Leading with tough love


Imagine you’re on a stage, as this boy was over the weekend.  You’re 14 and generally think the whole world is watching you, and this time you’re almost right.  There are 400 men and women in camouflage fatigues, all officers in the Michigan National Guard, in an enormous conference room at a university.  You’re up there with your Sergeant and Big Brother, Jared, and the governor’s husband has asked you what it’s like having him as your mentor.  You hear your voice amplified across the whole room as you say, “I really like him a lot, and we’re really tight . . . although we’ve had our moments.”  The governor’s husband asks you if you could share one of those tough moments, and you are hugely relieved when your big brother takes over and answers that question.

Jared offers the moment when his little brother was mad at him, when Jared explained that goofing around in school might seem like fun now, but making the choice to goof around wouldn’t seem real great when he had to repeat a year in school.  Furthermore, Jared explained that his little brother didn’t like the fact that Jared was talking to his mother.  That was not cool.  Jared told the crowd – as he had told Jared – that he appreciated how his little brother didn’t like him talking to the boy’s mom, but that both adults cared about him and would keep talking together for his benefit.

I told Jennifer about this powerful bond between the sergeant and his little.  She had been in Chicago the day before, visiting two super-high performing city schools.  And she related that the school reflected the same thing:  it’s critical to care enough to set high standards and hold people to them.  She told me how when she asked a couple kids what made this school special, they both said that it was the fact that people really cared whether they succeeded, and that the school had rules and enforced them which made it a safe and excellent place to learn.

So, this might be a good time of year to not be afraid to let your “little brother,” your son or daughter, or one of your employees know how much you care about them, how much you want them to succeed, and that you will keep being honest with them and setting high standards so that they can reach their best.  Maybe, too, a time to become a mentor, an awesome way to

Lead with your best self!


  • I am for high standards but there are school systems that seek perfection. Students vary greatly and we should recognize effort on the part of the student. How do we measure perfection? I have doubts if I can ever measure perfection on the part of the student.

    I remember working with an educator who said to a mother that her daughter would only be able to work as a domestic. The daughter was only eighteen and she was not intellectually challenge. The woman was a totally stupid educator. I could not leave her presence too soon, even soon was not fast enough.

    Our schools often fail because teachers are quick to judge a student. Most teachers are only interested in working with A and B students who are also docile in their behavior.

  • In hind sight the best teachers I had were those who kept challenging me to move forward. at the time, they were not number one on my list of favorite teachers because I had no life experience to realize the long range benefits. Our schools should expect and hold students accountable for their best. I have been fortunate to have some of my students tell me that they appreciate my having held them accountable and moving forward at the end of a school year. Those expressions to appreciation add a bonus my paycheck cannot.

  • Thank you, Dan. On target as usual. My wife was an Executive Director of a Big Brothers / Big Sisters organization and I think it might be helpful in your RFL newsletter to explain what “Big Brother” means: a wonderful, committed, non-relative who has chosen to serve his community by developing a one-on-one mentoring relationship with a young boy or teen who might not have a father or other caring adult male in his life.

    As your newsletters often point out, change, real life- transforming change, often, and most successfully, happens one person, and one day at a time. A true, up-hill, successful journey.

    Thank you, again. John

  • Idea 1

    I agree with the person who wrote about some schools setting perfection as a standard. This is basically the zero tolerance option on steroids. No tolerance for bad behavior is one thing, how the behavior is dealt with is another. Expelling a child, and leaving him to parents who may have their own demons, is not a good solution. I can think of a child who was not allowed to attend school for several weeks, because their mother packed a butter knife in their lunch. The mother did not like the jelly soaking into the bread while it was stored until lunch, and so she packed the butter knife with a small container of jelly, sot he child should pour it out and spread it at lunch. To me this does not sound like an issue which should need to go to the school board.

    Idea 2

    As to the idea of setting high standards, that is something that leaders need to give and receive. There is nothing more distressing than a government official or company manager who does not listen to a citizen, or employee who expresses a standard they think should apply to the government, or company.

    A person in a leadership role often makes the mistake of thinking that they must reject ideas which smack of an underling taking charge. What I have found to be the case is that most employees truly want their company to be better, when they take the risk of correcting a superior, or take the risk of suggesting a policy improvement.

    Setting high standards goes both ways, you must be willing to give and to receive.

    Mark John Hunter

  • With regard to school performance, I recommend the op-ed piece by Ms. Kalish in the NYT today (14 Jan 2008). It puts the focus back on student and family needs instead of administrative traditions. It seems obvious to me that we need to re-examine the potential in later and longer school days, and even year-round school. Ms. Kalish also points out that kids learn better when they sleep better, according to their stages of development. School schedules shouldn’t be so different from most parents’ work schedules. And much more. What has happened to the pre-K through 14 public education movement? Life-long learning? These are among our best investments.
    To all- Write a letter of encouragement to any child you know. It’s something nearly everyone can do.

  • As a teacher and librarian it always has fascinated me how children (paticularly teens) don’t think adults speak about them and situations with one another–and are upset when we do, because we care and want to assist them and are putting their best interests in the fore by taking the time to talk to them and others….

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