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Letter to a Young Leader

“How can I prepare myself to be a leader?”

That question, in one form or another, is posed to me often by parents, teens and young adults who view leadership as a worthy or even a noble goal.

Jasmine, a 17-year-old high school senior who had distinguished herself in and out of the classroom, recently asked that same question. She was the reminder I needed to finally offer some recommendations.

I felt that Jasmine deserved a thoughtful answer so I decided to send her the letter below. I invite you to share it with any blossoming young leaders you know.

Dear Jasmine,

Thanks for our conversation yesterday and for your thought-provoking question on how to prepare to lead others. Not many young people have your foresight and motivation to start life with leadership in mind.

I’m tempted to respond with a laundry list of traits and qualities, but your sincerity beckons me to share something more substantial, something you can make your own.

To do that, I have looked back at my personal journey in search of the main lessons I've learned that have helped me make a difference as a leader:

Lesson #1: Make connections.

I was fortunate to grow up in a social family with a fairly constant flow of family members, friends and strangers. Because we lived at the junction of two country roads, people would often come to our door to ask for directions. My mom and dad always encouraged me to reach out to strangers and to engage people. They would often say, “Don’t be afraid to ask questions.”

Mom rarely passed up the opportunity to tell a good story. She taught us to see life as a string of stories just waiting to be shared. From her, I developed a passion to communicate using colorful and descriptive language, rich metaphors and vivid examples to clarify my points.

Questions and stories became a way for me to connect with people, and even today, these habits have become pathways into deeper conversations with my children, friends and clients.

I’ve found that the largest part of leadership involves managing and thinking about relationships. Knowing how to connect has expanded the opportunities for me to make a difference. Connecting is all about seeking to understand others, and permitting them to know the real me.

Lesson #2: Start with your family.

I hear unfortunate stories every day from adults who no longer speak to a sibling, or whose parents died before they had a chance to truly know them. I believe that kind of family disconnection makes individuals more prone to anxiety and to the development of troublesome symptoms later in life. Sadly, that disconnection also affects their children’s beliefs about family.

Staying connected in my family has given me an emotional anchor for all other relationships. I’ve learned about my family history; for example, the details about my grandparents and great-grandparents.

I also made a commitment to develop one-on-one relationships with each of my children, siblings, parents, aunts and uncles. As a result, we’ve come to understand each other as individual persons, despite the inevitable differences. As I learn more about them, I learn more about myself.

Jasmine, what would you really like to know about your parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles? Now might be a great time to reach out to them for conversation.

Lesson #3: Claim the space that feeds a clear mind.

I have found it clarifying and productive to separate myself from my everyday surroundings-- physically, socially, and emotionally. That means I regularly disconnect from activity, noise and drama. I take some time to be quiet, often by walking in nature.

This solitude helps me "take my own temperature" and identify my true self, sorting it from all the busyness that can consume me. Knowing what I need and want, and being able to make important decisions about my life, has helped me to better lead others.

There’s always going to be pressure to “do” and “interact.” It takes courage and discipline to step away for personal reflection. Operating with a clear mind is often the result.

Lesson #4: Stay humble.

One of the lessons I continue to learn is the importance of humility. No matter how much I accomplish, or how many high-status people I work with, I’m still only one human, with a limited lifespan, in a vast universe.

Once, many years ago, I missed an important engagement: 40 managers were pulled out of their normal work routine to attend a four-hour, off-site session led by me. But I forgot to show up! It just skipped my mind. When the CEO called me and asked where I was, I responded, “Why do you want to know where I am?” With emphatic disbelief, she said, “Because I have my entire management team waiting for you!”

After apologizing for my mistake, I hung up the phone and knew it was too late to recover and make the session on time. I felt a tightening knot in my gut, knowing that I had let down an entire company, and I couldn’t make it right. Wow, that stirred up so much embarrassment and self-doubt in me.

It took me a week to forgive myself for being so absent-minded. During that week, I was struck by the awareness that humility is never very far from humiliation!

Humility offers me the opportunity to accept my limits, shortcomings and mistakes. It also keeps me aware that as good as I strive to be, luck has a massive influence in my successes. Though it's not easy to fail, I’ve learned that humility can pull me through and strengthen me.

Lesson #5: Seek out and savor difference.

I’ve never been one to stay within socially constructed fences or homogeneous surroundings.

Cross-cultural immersion trips to Asia, Africa and Latin America, discussions with inmates inside Attica Prison, interactions with street dwellers, addicts, Wall Street hot shots, the Appalachian rural poor – those exposures have introduced me to the wonderful variation among humans.

First-hand experience of human differences helps me credibly lead my clients through the decisions they make in an ever-changing, diverse world. What a powerful moment when one can push beyond a limited world view, or catch oneself with an unfounded bias! And what a tremendous leadership advantage!

I encourage you to shake hands that reflect many colors, observe a wide band of beliefs, and jump on opportunities for truly new adventures.

I wish you well on your journey, Jasmine, and look forward to hearing about where it leads you!

My best wishes to you,

John Engels

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