Tuesday, August 27, 2013

We Don't Take Nothing From Nobody: Leadership Rebooted For My Generation

*An ironic note is that as I was writing this, Miley Cyrus managed to twerk her way through at least half of these tenets. Read this if you need faith restored in my generation...

Leadership is one of the most ancient practices in civilization. A complex and expansive paradigm, it must be rigid enough to be applied in any situation, situationally or theoretically, yet fluid enough to allow itself to mold to the generation wielding the "Big Stick," as put forward by Teddy Roosevelt. In this context, I would like to reboot my earlier writings on leadership from college in order to incorporate my experiences since then. As frivolous as this exercise may be, I fear a leadership vacuum in my generation as we struggle to manage the monster of social media we have grown up with. We may be on-deck to be leaders, but our paradigm of leadership has not quite set in its mold. Only the next few years will tell how we will approach the problems of a now truly global humanity. 

(The questions below were taken from an essay contest for junior officers presented by the United States Naval Institute, one of the key pillars in my leadership continuum.)

What does leadership look like to the ledfrom below? from beside?

Leadership should look the same to all who participate in or are influenced by it. I believe the first and last word of leadership is sacrifice. A selfless ethos and grateful pathos from a leader will do wonders for morale and begin to create an atmosphere of results, not salutes. The led should see their leader as separate, but equal: a person like themselves but in an extraordinary position of command. Someone who is willing to do all the work it takes to succeed, but also be able to provide guidance when it is called for. From below, a leader should be a paragon of ethics and humility and a role model to aspire to, regardless of age, race, or rank. From beside, a leader should be a calming example to their peers and one who has complete situational and theoretical awareness, even when they are not on watch. 

What qualities and characteristics define leadership for those who are themselves young leaders who aspire to command?

Leadership is no longer about intimidation. It has been realized that building a crew through positive encouragement is the best way to realize results. A leader in the contemporary sense of the word and one entering command in today's world should understand their every move will be dissected to the masses and filleted by the media if they happen to pull the short straw that day. With this unsavory thought in mind, a leader must be compassionate to his team's needs and understand the underlying causes of a poor performance. It is not enough to preach "the process." Many leaders are very good at this and their victories come in a singular fashion, with no development from their team's secondary and tertiary skill sets. A great leader focuses on a holistic education of their team and attacks even the most menial parts of training with a zeal and enthusiasm not matched by anyone else. A great leader is competitive, encouraging, ethical, humble, and selfless. 

Can leadership be defined … or only recognized?

As leadership is such a fluid paradigm, it can only be defined in the terms and context of every leader's situation. What worked in Colonial times may not necessarily work in the digital age. The recognition of great leadership characteristics, however, may lead to the definition of a great leader in any age or era. 

Can leadership be taught … or only learned?

Leadership can be taught. It must be taught. However, like all battle plans, the depth and scope of the commitment of command cannot fully be realized until that commitment comes under fire. To paraphrase Shakespeare, all the world's a laboratory, and all the men and women are leaders. This leadership laboratory we live in serves as a real world applicator for the lessons taught to us through our mentors and the stories and shanties we grow up with. There is never a terminal level of leadership education. We are continuously learning and leading, especially when we do not feel like we are. 

How can leadership be nurtured?

Leadership can be nurtured through study and practice. I wrote earlier on theoretical awareness. Much like a fantasy sport season where we extrapolate real life conditions onto a virtual contest, one is able to prepare a myriad of tests and gauntlets for their newfound knowledge and test themselves and others. As training is the lifeblood of the workforce, it is a critical pillar in the development and nurturing of an organic leadership. 

What does character have to do with leadership?

Exceptional character is the be all and end all of leadership. Quite simply, a team emulates their leader and if their leader values egotism and selfishness above all else, a leadership vacuum will emerge. New members of the team will become disillusioned with the paradigm that leader is creating and the relentless pursuit of self-promotion will turn a cohesive group of individuals into a confederation of loosely related self-seekers who will eventually hang separately. 

What is the role of mentors?

