Last week Jennifer, Jack, Cece and I saw a very powerful documentary film now out, called “Waiting for Superman.” There are enough scenes dramatic, controversial, or just really powerful, that it wouldn’t be possible for me to spoil the movie for you – even when I tell you that for me the most unavoidable take away from this journey through urban schools is that we are squandering so very much talent and quashing so much hope.
The movie was special for us because we went with our daughter Cece who had recently returned from a year as a student assistant in a high dropout high school in New Orleans. Cece had experienced the individual human disappointments, as well as some of the infuriating systemic failures. And she took the movie hard. We spoke a couple days later and the movie was still on her mind. She told me that she had heard from friends still in New Orleans about one of her favorite students. Cece had encouraged this freshman to apply and she was accepted into one of the special magnet programs for this fall. Unfortunately, she’s gotten pregnant over the summer. “It’s only the environment” Cece said to me, “that has me at U of M while she is pregnant at 15. She’s so much like me: likable, kind, fun-loving, and smart. But, there she is with so many challenges in front of her now. ”
Yesterday that conversation came back to life, as I sat next to Judge Tom Boyd at a wedding reception. He told me about how much time he spends with some of the young people who come before his court, how he challenges them, encourages them, and uses the tool of probation to leverage changes in their behavior. “I give them a chance,” he said. Sometimes it works. He said he honestly feels sometimes like he’s the first person who has complimented and encouraged some of these kid-adults. Often it doesn’t work. And sometimes, “more often than you would believe,” he told me, “they thank me on the way out of the court, when they’re on their way to jail.” Probation failed, or they failed probation, and Tom sentences them to jail time. Do you find it as stunning as I do (and as the Judge still does) that they are thanking him? How little encouragement must a person have had in life to thank the judge who’s sentencing them to jail time?
Okay, so you’re thinking: What in the world does this have to do with me on a Monday morning? Well, it’s all about expectations. Greatness doesn’t appear on its own. Somebody expects it. Yet so often we slip into our rules and routines – as parent or manager. And we think others are static entities. They are A students or B students, good workers or generally slightly above average, or unpredictable or basically steady. And if they’re not totally static, then we figure any control of how good they are, lies with them. But, the fact is we have so much more power than that. We shape possibilities for others. The boss like a good parent is relentlessly: challenging, and encouraging, jostling and teaching, coaching, holding feet to the fire, and especially believing some more, and pointing out talent and celebrating results. None of us are born with overflowing confidence. Most of us – even the over-achievers – have a deficit when it comes to what we think we can do. Great parents and great leaders create a space of possibility around those they lead. And the last thing they do is give up their belief in and expectations of those they lead, because no follower wants to be, and no one should be, given up on.
As the great Churchill said “never, never, never give up.”Believe, expect and encourage to
Lead with your best self,