Thirty Seconds of Leadership
My dad loves to inspire people to enjoy the outdoors. In the Vermont town where I grew up, he has started three traditions that have been going on for over fifty years, traditions that gather the local people together in an outdoor venue. These get-togethers are really fun and spirited no matter what the weather. Vermonters are never deterred by the weather. Probably the best attended is the Thanksgiving hike where people from all over our valley show up to hike over the ridge — together — to the next valley.
One of my father's more interesting moments of leadership was when he convinced the people in our town to plant sunflowers along the Putney roads. He had decided that Putney would look a lot prettier if there were sunflowers blooming along the side of the road.
So my dad went to Agway and bought a huge bag of sunflower seeds, took them home and divvied up the seeds into plastic bags. Each bag had a road map telling the neighbor where they were to plant the seeds.
Then he had a sunflower planting party. He invited the townspeople over to our house, gave them the bags of seeds and maps, and directed them to various country roads throughout our county. And off they went. As they drove, pedaled, or walked, they tossed sunflower seeds along the banks of the roads with the hope that they would take root and bloom later that summer. Although we did not see as many sunflowers as we had hoped, his Sunflower Project gave those who participated a great deal of joy.
Now, inspiring large groups of people to run around the countryside planting sunflowers might not be the first thing you think of when you define leadership, but that's what I want to talk to you about today.
Every year about this time I talk about what leadership at MBS looks like. I do this to remind the returning students about our expectations and to help the new students understand the culture of leadership we work hard to protect at MBS.
The cynics in the room may see this talk as twisting your arm to do something either you do not have the interest in or you do not have the capacity for. I would argue that each of us has the capacity to be a leader, and I will talk about that after I debunk some myths and assumptions about leadership.
Some people believe that in order to lead, you have to have a title. When people think of the word leader, they might imagine a loud person standing in front of a crowd. Rarely do you imagine a leader as a quiet, hardworking person in the back of the room. The fact is, you do not need a title to lead nor do you have to be loud.
Although he was famous as a great communicator and good storyteller, Abraham Lincoln, was a quiet man. Similarly, Rosa Parks, famous for her role in the Civil Rights movement, was frequently described as "soft-spoken." Both of these people changed the course of history, and they were quiet leaders.
More recently and in a different context, Jacob Tamme, tight end of the Denver Broncos, was named by his teammates as one of the best leaders on the team not because he is loud but because he sets a great example. According to his teammates, Tamme knows who he is and what his role is on special teams. He doesn't talk a lot, but when he does, people listen. His teammates also respect that he is on time for everything. For his natural integrity, he is a respected leader.
Another assumption we have is that people are born to be leaders. This is not true. Leadership is learned. Nearly everyone is capable of embracing a leadership role at some time or place in his or her life.
Today I encourage you to seize those brief opportunities for leadership, but in order to do that, you need to be able to see them. The opportunity might not be dramatic; it might happen in a quiet conversation with a friend, where you convince him or her to do the right thing, or it might come during a moment in class, play rehearsal, or athletics practice. There are times when just 30 seconds of leadership are as important as the weeks, months, or year of leadership that you may picture.
We can see many examples of leadership around campus every day.
Recently I watched a middle school student without pause, without batting an eye, reach out his hand and assist an elderly alumnus who was teetering up the stairs. This is 30 seconds of leadership.
This fall, down at the football field, I saw a student pick up bottles and cans that had been left on the field and put them in the recycling bin. As she worked, another student joined in. Once the first follower was there, others joined. This is 30 seconds of leadership.
Last year, a chance visit with his old science and robotics teacher led to a more sustained form of leadership for Tyler Smith, Class of 2015. Tyler had popped into the Middle School to visit Mr. Mead, who explained that in his After-School Program, he had a group of students interested in studying robotics, but he did not have time to teach the course. Tyler, an avid robotics enthusiast who studied robotics this summer, leaped at the opportunity to share his knowledge with middle school students. So as a senior, Tyler is teaching middle school students how to build (either from a book or from their own design) and then program a robot, with an ambient light sensor aimed at the ground, to be able to follow a path laid out in black tape against a white background. Tyler has been a robotics pioneer here at MBS, and hopefully, one of his students will carry on his legacy by sharing his or her love of robotics through teaching younger students.
So, I challenge you to use these examples to unleash the leader that is within you, and you can start small. Start with five seconds of leadership.
A recent study by social scientists in New York City investigated the psychological effects of brief interactions with strangers. Researchers asked participants to talk to people on the subway or in the coffee shop. They then asked the participants about the outcome. The results showed overwhelmingly that friendly connections with strangers make people feel better. So I invite you as you go about your day to greet strangers with a friendly smile. In this way, you will be metaphorically planting sunflowers wherever you go.