“It’s the cashier lady at lunch,” exclaimed one young girl when asked who influenced her most at school. “She always makes me feel good on sad days.”
The autistic boy felt he was “a horrible person” until he was invited to be involved in a presentation to the school board. Now he wears a tie to school. “Important people wear ties,” he says, “and I’m important.”
The middle-school student destined to drop out was asked by the principal to be in charge of morning announcements and was given 15 peers to lead. Now he is thinking about which college to attend.
As for the principal, a year ago she was struggling to hold the reins on her staff. Trust issues were rampant. Today she says she has shifted from being a “controlling manager” to being a “leader of leaders,” and the culture of her school has changed dramatically.
How It Started
The best news is that thousands of other students and staff at schools across the globe are similarly stepping up to become leaders in their unique ways.
It all started in 1999 at A.B. Combs Elementary in Raleigh, North Carolina. The school faced a seismic challenge. Enrollment was declining due to an aging neighborhood. Morale was low and discipline problems were on the rise. Test scores were among the lowest in the district.
With only 350 students in a building that could house twice that number, the district’s superintendent knew something needed to be done. They had tried making the school a “magnet” to attract students from outside normal boundaries, but that wasn’t working. Either they needed to come up with a new magnet theme that would draw in more students, or the school needed to be shut down.
The staff quickly went to work searching for a new theme. To their credit, they went to parents and local business leaders to ask what they wanted from a school. Their collective response was, “We want students who are responsible, who show initiative, who know how to set goals, who get along with others, and who can resolve conflicts and problem solve.” Interestingly, no one said anything about higher test scores.
The school’s principal, Muriel Summers, had just attended a seminar on “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People” led by my father, Dr. Stephen Covey. The room was filled with over a thousand adults, mostly corporate leaders. As she glanced around the room, Muriel could not help but wonder, “Why are we waiting to teach these powerful skills and life habits until people become adults?”
As Muriel combined her seminar experience with the comments of parents and business leaders, it sparked an idea in the staff, “Why don’t we use Leadership as our new magnet theme?”
Before long the entire staff was trained in the “7 Habits” and finding ways to teach the habits to students. Yes, even five year olds. Within a few years, over 900 students were bulging out of the classrooms. Discipline referrals and bullying were way down. Staff and parent satisfaction was up, and so were test scores. A.B. Combs was named the number one magnet school in America.
Three Challenges Calling for Leadership
Four years ago my father wrote the book, “The Leader in Me,” to tell the story of the transformation at A.B. Combs. Today, more than 1,200 schools are implementing the process. That means that nearly 600,000 more staff and students have been taught the “7 Habits” and are being given opportunities to step up and be leaders.
What these schools and individuals have discovered is that “The Leader in Me” helps them to address three major challenges:
- Raising the bar on academics
- Improving school culture
- Providing students with basic life skills, sometimes referred to as 21st century skills
Many schools approach the three challenges as if they are unrelated. They start by putting their greatest energy and resources on academics — which makes sense. Then, when problems with the culture arise, they react to deal with those issues. Then, if any energy remains, schools make an effort to incorporate life skills into the curriculum, often assigning the task to a team or to one person, such as the school counselor.
In contrast, “The Leader in Me” sees the three challenges as inter-related, and approaches them in reverse sequence. It begins by teaching life skills, or what A.B. Combs refers to as leadership skills, using the “7 Habits” as the framework. The habits encompass many of the skills the A.B. Combs parents and business leaders were asking for, including skills for taking initiative, setting goals, managing time, resolving conflicts, listening, public speaking, working in teams, and staying fit physically and emotionally. Teachers integrate the habits into existing lesson plans in such a way that they say “this is not one more thing we have to do, but a better way of doing what we are already doing.” Morning announcements, assemblies, and a variety of events also reinforce the habits. As staff and students apply and model the habits, there is an indirect positive impact on the schools’ culture and on students taking increased responsibility for their academics.
Everyone a Leader
Next, A.B. Combs took a direct approach at school culture by using the “7 Habits” and other leadership principles to improve the physical environment, to establish a common language and to involve everyone in being leaders. That’s right — everyone. All students and all staff are asked to be leaders.
The aim is not to make CEOs or presidents out of every student. It is geared toward helping students and staff to lead their own lives (personal leadership), to work effectively with others (interpersonal leadership), and to make a positive contribution to their surroundings (civic leadership). But unless they are given a chance to apply the principles, how will students or staff ever turn the principles into habits? “Leader in Me” schools provide students and staff such opportunities. That is why students are found leading assemblies, taking charge of parent conferences, filling leadership roles in their classroom, greeting students at doors, taking charge of morning announcements and making presentations to school boards. Every child is given the opportunity to be a leader.
Similarly, every adult is expected to be a leader. The definition of leadership emphasized is one of my father’s: “Leadership is communicating a person’s worth and potential so clearly that they are inspired to see it in themselves.” Given that definition, is there any adult at a school who cannot be a leader? There is absolutely not. Such a definition empowers custodians and cafeteria cashiers to think about their jobs differently and to see themselves as leaders. It also enables principals to think of themselves as leaders of leaders.
As the culture, or habitat, improves and everyone becomes engaged, there is an indirect impact on academics and the daily habits of students and staff.
Finally, “The Leader in Me” addresses academics by applying effective goal-setting principles to student achievement. Walking the halls of “Leader in Me” schools, one can see scoreboards for school-wide goals, bulletin boards in classrooms for class goals, and individual leadership notebooks for every student to record and track personal and academic goals. As a diligent focus is maintained on achieving these goals, even schools previously doing well academically will report improvements. And at the same time, the improved academics lead indirectly to improved self-confidence of students and an improved overall culture.
The interdependent nature of the three challenges — academics, culture, and life skills — and the value of their developmental sequence is important for educators to understand. Working on one improves the others; neglecting one diminishes the others. All three challenges are the responsibility of the school’s leaders — and that means everyone.
The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
As Muriel Summers sat among business leaders being trained in the 7 Habits, she could not help but think, “If children learned the 7 Habits at an early age, how different their lives might be and how different our world might be.” Read the following synopses of the 7 Habits in kids’ language and see if you come to the same conclusion.
Habit 1: Be Proactive
I am a responsible person. I take initiative. I choose my actions, attitudes and moods. I do not blame others for my wrong actions. I do the right thing without being asked, even when no one is looking.
Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind
I plan ahead and set goals. I do things that have meaning and make a difference. I am an important part of my classroom and contribute to my school’s mission and vision.
Habit 3: Put First Things First
I spend my time on things that are most important. This means I say no to things I know I should not do. I set priorities, make a schedule, and achieve my goals. I am disciplined and organized.
Habit 4: Think Win-Win
I balance courage for getting what I want with consideration for what others want. I make deposits in others’ Emotional Bank Accounts. When conflicts arise, I look for third alternatives. I look for ways to be a good citizen.
Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood
I listen to other people’s ideas and feelings. I try to see things from their viewpoints. I listen to others without interrupting. I am confident in voicing my ideas. I look people in the eyes when talking.
Habit 6: Synergize
I value other people’s strengths and learn from them. I work well in groups, even with people who are different than me. I seek out other people’s ideas to solve problems because I know that by teaming with others we can create better solutions than can anyone of us alone. I am humble.
Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw
I take care of my body by eating right, exercising, and getting sleep. I spend time with family and friends. I learn in lots of ways and lots of places, not just at school. I take time to find meaningful ways to help others.