Mentors come in every shape and size and their impact on a leader is immeasurable. It is with a mentor one begins to see the microcosm of their own leadership. In every success, a small lesson is learned and filed away for recollection. In every failure, an even larger lesson is committed to rote. One does not need to be a clone of their mentor, that would be a mistake as no one is a perfect person or leader. However, the true value of a mentor or teacher does not lie in the empirical facts or lessons learned. It lies in the intangible value they have unknowingly impacted you with. The marks on your soul that you carry until the next person in line needs them. A truly great leader will know these marks innately and strive to seek those mentors who will impart such wisdom and do it without ego and with a purpose. 

This is a sliver of what I'm thinking right now and it will change. Stay tuned. 

Monday, August 12, 2013

We on fire but we don't mind passin' the torch...

Author's Note: I wrote this in 2008 after my mentor and friend Nathan Woods was killed in a car crash. He was and still is a tremendous source of inspiration to me and the reason why I love education outreach so much. RIP Bionik. Know you are missed. 

Recently I lost one of my closest friends and the best mentor anyone could hope to have. His name was Nathan Woods but many knew him by his on-stage moniker, Bionik Brown. An accomplished rapper and educator, Mr. Nathan awakened a side of me I had never known. Somewhere between the trips to the Ninth Ward and the richest parts of New Orleans, I found a calling: education. These kids weren't all that different. Take away the socioeconomic barriers and a kid from the Ninth Ward could rival a kid from Uptown intellectually. It didn't matter whether the kids were rich or poor, black or white, from broken or separated families. No, what mattered was their desire to learn. Mr. Nathan summed it up with only a few words, "You see, these kids need a chance but they ain't got none. That's why we go here, to give those kids a chance." 

From that point, I knew what I wanted to do. I want to give those kids a chance. It may sound corny, but sometimes corny works. I'll never forget the time we pulled up to the Louis Armstrong library in the lower Ninth. It was my first time in the Ninth Ward and obviously I was nervous having had all the stories about homicides and robberies pounded into my head. We unpacked, set up our presentation, and began to talk about World War II. Immediately, the notion of these kids not knowing two from three vanished. Here were articulate, smart kids who asked smart questions. Hell, the questions they asked were better than the coddled Uptowners we had the day before. It didn't make sense in my brain. It was supposed to be the other way around. They were supposed to be the immature brats we catered to before, but they weren't. Walking out, I made a comment about how great our group was and Mr. Nathan began talking about the broken school system and how the kids in there were never going to live up to their full potential. They had the brains, they just didn't have the drive, not after seeing their friends and family driven off the straight and narrow by the bastions of poverty. 

I sat there silent until we got over the bridge and made up my mind right then and there. This wasn't just a cause I was fighting for. It was a ministry I was being called to. In middle school, I was the know-it-all showoff, always shunning other people for myself. God, I acted so aloof back then. Was it grade school preteniousness? Maybe. Was it to please my parents? Probably. I think it stemmed from the constant message that my parents always said to me, "Paul, you have to be the best," only I added, "and leave everybody in awe of you." This act continued into a good part of eighth grade until I started on those Red Ball Express trips. After that, it was a complete 180. Mr. Nathan saw a chance in me and took it. For that, I will forever be grateful. He taught me how to be humble by being humble himself. He never told me he was a rapper. I just knew him as an education coordinator at the D-Day Museum. He laughed whenever I showered praise on him, brushing it off with a quick comment. I soon learned to emulate that, and before I knew it I was who I wanted to be. I started looking at children as more than crying annoyances I had to babysit. I saw my own childhood in them, all that time I left behind trying to press forward. 

It started like that. Before you knew it, I was volunteering at VBS and getting more involved with Sunday School. The more time I spent around kids, the more of my childhood I was getting back. I know I can't get it all back, but the three or so hours I put in during VBS were always the best times of the year. I could let all of my grown-up worries evaporate and celebrate what a wonderful and awesome God we had that was letting me do all this. Before, when people told me I acted like a child I put on a straight face and stiffened up, trying to act more like an adult. Now, all I do is laugh and invite them to join in. Everyone has a little bit of their childhood left in them, and all I want to do is let that piece out and make this world a better place. In all of the worrying about gas prices, hurricanes, and stocks it sure feels good to run around and play tag for an hour or two, don'tcha think?

Mr. Nathan, you taught me to be a more humble and open minded person. You always felt I had promise and I'll be damned if I don't let you see that side of me. It hurts not having you around anymore, but I'm sure you love the collaborations with Jesus. Just make sure I get the first cut, OK?