From A Middle-Schooler: What’s a Good Leader?

Yesterday I met with Aaron, a rising sixth grader, who came to my office to ask me a simple question: What traits did I think were important for a good leader?

Simple, right?

We spoke for awhile about the easy things: Being a good listener, having compassion and dedication, believing in what you do, being able to put yourself in other people’s shoes.

And then I stepped in a minefield of my own making: There were some people who could be considered good leaders, I told Aaron, simply because they got people to follow them or vote for them. But that didn’t make them effective or impactful leaders.

Take the kids in school who were able to “lead” the class into disrespect for the teacher. The kids who talked without raising their hands, or who cracked jokes at inappropriate times. Those kids were good at leading, because they were able to find a way to get others to follow them.

Hitler could have been considered good at leading, I thought out loud, because he, too, was able to accumulate followers, But he was an evil person and his motives were not pure.

As I spoke to this rising sixth grader, who had eye contact that was better than many of my own peers, I began to quietly assess my own leadership skills and thought about those I admire.

I realized that I want to be the type of person who stands firmly for that which I strongly believe, but without showing disrespect to the viewpoints of others. I want to listen first and listen again and then be willing to compromise if there can be a “happy place” for everyone.

I often tell the story of why I initially chose Republican as my party: The night I became engaged, I called my dearest friend — my grandmother — to tell her. Her first question was not to ask how it happened, if my fiance was good to me or when we planned to marry. Her first question was quick off her lips: “Is he Republican?” As a lifelong Kansan, that was the ONLY question. To her, to be a Republican was not merely following an ideology, but representing your party with grace —  Standing up for what is right, feeling a strong sense of patriotism and always, always showing  respect for others.

Somewhere along the line, the behavior of both parties changed: I have watched as Democrats attack each other in the quest to “win”; as Republicans attack each other in an effort to reach the top.

Robert Pittenger and Jim Pendergraph are both members of the Republican Party. Their attacks on each other are shameful. Could I tell Aaron that their behavior is leadership material? The recent ad that shows former presidential candidate Hilary Clinton saying “Shame on you, Barack Obama” when they were both running for the Democratic nomination — was that leadership material?

Darn that kid for making me think so much!  But here is what he did: Aaron cemented the festering feeling I’ve had that perhaps I can make a small difference.

And perhaps that is by becoming unaffiliated. I’ve been told by many of my peers that if I should leave my party, I’d better beware of the attacks. But as mayor of a non-partisan board, how can I be the example to Aaron and his friends if I, in any way, support the current disrespect we see in politics?

I think my grandmother, the dedicated Republican, would be very supportive of my decision to serve all people with grace, since neither party seems to do that anymore.

Aaron leaves for a youth leadership conference in two weeks. When he returns, I hope to learn more from him.


Author: jillswain

Former Mayor Chamber of Commerce Exec. Director Advertising consultant Mom and spouse (30 years and counting!) Rec league girls' volleyball coach Champion of all things Huntersville, North Carolina

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