Iíve done a lot of contemplation on what it truly means to be a leader over the last few days. Thatís probably not much of a surprise for those who know I accompanied the participants in the Norwich High Schoolís Leadership Project on their retreat in the Adirondacks this past weekend.
After four days of listening to discussions on leadership and making the acquaintance of some truly amazing people (as all of the participants and adult chaperones were), I have reached some conclusions.
I have decided that, for me, a leader is someone who has a compelling vision with which they are able to truly inspire others. A leader is someone who cares deeply for and believes in their organization and the people around them. A leader is someone who has the courage to stand up for their convictions and does not waver in the face of adversity.
And a true leader, doesnít just talk the talk; they walk the walk and lead by example.
I came to these conclusions, not after reading a handout or listening to a speaker. They were drawn after I spent four days observing such and individual in action. That person is Joe Maiurano. (The teacher, not the mayor.)
Joe was and is the driving force behind The Leadership Project, and anyone who has ever heard him speak about the program can attest to the fact that it is more than just near and dear to his heart. He has been living and breathing this program for more than six months.
When I met Joe for the first time last week, it didnít take me long to realize how much he cares, not just about this program, but about Norwich High School and its students. He has taken that, along with his amazingly positive attitude (which is a revelation for a cynic like me) and all his energy and enthusiasm, and poured it into The Leadership Project.
His belief in the program is infectious and its goals worthy of commendation, and it is no wonder he was able to enlist support from one of the countyís largest companies, not to mention the districtís administration and the faculty members he asked on board.
What does shock me, is the intensely negative reaction this program elicited from those on the high schoolís staff who were not asked to participate. That negativity sparked controversy and outrage through the community, as anyone who read the paper last week is well aware.
In the face of that negativity, that controversy and anger, Joe never wavered. Not to say that he didnít have any moments of doubt during that time. He told me he had many sleepless nights. But his conviction in the value of his program and its ability to nurture and grow the students involved into agents of change in the high school never faltered and he stood strong. And I am so glad he did.
During the four days I spent with the students, I saw their transformation. That first night, they were a motley group. Many of the kids didnít really know each other. But over the next few days, as they challenged themselves physically and emotionally, all of those barriers broke down. It was such a powerful experience for them, and for me.
Much of the controversy surrounding the program was sparked by the selection of participants. Some didnít understand why seniors, who will be graduating in just a few short weeks, were included. But believe me, it made sense while we were there.
From the beginning, the seniors acted as almost junior counselors. They met daily with the adult leaders, and were given responsibilities and decision making authority in some situations. They modeled the leadership behavior to the younger students on the trip and stepped forward on those early activities when everyone was still uncertain.
From the first day, Kayla made sure everyone was involved. Without David, our team might not have made it up Whiteface together. Elliot touched many on the trip by talking about how important it is to learn from your mistakes and how important it is to support each other. Timmy took responsibility for getting everyone loaded up at the school, and, more importantly, let everyone know that even the best have their moments of doubt. Without their knowledge and experience, the program would not have been as effective. Without them individually, the trip would not have been the same.
There were many in the community upset by the inclusion of one individual on the trip. Their pain is tangible over what happened a year ago. Condemn the action, yes, but shouldnít we give the person a chance to change? Think of how powerful it is when someone shows they believe in you, the changes that it makes possible in your life and in your future.
It took more strength for that one student just to go on that retreat, than it did for the rest of us to climb a mountain, walk alone in the dark or rappel off a cliff. Heíll never forget that one person believed in him enough to get him there, and Iím sure heíll never forget the group of his peers who showed him they too believed in him.
I believe Mike said it first, but it was repeated often on the trip. ďDonít let anyone tell you that you donít deserve to be here,Ē he said.
I am unbelievably thankful that I had the opportunity to go on the retreat for so many reasons. But most of all, I am thankful that I had the opportunity to meet the amazing students and leaders on this trip. It was an experience that has transformed me, as much as I saw it transform them. I canít wait to see how they put their new found connection into action next year to make Norwich High School a better place.
So, Katie, Hannah, Kayla, Taylor, Alyssa, Alison, Shannon, Tambria, David, Brian, Casey, Kyle, Derrick, Josh F., Josh B., Jim, Tony, Elliot, Richie, Andrew, Patrick, Jeff, Mike, Frank and Timmy: Iím so proud of all of you for all you have accomplished and all that I know you will in the future. Thank you for letting me be a part of this.