job at a hotel as a dishwasher earning $2 per hour because, “we are starving as fisherman.”

His was a story that needed to be heard, because we had an incomplete picture of Costa Rica.  The issues are complicated, and no individual knows the answer, because each set of problems effects people in different ways.  In sharing our stories and listening to people’s stories, we are able to create a more complete picture of all the moving parts and how individual interests shape the conflicts and power structures.  If we can learn to “see” the individual within the context of the whole, and nothing is more powerful than a person’s story, then we have a greater chance of creating models of existence that benefit all.  Large groups of people are smarter than an elite few; no matter how much expertise or intelligence that elite few may have, it is the realization that wisdom is dispersed among all of us, that will ultimately allow us to discover just and dignified solutions.  While the students did not come up with solutions for the problems facing the people of Costa Rica, they walked away understanding that they are part of a greater whole and that change comes when we are willing to: (1) see others as co-creators of solutions and (2) analyze how our own individual interests and actions can play a huge role in the systemic oppression of others.  “Real leaders are those who can evoke the wisdom of others, summon them to find their voices, and create a forum for them to be heard.” (Jan Phillips)


For a seed to grow, to attempt to fully fulfill its purpose and magnificence, it must have courage to come out of its shell; to be vulnerable to the environment that is supposed to nurture it and help it thrive. Yes, that means that sometimes the very things that are suppose to protect us and keep us safe will sometimes hurt us and cause us pain, and yet, the pain of never fulfilling our purpose would be much more destructive.  In that same manner, as we are developing, we must have the courage to push into and through what we perceive to be our limitations, the way a seed pushes through its shell, because it is then that we learn the capacity that we have to reach and expand into the lives we are meant to have.  For a seed to grow, it must have the courage to take a risk and come out of the small world that encases it, into a greater world that will embrace it.  The germinating stage is the stage with the most risks for it is when the seed is the most susceptible to its environment.  Too much water and the sprouting seed will drown, yet too little will not allow it to move nutrients from the soil to the stem, prohibiting its growth.  You see everything aiding this seed to flourish must be in harmony and balance.  However, even in the absence of balance, the seed will try, as it must, to be.

I wanted the kids to see that courage isn’t the lack of fear, but the ability to move through something that frightens us. To have the courage to follow our hearts the way a seed follows its DNA, even if it means the possibility of opening themselves up to painful experiences, so that they can achieve an incredible life.  The students and I were already doing that by the mere fact that both, they and I, had left our families to immerse ourselves in a new culture and experience.  They had already committed to their growth, the way enzymes contained within each seed give it enough juice to push the sprouting plant through the darkness of the soil, to the surface.  But I wanted them to reflect at every stage of their experience and be conscientious of how they were moving through and beyond fear.  Sometimes that meant discussing why they were hesitant to take a risk, or why they felt hurt by what another student said, or why they didn’t share their thoughts and feelings about something.  Other times that meant sharing my own doubts and fears with them, or sharing struggles that I was facing and allowing them to participate with me in finding solutions to those struggles.  It also meant letting them see me stumble and make mistakes and reflect on my learning and growing with them, which in turn made them comfortable enough to take more risks.


The service learning project for the first group of students I mentored was painting one of the elementary schools.  The purpose of the project itself was campus beautification, but the learning took place when the students engaged with the local students, and when they reflected on the process of working as a team and painting the school.  From the get go, the students felt their project was inferior to the other students’ projects because they felt that painting was not as glamorous as the hard physical labor the other students were engaged in; projects such as making a sports court that required digging trenches and mixing cement, or building a new storage space for the school.  I imagine the students also felt peer-pressure from the other students about how “easy” they had it.  Most of the students in my group, however, pretty quickly learned that painting a whole school was no easy task.  Sanding by hand  and scraping chipping paint was very arduous work and though it was a mundane task, if done incorrectly, would later result in the new paint peeling off the walls, especially in the humid climate of Costa Rica.  Students also learned that painting took a lot of attention to detail and patience for it was a process, and not just a task.

Each day there was a student assigned to “leader of the day” and that student was responsible for overseeing set-up and clean-up, setting team goals for the day based on the progress from the day before, coordinating project tasks, checking-in with group members throughout the day, and debriefing with the group at the end of the day, among other things.  Several of the group members, especially after serving as “leader of the day” began to notice that a couple of the team members were spending a lot of time socializing with each other and walking around, and it began to affect the morale of the other members who had already started to feel positive about the service learning project.  While I had spoken to both of the students about the group’s concerns, I also decided that it was a great opportunity for me to model how a leader could use courage and vulnerability to create a stronger community.  I decided to sit down with the group and explain that I was at a cross roads with how to proceed.  I explained that I wanted to find a way to motivate the students to be fully present and participate in the project and at the same time hold them accountable to their responsibility.  I told them that as a teacher, if a student didn’t do his or her project the consequences would be a failing grade, and in the adult world the consequences would be loosing employment – both very punitive ways of dealing with human beings that ultimately serves more to marginalize and discourage rather than uplift.  In fact, the challenge that was being created was an opportunity for me to learn how to work with people rather than dispose of them.  All this I shared with the students.  What I was really saying was, “I don’t know, and I need your help to figure it out.”  I was able to engage them in sincere and honest conversation by putting myself out there first.  Not only were we able to analyze more deeply the roots of their resistance to the project, but also create accountability by allowing everyone to see that each person’s efforts mattered to the group and to the larger community we were working in. Accountability comes from knowing the profound impact we have on those who are counting on us.


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