Getting “Schooled” By My Student

I was facilitating a week-long outdoor leadership program up in the mountains of Colorado. This particular program was designed to enhance the leadership abilities of people who already were in positions of responsibility…be it managerial, consulting, training, or teaching.  The group consisted of twenty participants from around the country, ranging in age from twenty-two to thirty-five years. As you might imagine with such a young group of leaders, the energy level was constantly high, as was the desire to learn and try new things. There was never a shortage of volunteers to lead the group on a given activity, project, or on any of the various assignments throughout the week.  But that didn’t surprise me either given the nature of the group. In fact, it often became a competition amongst them to see who would be the first to seize the next opportunity to lead.

What did surprise me, however, was the behavior of one particular participant named Stuart. If ever there was an exception to the rule, he was it. Despite being in a leadership program, never once did Stuart volunteer to lead the group throughout the week. He never even made an attempt. Not once. 

Now normally such a dynamic would concern me. After all, how could someone like Stuart learn to lead by not leading?  How could he truly walk away from this program feeling as if he had gotten anything out of it given all of his experiences were as a group member not a group leader?  And was it fair to the rest of the group to have to absorb his leadership opportunities for him?

Yet it is important to note that although Stuart may not have led, per se, he wasn’t exactly a slacker either. To be fair, Stuart was always very engaged with the group and the task at hand. If ever someone needed help, it was Stuart who volunteered, ready and willing to assist. And what’s more, he made it a point to sit with different members from the group during each of the meals throughout the week.

Fast forward to the last day of the program--a day reserved for reflection, celebration, and recognition. As a final activity, we asked participants to select one member from the group who best exemplified the leadership traits and characteristics that we had been studying all week. This required that they not only select this person, but come up with a process to select him/her as well. Considering that we had some of top upcoming leaders in the country, this was not going to be an easy decision. We gave them an hour.

As their deliberation began, I decided to relax a bit and pulled out a novel I had been reading and found a comfortable spot under a nearby tree. I figured I had at least a half hour. But just as I sat down, I could see a couple members of the group walking my way. Hmm, I said to myself, I thought my instruction were as clear as day. I wonder what part of the activity they need clarification on?

“How can I help?” I said as they approached.

“No help needed,” said Paul, one of the two designated people, “we’re done.”

“Now that’s funny,” I replied, knowing that there’s no way a group of twenty could make such a quick decision. “Seriously, what do you need?”

Marlene, the other designated person, looked as if I was speaking an unrecognizable language. “Greg, we did what you asked. We selected one person, per your instructions, who best demonstrated the leadership traits and characteristics that we’ve been studying all week.”

I could see the words coming out of her mouth but for some reason wasn’t comprehending what she was saying. “You barely had time to gather, how could you make a decision so quickly?” I inquired.

“Because it was an easy decision,” replied Paul.

Still not trusting what I was hearing, I asked, “Okay, humor me. Who did you pick?”

At the exact same time they belted out, “Stuart.”

“Wait, who?”

“Stuart,” said Marlene.

I shook my head in confusion. “Let’s see if I got this right. You selected the one person who never once led during the week as the person who best exemplified the traits and characteristics of a leader? Is that what I’m hearing?”

“Greg,” cried out Paul, “we choose Stuart because he led from within the group. He led through his individual connections. He led through his unending support of all our efforts. He led by bringing everyone together for a common cause. And he did this simply by being himself. He is as authentic as they come.”

“Yeah but he never led the whole group,” I pleaded.

“Not all leaders lead from the front of the line,” said Marlene.

“I know that,” I said, surprised to hear something I would typically say.

They went on to explain that through his authenticity, Stuart became the heartbeat that held the group together—and always without fanfare or recognition.

I must admit, I was very impressed with their rationale. Wow, I thought to myself, how did I miss that one!

As I drove home that day, I had to admit that I just got schooled by my own students. I had forgotten that we are all leaders, regardless whether we have a title or a platform. Stuart knew who he was and didn’t try to be anything or anyone different. He wasn’t about impressing others or doing things to earn favor. He led from the back of the line by simply being himself and truly caring for others.