Think Leadership Ideas

Leadership for Third Graders

Yet again, it occurred to me that messages that are simple enough for third graders to take to heart can be just as relevant for adults.

Recently I was asked to speak on leadership to the third grade at a local school, not as a leadership consultant but in my role as Mayor. The third graders were studying biographies of leaders, and wanted to know how my life shaped my understanding of leadership.

Here’s the three main lessons of the talk, that I believe are important for leaders of any age. (For those of you who may not know, I am the Mayor of Hillsborough, NC - a tremendous opportunity for me to actually practice what I profess in my writings on leadership.)

Find what you do well and really like to do
Part of growing up is finding out how you are different from others, so find out what really interests you and make the most of it. In short, get to be really good at something, especially something that you like.
The message for adults - focus on your strengths. I tell executives to put 80% of effort to doing better what they already do well, rather than overcoming weaknesses. It’s likely that what you do well is also something you care about, so putting effort here creates energy and enthusiasm. Put the remaining effort into managing weaknesses and doing new things that take you out of your comfort zone. Better to be outstanding in some areas than simply good (i.e. mediocre) across the board.

Always help others, and remember you will need others to help you

Any famous leader always had lots of help. And one of the best ways to ensure help is there for you is to practice being helpful to others. Golden rule.
The message for adults - success depends on engaging other people. As Mayor it’s abundantly clear to me that nothing gets done in town without the voluntary assistance of many diverse individuals. In Good to Great, author Jim Collins notes that 5th level leaders, i.e. leaders that are most effective, are generous in crediting success of an organization to others.

Learn to speak up with confidence
I shared with the third graders a poem about a burro. The animal is shipped by express but eats his shipping label so ends up waiting endlessly in a warehouse. The moral, of course, is don’t keep things inside, say who you are and where you're going.

by Tom Stevens (c)2008
Tom Stevens helps individuals and organizations create brilliant futures and make a difference. To contact him, visit

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