The Anti-Leadership Vaccine


Relationships are more important than rules in developing young leaders.

The late John Gardener, former Secretary of Housing, Education and Welfare was a man ahead of his time. He said years ago that one of his chief concerns about the educational system in America is that it’s unwittingly injecting students with an “anti-leadership vaccine.” It sort of paints a picture, doesn’t it?  He saw the direction education was going, making every kid strive toward not only equality but sameness. No distinction. No doubt, equality for all people is good; but kids are not the same and every one of them needs a caring leader to reveal their distinctions.

Let me provide one example. Our “nurture impulse” has driven many parents and teachers to demand a “zero tolerance” policy in school, not just for bullying, but for any sort of aggression or harassment. Most scholars agree that bullying can have serious effects and it needs to be stopped. However, they’ve balked on the “zero tolerance” policy. A task force from the American Psychological Association warns that many incidents involve poor judgment, and lapses of judgment are developmentally normative, the result of neurological immaturity. This is just a fancy way of saying that kids make mistakes because they’re still young, says author Po Bronson. The task force noted that inflicting automatic, severe punishments was causing an erosion of trust in authority figures. The chair of the task force explained, “The kids become fearful—not of other kids, but of the rules—because they think they’ll break them by accident.”          

We’ve somehow come to believe that what kids need are more policies and rules to keep them straight. I believe they need less rules and more relationship with adult leaders who mentor them. Policies can never replace people who lead well.

The fact is, John Gardener is still relevant today. Our education institutions continue to give kids an “Anti-Leadership Vaccine.” They’re conditioned to blend in, not stand out; to go with the flow, not question the status quo; to simply not rock the boat. Consider what real leaders do and how it goes against the grain of our culture:

Leaders must go first

This flies in the face of teen’s tendency to gain consensus on Facebook

Leaders must empathize

Media today conditions them to critique contestants and dispose of them.

Leaders must take a stand (sometimes alone)

Our world celebrates tolerance, pluralism and being politically correct.

Leaders must connect, persuade and motivate

Technology actually diminishes our emotional intelligence and people skills.

Leaders must confront or correct

This is disdainful to most students; no one wants to have hard discussions.

Leaders must assume responsibility

Few young leaders want to bear this “weight” today. Culture tells them to avoid it.

It’s time we remove the vaccine from our policies. I realize it will require work; it will force us to change the cultures we’ve created, and the policies we’ve written, but they’re not helping kids become healthy leaders. John Gardener even felt our schools need this kind of examination. He wrote, “We exist for our benefit, the primary benefit of the teachers and administration not the benefit of the students.”

It’s time we consider the long-term ramifications of our leadership. Is it about us, or about equipping a new generation to surpass us?

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