Houston sits down with CharacterStrong Co-Founder John Norlin and they talk about the Top 3 things students identified every year as most important to their learning in his 10 years as a leadership teacher.
Houston: Welcome everyone to the CharacterStrong Podcast. This is Houston Kraft, your host for today and one of the company-founders of CharacterStrong today. Today with us is my other company-founder, friend, hero, mentor, John Norlin. I'm excited that we get a chance to chat today, especially in these early episodes to sort of set the stage. Because one thing that I know about you, but maybe not all the listeners do, is that you put in a lot of hours inside school culture, 10 years in the classroom teaching a full load of leadership at the high school level. Unique really in the state and in the country. I want to know, the students that you worked with ... and you taught just about every student that came through your school, became almost a tier one approach in your building. In teaching leadership to all of these students, what would you say would be like the top three sort of takeaways or pieces of learning that students, in their reflection ... and I know you ask them sort of on their way out oftentimes what they learned, that they took. What would be those top three things, paradigm shifts, ways of thinking that were most important to the students that you worked with?
John: Yeah. That's a great question. And one of the things I love is that we had a school that valued teaching the whole child enough that it wasn't just a student activities class. That we also had like a ground-level leadership class that truly was about learning about servant leadership and character development every day, that eventually led into a student maybe taking a student activities class that you might see a lot of times in high schools around the country.
John: So the three things that always on a regular basis came up to the top as being like most highly rated as, "This was the most important thing I learned," number one was the conversation on influence, teaching something called the amazing law of influence, which really gets students thinking and realizing that "I'm more influential than I realize." 'Cause it goes to that conversation of who are the leaders? And many think, "Well, not me, 'cause I don't have the position of student body president." Or, "I don't have the position of the DECA Club president," or whatever. When in reality, understanding that we have all influence, and in many cases, it's more than we realize. That we might be the person for someone else. Just the studies that are out there, on average how many people we influence in a lifetime. I mean, you know the stat. On average, how many people do we pass by and influence in a lifetime?
Houston: On average, it's about 80,000?
John: Yep. And so when you think about it, like if that's average, imagine what is happening to that number if every single day I'm being intentional with what I'm doing, positive or negative. So when you get students thinking about that level of influence and realizing that they have more influence than they probably could ever imagine, it gets you thinking a little bit about the opportunities that I do take advantage of or that I'm potentially missing each day. So that kind of drills down to that idea to being intentional.
John: But even then, it's not enough, because the second thing that students will say really goes to the heart of the matter, and that is the conversation on love, and understanding that in a world that is all about this idea of, "Well, I'll do it if I feel like it," right? Or do whatever makes you happy. A lot of times it's related and connected to this concept of feelings. And I always say, "If I just do whatever I feel like, I'm going to be in trouble, like a lot." So them understanding through the conversation on love and a servant leadership model that it is more than a feeling, that you could actually love someone and not even like them. That if you understand that you can love someone and not even like them, you're starting to understand what real love is. Then what does that look at in action? That is a huge paradigm shift for students, the idea of actions first. Who do you want to be? Treat people in love, even if you don't necessarily feel like it, and you might actually come to love that person. Huge paradigm shift, huge learning for students.
John: The third thing is this idea of disciplining my character, working at it day in and day out, doing the little things so that when times are tough, when times are adverse, I'm more ready to be the person that I want to be. 'Cause anybody can be who they want to be when times are easy, convenient and going my way. There's no challenge in that. But who am I when it's hard? Who am I when everybody else is crumbling and in that moment where I need to stand strong in character, am I ready?
John: And I always like to say, "If I wanted to right now, and I haven't been working out very much, just say I'm going to go run a marathon." Good luck. That's going to be really hard. I couldn't just say, "I'm going to go run a marathon." Or I can't say, "I'm just going to going bench press 350 pounds," just 'cause I thought it was a good idea. The same thing relates to our character. So the idea of using character dares. Here are examples of putting it into action. Students get really excited going after those dares.
