Fostering Lifelong Leadership

How can advisers inspire lasting leadership values?

Leadership is not simply a thing you do based on a checklist. Leadership is more like a lifestyle—a way of living that begins with a positive frame of mind. The greatest leaders are those who inspire others to become great leaders themselves. So, how do we foster an environment for leadership to take hold and grow? As a high school teacher and NHS adviser, I have some thoughts to share.

Preparing the environment is key. It requires a leader to adopt a few vital lifestyle choices: positivity in the face of negativity, building healthy relationships, publicly accepting responsibility, and actively practicing integrity. Good leadership must be modeled daily with the idea that students learn the most not when things run smoothly, but when things don’t go as planned. Students learn leadership based on how their leader handles the worst-case scenario, which is where true leadership emerges. By adopting the leadership lifestyle, we provide our students with an environment in which these leadership skills can flourish.

Winston Sakurai—former student council member, current upper school principal at Hanalani Schools in Mililani, HI, and the 2016 NASSP Hawaii Principal of the Year—has developed his own leadership style, which he describes as “shared leadership.” The most important role he says he can play is the role of facilitator. He facilitates conversations by asking questions and allowing others to take an active role in the decision-making process. Like most educators, Sakurai focuses on “let’s do what’s best for the students” and then he puts his time and effort behind ensuring the teachers have the tools to do their job—whether those tools are adequate planning time to organize, meet, or work with students; the resources to be successful; or the physical space for an event. For Sakurai, the most important job is making sure teachers and students have the resources they need.

Today’s teachers directly feel the pressures of a tight budget, limited time, and less-than-stellar engagement from all directions. But leaders cannot let the weight of hard times keep them from being good role models.

Positivity Is Key, Negativity Blocks Progress

No matter what, we all have a job to do, and we must all be aware of how our attitude affects others. If we approach a potentially difficult situation with a negative mindset, we are surely going to have a negative result. Why? Negativity blocks progress. As a group, if we cannot get past the negative wall we’ve built, then we will never proceed to the next level. If, as leaders-and no matter what position you hold in a school, you are a leader—we cannot get past the “I can’t” and “this is going to be horrible” sentiments, how do we expect our students to do so? Students are intently watching us and looking for answers. As school leaders, we must be cognizant and vigilant to make sure we exude positivity.

First and foremost, a leader must be willing to hear suggestions and advice. You know that old saying “two heads are better than one?” Sometimes the mere willingness to hear from a group can change negativity into positivity. Let the students do the work. They are more than capable and completely willing to jump in. Our jobs are to plant the seeds and let the students learn how to make the garden flourish. Now, that doesn’t mean a leader can let go completely. Leaders teaching future leaders must be hands-on and involved every step of the way to act as guides.

Positive engagement goes a long way toward making an organization successful. Sakurai suggests that students are the best recruiters for adult leaders. By nature, teachers are attracted to education because it is a place they can make a difference; they want to work with students toward positive change. Organizations such as the National Honor Societies or student council are great vehicles to support this endeavor. Students become passionate about taking the lead in their mission to further their school and their community, and advisers are typically more than willing to help students achieve their goals. This act of supporting students not only fosters a positive approach, but it also creates an environment that helps build relationships between the student body and staff. By encouraging students to take ownership of their club, the school benefits because ultimately students are able to maintain focus and improve in school, Sakurai says.

Build Healthy Relationships and Better Communication

Early in his career, Sakurai admits to being “very ambitious,” saying that he felt as though he could accomplish his goals at all costs by running over people. He quickly learned that he needed a more “collaborative leadership style to be inclusive of everyone’s ideas.” Sakurai says, “Not everyone will agree, but with a more collaborative mindset, everyone can be heard and can walk away from the table with great relationships.”

Let students learn from your mistakes. Sakurai learned “that the journey of leadership, of accomplishment, is when you don’t leave anyone behind,” he says. In my experience, when students observe our failures, it gives them a sense of our humanity. In order to foster an environment of lifelong leadership, we must allow our mistakes to be witnessed. At the same time, it is imperative that students witness the ways in which we come to a solution as well.

