As badly as some people might want to believe it, no one is a born leader.
When I was little, I really loved sharks (I still do). I spent all my free time watching nature documentaries, dreaming of the day I would get to tag sharks and dive in shark cages. One day my dad gave me a poster with these ominous shark fins cutting through the water with storm clouds hovering overhead. On the bottom, there was a text that said,
“INTIMIDATION: Loyalty is gained through hard work and perseverance, but is gained faster through intimidation.”
I didn’t understand what that meant. I did however, understand that sharks were cool, and I hung it right over my bed. My dad thought that was pretty funny. I didn’t really understand the humor until very recently.
When I first got to high school, I looked at the coolest people at my school and saw they seemed not to care. I thought that for them to notice me, and to be my friend, I would have to feign apathy too. In reality, there were many things I did care about, but I ignored them. I stopped doing the things I once loved, and I fell into a slump as my mental health deteriorated. That was until a close friend reached out to me and pushed me to run for a class officer position and join leadership. Part of joining leadership was going to this camp over the summer, where for five days people teach you how to be a leader.
Most days I wonder who I would be if that friend hadn’t reached out to me. I still vividly remember the night everything changed. As I sat in that stuffy auditorium filled with teenagers, I listened to John Norlin, co-founder of CharacterStrong, speak about what it meant to be a servant-leader. As he spoke, I realized why that poster had been so funny to my dad. To lead with intimidation and indifference to the thoughts and feelings of others is the same as thinking being apathetic will make you a cooler person. Intimidation may get the job done, and it might even make you a leader. It will not, however, build your character or make you a servant-leader. According to the servant-leadership triangle, hard work and perseverance are not just important aspects of leadership, they are essential. It says that effective leadership is built on the back of service and sacrifice and there can be no service or sacrifice without hard work and perseverance. The poster was funny because it had terrible advice.
If someone asked you to solve a problem using the quadratic equation, you wouldn’t know where to start unless you had taken algebra. Now if someone got that same problem wrong on a test, it wasn’t because they wanted to fail. It was likely because they just hadn’t taken algebra. David Brooks said in his book The Road to Character that, “The best life is oriented around the increasing excellence of the soul...” When you look at a high school, the reason many people stay in that slump of apathy, and oftentimes poor mental health, is not because they wantto. It is likely because they don’t know how to become a better person. Very few people get to have a realization like I did.
Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Intelligence plus character - that is the goal of true education.” If a student graduates high school knowing how to solve calculus equations and write ten-page papers, but has not developed their character, the education system has failed them. It is the responsibility of a school to provide its students with the tools to improve their character. That is why when I looked at my own high school, I saw a glaring flaw.
The only prolonged exposure to any sort of leadership education the students in the Shorewood high school leadership program had received was through the same week-long camp in the summer I had realized that poster was about more than just sharks. As incredible as that camp is, the impact doesn’t necessarily last for everyone. Many people start the school year on a camp high, committed to new ideals and serving others. Within a few weeks, many are off their highs and have reverted back to their pre-camp selves. That added to the fact that less than half of the leadership class has even been to leadership camp means that the vast majority of the class is trying to solve quadratics without having taken algebra.
These are the reasons that I decided to take action for my school. I saw the need for a curriculum and took it as an opportunity for the few of us that had had the pleasure of attending leadership camp several times. Over the summer we met up and generated ideas for lessons, and a rough schedule of who would teach what when. We took pieces from CharacterStrong, other school’s leadership programs, and leadership camp to stitch together the final product. In a survey we pushed out to the class, 95% of people said that they had gotten some sort of takeaway from our lessons, and I have seen a complete culture shift from previous years. This first year of having a curriculum implemented in our leadership program has certainly been rough and filled with flaws, but it has nonetheless been an incredible experience.
Leadership education is a vital aspect of a leadership program. To teach students how to serve their school is not only essential to their job within student leadership, but also their life after. I believe that all students deserve an opportunity to earn that aspect of an education. So I urge all leadership students, teachers, and advisers, make the change now. If your school has the resources, using a pre-written curriculum like CharacterStrong will almost certainly be more effective than a self-written one. But if you find yourself in a similar situation to my own, do not let that deter you.
Max Luthy currently serves as the student body president at Shorewood High School in Shoreline, Washington. In his free time, he also volunteers as part of the Seattle Aquarium Youth Ocean Advocate leadership team, where he continues to pursue his love of sharks.