A Conversation With… John Norlin

John Norlin is co-founder of CharacterStrong, an organization that provides leadership and character development curricula for schools internationally. Before founding CharacterStrong, Norlin was a leadership teacher and student council adviser for a decade and then served as program administrator for the whole child and director of student leadership in the Sumner School District in Washington state. Norlin has received many awards and recognition, including the 2014 WASA Community Leadership Award and the 2011 Washington State Student Leadership Activities Adviser of the Year Award. He was a keynote speaker at this year’s LEAD Conferences.

Advise: You put a great deal of emphasis on servant leadership. Can you explain to our readers what exactly that means and why it’s important to today’s advisers and students?

Norlin: Having been a student council adviser for over a decade, I found that it’s not just about individual development but about shaping climate and culture. “Top-down leadership”—do it or else—can work for a while, but it doesn’t get lasting results. It ultimately ruins relationships. Leadership is all about relationships. We lead people, we manage things. You can be an excellent manager and a terrible leader. What are we doing to teach the skills of leadership? Servant leadership addresses that area.

Leadership is influence, positive or negative, effective or ineffective. You’ve likely heard the popular phrase “leaders are born, not made.” Servant leadership does not agree with that. Sure, there may be some natural-born leaders, but they are very rare, and that way of thinking lets us off the hook. People can simply say, “I didn’t get that leadership gene,” and use that as an excuse. Servant leadership puts us all on the hook. Leadership is all about influence. Leadership can be learned. Influence is a skill that can be learned. The way to influence is consistent service and sacrifice. Turning character into action. Doing little things consistently to create positive change.

There needs to be a paradigm shift. We live in a world that gives people the message that it’s all about you; do what makes you happy. How are we doing with that message? When I asked a group of 6,000 students how they thought we were doing with that mindset, I just got a bunch of shaking heads and a few kids audibly saying that we’re not doing well with that at all. Our motivation with servant leadership promotes not doing whatever I feel like, but do actions first; let the feelings follow. Put kindness into action, even when you don’t feel like it. Learn to discipline your will and intentionally choose daily to love those around you. Love based on a choice, not a feeling. The more we love, the more we are required to serve on a daily basis. The more we serve and sacrifice, the more likely we are to build influence. Once we build influence, we have earned the right to be called a leader. Leadership is more about your character, not a title.

Advise: You have keynoted for organizations, conferences, colleges, and more. What advice can you give advisers and students on being effective and compelling public speakers?

Norlin: I think specifically if we’re talking about public speaking, it’s a skill just like anything else. It’s something you can improve on. Here are three key things to keep in mind. 1) Make sure you’ve identified your “capital-T” Truth. What is your truth? Speaking from that place very much matters. Speak from the heart instead of reading something off or just going through the motions. 2) Stories are incredibly powerful. We’ve learned through stories for thousands of years. Stories are effective ways to get points across, as people connect with them better than with objective facts and figures. 3) Learn to bookend. Introducing an idea, a person, a part of a story early in your talk, then coming back to that later is a really effective tool to make sure your speech resonates with your audience.

Advise: Assuming not everyone reading this was able to see your LEAD Conference presentation, what key takeaway can you offer that sums up your message? 

Norlin: The main point is this: It’s not all about you. And to dive a little deeper, I touch on the power of five-second sacrifices. In leadership we think we need to do the next big, great thing, when really the most effective leaders are really good at being consistent daily with the little things they do over time. Those little things add up to the big thing, which is more effectiveness in your leadership, which creates more trust. The big frame is the question that’s not getting asked: What did you do for others today? We frequently get asked about our day, what we did, how we feel ourselves, but not what we did for others. That needs to change.

Advise: What are the best ways for students to serve their communities and really make a difference? 

Norlin: I’m going to give you an atypical response to this question. Schools often try to assign community service hours. Don’t get me wrong, there may be some stories of impact that come from that, but simply assigning hours to students doesn’t create the heart of civic-mindedness because it’s something the kids are being forced to do or are doing to check something off a required list. I say start smaller. First, take care of your own front yard. Are you doing the work in your own family and personal relationships? What little things can you do to make those lives richer? Then ask, how are you connecting with and serving your own student body (not by having bake sales or planning homecoming)? How are you making a relational difference? Are you greeting people at the front door of the school every day? Take the time to learn names. Get to know the people you’re serving. Ask yourself what you can do more consistently one-on-one that will make each day better. I think that leads to a more genuine service mindset, so when we leave school we are more likely to want to serve.

Advise: What was your most impactful experience during your years as a student council adviser?

Norlin: I’ll tell you one, but there have been so many that it’s really hard to narrow it down. There was a student who was in my class who really, from the beginning, I didn’t think wanted to be there. We used to do these activities in our meetings called “character dares.” For example, one day we asked someone to compliment someone else with five things you notice about them. It was that day that I explained it’s OK if you feel a little awkward talking to someone new. If you feel like you don’t have much to say, show that you’re listening. It’s more important to be interested than interesting.

Later in the semester during the homecoming dance—I’d never seen this student at a school activity before, mind you—I saw this student in the hallway and said hi. He was all excited and talked about his day. He said that he and his date had dinner and that was going great until they sat down and were face to face—this kid’s nightmare scenario. And then, he said, it just clicked. He said, “Mr. Norlin, remember that dare when you said don’t worry about being interesting, just interested? It really works!” He did that character dare when he needed it most. Later that month were parent-teacher conferences, and his mom and dad and siblings were there, and his mom’s first question was, “Well, how’s he doing?” I think she was bracing for bad news. I told her this story. And I looked at him and explained that he’s been participating more since that homecoming dance. He’s been more engaged. His mom literally hits the dad and says, “I told you!” And then she started crying and said, “This is the first time in 13 years that everyone is telling me my kid is a rock star.” I guess the takeaway is that when we focus on the servant leadership, it can make a huge difference. Kids are craving it. A focus on servant leadership can change the entire school climate for the better.

Advise: What are some small ways advisers and students alike can improve their school climate? 

Norlin: I feel that things move at such a fast pace that it is very easy to get into the mode of just checking things off. In your council or Honor Society chapter meetings, you might just say, “What’s our next activity? A food drive? Planning for homecoming? Spirit week?” At some point we forget why we’re doing these things and lose the relational piece. Dedicate time every week and make very specific goals on how you’re going to serve students relationally, especially one-on-one, during that week. It’s so important to make time for that. If we don’t do that, students will lose focus on serving students and staff. Once we lose the why, that often leads to burnout from students and advisers.

Advise: What is the concluding best piece of advice you can give National Honor Society and student council advisers?

Norlin: To lead is to serve. If serving is beneath you, then leadership is beyond you.