Building healthy relationships with colleagues and students depends on good communication. In the 21st century, we have so many methods of communication it can sometimes be difficult to pick the right one: Remind, Schoology, Trello, Google Drive, email, Twitter, Instagram. All of these things are great tools; however, they are just that-tools. In order to build healthy relationships and better communication, focus on being face to face. It is important to put the time and effort into listening to those who are communicating.
Having an open-door policy is the way I have found to maintain open communication, even though it is not always convenient. Start the year by offering members a list of meetings and major events, knowing that there are always changes to circumstances that interfere with well-laid plans. Students tend to react to these changes in a range of ways, so they need to have access to ask questions or present ideas for additional projects. Just recently, a newly inducted NHS member came to me excited with a service project she had planned, but she was having difficulty recruiting volunteers. We talked about options and developed a plan. The student was able to leave our discussion with several ideas on how to proceed and the confidence to move forward.

The best opportunity I have come across since being involved with National Honor Society is the professional development and networking at the LEAD Conferences. The energy and excitement of the very first LEAD moment carries through to the next year. Not only are the conferences a great opportunity for advisers to network, they are the perfect place for students to learn the importance of putting themselves out there to make connections across the country. When our student council officers attended a LEAD Conference last year, they made a pact to connect with at least one person in each breakout session. This targeted communication effort earned the students a plethora of ideas to implement once we returned to school, thanks to input from their new friends.

Accept Responsibility, Admit Failure

Failure happens. It is not pleasant, and it is often embarrassing. Remember, when students watch and experience failure, that’s the perfect opportunity to teach recovery. Begin by accepting responsibility for whatever went wrong (even if you aren’t quite sure exactly what that was). It helps to put kids at ease when you stand up and say, “I apologize this has happened, and I will work diligently to make it right.” What’s the message there? One, accept responsibility. Two, make it right. Leadership means modeling these very important behaviors. No one can argue with that, and it gives you time to assess the damage.

When something doesn’t go according to plan, call together the people involved and start talking. Pinpoint where the breakdown occurred, and then come up with a plan to avoid it the next time. This learning process is valuable—use it as a teachable moment. Don’t try to sweep the failure under the rug as if it never happened.

Of course, it’s also fair to point out that the same failure should not happen multiple times. A repeated failure can cancel out any acceptances of responsibility because it may appear insincere or deceitful.

Failure will not always be your failure; it may be a student’s failure. As a leader, it is your responsibility to make sure a student’s failure does not do any permanent damage to self-esteem or self-worth. “Learning from failure has a bigger impact than learning from success, because it allows a person to reflect upon what it really takes to be a leader and encourages them to try something new,” Sakurai says. “We plan for success, but if something goes wrong, the re-evaluation session is how we learn how to make it successful next time.”
Leaders can be most effective during the re-evaluation process by teaching valuable life skills within a controlled environment. Sakurai calls this “controlled failures, or micro-failures, where we can mitigate the damage in school, thus enabling students to learn from what did go right and what didn’t.” Just as the revision and feedback process improves a student’s writing, the feedback given during the re-evaluation session can teach a student to be a better leader. Throughout the experience, we learn alternative methods of leadership, and students practice the art of acceptance and admittance.

Practice Integrity

Every year during NHS induction, principal Dr. Robert Lowerre of John Randolph Tucker High School in Richmond, VA, makes a point of advising new inductees that “integrity takes a lifetime to build, but only a few seconds to destroy.” His message is a reminder for all of us that integrity is not a simple character trait, but one that takes work. The chapter strives to make sure there is transparency in everything it does, such as posting bylaws on the school website, blogging about activities, explaining certain procedures clearly, and focusing on the message it wants people outside the membership to understand. Transparency inspires trust. Trust breeds strength in leadership.

Integrity must be nurtured in all aspects of our lives. It is the key to inspiring trust and enables leadership. Most adult leaders remember their own mentors who helped lead them through difficult challenges and who helped celebrate their successes. Students now look to us as leaders to pay it forward.


—Carrie Weese is an English teacher and NHS adviser at John Randolph Tucker High School in Richmond, VA.