Leadership Lessons from an Unlikely Teacher

Sometimes great leadership lessons come from unexpected places. This week, we have had a 14-year-old boy named Noah, who has both mild mental retardation and autism, as a house guest for spring break. His gentle, loving spirit is an inspiration in general, but what caught me by surprise was his modeling of exceptional leadership traits that we should all be striving to achieve.

Straightforward Communication
You always know exactly where Noah is coming from. When he wants something, he communicates with directness to make his expectations very clear. (“I want mac and cheese not steak.”) All too often, leaders fail to communicate clearly what their expectations really are, and their team is left to speculate on what success looks like. The net result is anxiety and frustration among followers who are ready to march if they can just figure out where the leader wants them to march!

Unfettered Honesty
Although it sometimes feels a little blunt, you know exactly what Noah is thinking at all times. (“I don’t like green beans.”) Too many leaders spend so much time “packaging” their comments to avoid any criticism that their team is never absolutely sure what the leader’s agenda is or what the leader really thinks about a particular subject. Followers who are unsure about what the leader really thinks will always translate that fuzziness into a lack of commitment. Clarity always precedes commitment.

A Passion for the Mission
Noah used our iPad to create his own movie production operation starring Mr. Potato Head, Buzz Lightyear, and a wide cast of other characters. Each movie production involved lighting and dialogue and action (lots of action). With each movie “production”, his enthusiasm for the effort was unmistakable. As leaders, our team needs to know that we authentically believe in the mission. If we are passionless about the mission, our team will be even more so. Being lukewarm never inspires passion in your team.

Excitement for the Vision
As he produced each of his movies, Noah wanted to share the vision he had created with everyone. His enthusiasm for what he was creating made you want to be a part of it. As a leader, if you are excited and enthusiastic about your vision, it will be contagious. If your team thinks you find the vision boring, so will they — and a boring vision will never inspire great accomplishment!

Honor, Dignity and Respect for Others
Noah puts his dishes up on his own, treats each person he talks to with respect, and generally treats everyone in a way that lets you know he cares about you as a person. He doesn’t care who is most important, who has the most money, or who is the most powerful. You can just tell that he authentically cares about you as a person “just because”. There is no greater key to developing committed followers than for them to know that you authentically care about them as individuals.

Great leadership lessons sometimes come from unexpected places. And great leaders are constant learners who are passionately committed to their mission; convey excitement about their vision and expectations with honesty and clarity; and treat others with honor, dignity and respect no matter what.

Ron Holifield

Written by:
Ron Holifield
CEO, Strategic Government Resources

4 responses

  1. A timely message for those who lead and those who want to lead, thanks Ron.

    1. Anytime, Joe. And thank you for commenting!

  2. Ron, this is meaningful insight. Thanks for sharing.

    From your account, I can find two other possible lessons from Noah. First, he seems to put an emphasis on relationships. His desire to communicate and share with others shows how much he cares about them and wants to bond with them. It can be easy for leaders to overlook the power of strong relationships and focus too much on quantifiable results. Second, it sounds like Noah puts those around him at ease, making them feel safe. When a follower has to be in a defensive stance, they create a barrier to effective communication with their leader. His straightforward and honest communication shows his non-threatening nature, and lets others around him open up.

    1. Great points, Joseph.

      Noah has so many qualities from which leaders could learn — and he doesn’t even know it! HA!

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