Mattie J.T. Stepanek wasn’t exactly a typical leader. A poet, peacemaker, five-time New York Times bestselling author, hailed by Oprah, Mattie was only 13 years old when he — like his three younger siblings — died from a rare form of muscular dystrophy. Few entrepreneurs achieve the impact Mattie did in his short life.
And yet Mattie’s story is not entirely uncommon. I recently worked with Mattie’s mom, Dr. Jeni Stepanek, at a summit for Global Teen Leaders — 30 young change-makers from around the world. As one of the facilitators, I expected to impart all kinds of worldly wisdom to these teenagers. Instead, I left with a handful of important leadership lessons for entrepreneurs.
For many, the very idea of teenage leaders is oxymoronic. Life experience is what makes a great leader, we tell ourselves. But here are seven stories that turn that conventional wisdom on its head.
1. Lead out Loud
When Justin was 13, he was disqualified from a middle school cross-country meet because officials were ignorant about the symptoms of his illness: Tourette Syndrome. Justin created an organisation called Honor Good Deeds that aims to combat ignorance and intolerance by talking about and embracing differences. He coined the phrase “Live Loud,” which means accepting and being proud of oneself and sharing that attitude with others. It doubles as the title of a speech he’s given in 10 states to more than 50,000 students.
Leaders shouldn’t try to mask what makes them different either. Your personality, quirks, idiosyncrasies, and sense of humour are all essential elements of what make you you. If you don’t bring those things to the workplace, you’ll never fulfil your true potential or fully enjoy success.
Put away the professional mask and give yourself permission to “lead out loud” just like Justin.
2. Make Your Company a ‘Power Cave’
Kajmere, 15, was diagnosed in 2005 with neuroblastoma and told that she would not live past her sixth birthday. She fought and survived, only to be diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in 2008. Because of the effects that cancer treatment had on her physical appearance and how two lesbian moms were raising her, Kajmere became the subject of endless taunting by her classmates. In response, she formed The Power Cave, an organisation that teaches teens, to speak up and take a stand against bullying in their communities.
The workplace might seem like a safe haven from incivility, but it’s not. Whether it is shouting or swearing, humiliating jokes or harassment, such behaviour strangles productivity and innovation, and increases stress and staff turnover.
Leaders must therefore turn their groups and organisations into Power Caves — safe spaces, where everyone feels empowered to call out incivility for the benefit of the victim and the business.
3. Be a Crisis Leader, Not a Crisis Manager
When Sanah was in the seventh grade, she woke up one morning to discover that her hair was falling out. Soon, alopecia had left her completely bald. Initially, she managed the crisis. She wore uncomfortable wigs and battled insecurity.
Then she decided to take a different approach. She abandoned the fake hair, donned fashion-forward headbands instead, and launched International Natural Day, which takes place annually on February 13th, the day before Valentine’s Day, and promotes the idea that we need to love ourselves before we can love others. This year, #NaturalDay had more than 3,000 mentions from 28 different countries.
This was crisis leadership. Instead of minimising the risk to herself, Sanah understood that should could use a difficult situation to empower others. Whether a crisis is personal or professional, individual or organisational, leaders can respond by designing a strategy focused on serving all those who are affected.
This not only helps you, your team or organisation weather the storm; it also builds a community of people who will be there to protect you in the future.
4. Be First
Siddhi, 16, lives in India — a country where conversations about sexuality are still taboo in many communities. Yet, she has become a passionate advocate for LGBT rights, setting up Breaking Barriers, an organisation that encourages gay and straight students in Indian schools to use artwork, videos, protests, presentations and workshops to spread awareness of LGBT issues. Now in five schools, it plans to establish a presence across India, including on college campuses.
The lesson here: Forget being a fast follower. The best leaders strive to be first — pioneering new products, technologies and business models, making their marks and setting unique foundations for their organization’s strategies and communications. As French author and Nobel Prize winner Andre Gide said, “Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.”
If you can’t quickly complete the sentence “My company or team is the first…”, are you really leading?
5. Focus on a Single Customer
At the age of 13, Ruchita traveled from the U.S. to India, where she met Asha, a 27 year-old widow, who was struggling to support her family. Asha’s young children had left school so they could work and earn money. Back at her own school, Ruchita determined to raise enough money for Asha to buy a sewing machine. She did and, within a year, Asha had a steady source of income, which allowed her kids to return to their studies.
Buoyed by this success story, Ruchita founded Sew A Future, an organization that has now helped 182 widows with young children to become self-sufficient.
True leadership flows from a desire to have meaningful impact in any way you can. Start not with lofty goals, but with a single ideal customer, like Asha, or a group of customers. Understand their needs, find a way to serve them, share that story to inspire others and only then start to scale.
Mother Teresa said, “Not all of us can do great things. But we can do small things with great love.” And so it is with leadership. Focus on small things with great love and see how much easier it is to engage staff and customers around your mission.
6. Pre-empt the Problem
Horrified by stories of teens driven to suicide by cyber-bullying, Trisha was 13 when she decided to put her technology skills to work solving the problem. She developed ReThink, an online software program that gives young people a chance to reconsider posting offensive messages on social media. Across 1,500 trials, ReThink reduced incidents of cyber-bullying by about 93 percent. Trisha has a patent for the program and is now in the process of making it compatible with all social-media sites.
Leaders must take an equally preemptive approach to mitigating risks and understanding the causes of conflicts in their organisations. When you target the source of a problem, you can prevent crises from happening in the first place, avoiding all the financial, emotional and business burden. Like so many things in life, prevention is better than cure.
7. Remember to Play
Elijah, 17, endured horrible physical abuse during his three years in foster care, coming away with third-degree burns on almost half of his body and no toes on his right foot. After finding his way to a good home and loving family, he set about bringing hope and happiness to kids like him.
At age 12, he organised what would be the first of many Christmas parties for children in foster care. A year later, he created No Use For Abuse, an advocacy group, which now also hosts back-to school events that are similarly festive.
As a leader you will face adversity. It is inevitable. Effective management during those dark moments is one thing; attitude is another. Rallying co-workers together for a party after a big setback might seem strange, but it sends out an important message. There is always something or someone to be grateful for, to honour and celebrate. Such shared experiences build a culture of resilience, empathy and positivity.
Mattie J.T. Stepanek was in and out of hospital since birth. And yet he continued to play practical jokes, planting whoopie cushions for the nurses to sit on, teasing and sharing jokes with his mom. Mattie had many beautiful messages, but the one that binds all of these teen leadership stories, and which entrepreneurs of all ages might benefit from the most is “remember to play after every storm.”