John: Then after they get multiple examples of what it looks like, where it's almost like a workout program, creating their own. Where I start to say, "All right, here's who I want to be, and I understand the importance of being consistent and predictable in mood and action." Then seeing them both succeed and struggle with that. Students will tell you time and time again, that was really, really hard work. I would do it again in a heartbeat. Every student I ever worked with always said the exact same thing, because they know deep down that we're not talking about happiness anymore, we're talking about purpose. When you start getting on that, some really cool things can happen with students.
John: So in a roundabout way, those are the three probably biggest things that always rose to the top as student saying, "This is the most important thing that we learned about when it came to this work."
Houston: And not all activities programs in high schools teach that, and those are the-
John: They should be.
Houston: They should be, right?
John: Because if you were, the activities that you do, the what of your activities will get way powerful.
Houston: Get a lot better.
Houston: Yeah. Yeah, I think kids are craving a purpose bigger than a poster.
John: I think advisors are, too.
John: 'Cause when they don't, we burn out.
Houston: Right, the average lifespan of a student activities advisor, about five years or less, partially because there is a ton to do. But if we don't have a purpose behind that to-do list, then we get quickly frustrated and overwhelmed.
John: Yeah, we're checking things off. And you can only check things off so long before you get frustrated, burnt out, and say, "It's somebody else's turn, because I paid my dues." Versus, I know why I do what I do. It's not easy, but it's totally worth it. And it's totally worth it, 'cause my kids are also focused on what's most important, and the work that we do is so good. And yeah, it's hard at times, but my bucket is full more days than not, because we are focused on that, right? When you put your focus on the little things, the big things, the activities, get better.
Houston: And I love that you have students who will tell you that. "This was really hard, and I want to sign up for it again."
Houston: That's a huge deal.
Houston: And I love that. So to summarize, what I heard, number one, talking about the big takeaways, leadership paradigm shifts for kids. Number one, that you are more influential than you realize every day, and that leadership isn't a title or a position, it's influence.
Houston: Number two, love is not just a feeling or something that we have in our most intimate relationships. Love is a choice, and great leaders choose to love people even when it's uncomfortable or awkward or sometimes even challenging or painful.
Houston: And number three, that character is an exercise. It's a muscle like a lot of other pieces of our body. It's a skill that if we don't take time to cultivate or have a disciplined way to pursue it ... Sometimes I think, even in leadership, we're asking kids to do really challenging relational things without doing the little workouts first. If we don't prepare them in little moments, then they're going to get really frustrated or even rejected in those big moments and not know what to do with them. That's a big deal.
Houston: So just to sort of tie a bow on it. Tell me about, briefly if you would, a student that went through your program that didn't have a position or title that was an incredible leader.
John: Yeah, I mean the quick version of a story is I remember a young man named Max who was influenced by two older boys that were seniors when he was a freshman. He was influenced by them and started showing up to some of the activities, because he was invited. One of the things that those two boys did on a regular basis was greet at the front door of the school every single day. So they were setting that example as seniors. Max was not involved in anything at our school. He wasn't involved in any sport or a club. But all of a sudden, halfway through his ninth grade year, he started greeting at the door. Those two young men that were seniors graduate, but Max stayed at that door for three and a half years. I don't think he missed one day. He would show up every single day, put a smile on his face, open those doors.
John: And students would do anything for that kid. Like they would go through a wall for that kid. And he never had a title, he never had a position, and he was one of the most influential student leaders I'd ever seen come through the halls, in the sense of what people would do for him. They would go the extra mile, they would be there for him. If he said, "We're going to be at this thing," they would show up. Not because of his title, but because of his personal influence. He was willing to show up every single day for them so, of course, they're going to then do the same in return. It's the law of the harvest. So that would be a solid example of someone who just did something very simple every single day that showed love, right? Character in action that people saw and went, "You know what? We're all better because of you, and I want to be better today, because every day you show up and hold that door open for me."
Houston: Character is built on consistency.
Houston: And we grow to trust those people, and that's how we build influence. I love that story of Max.
John: There's a longer version. Another podcast.
Houston: Well, looking forward to sharing more stories like that and digging in more to influence, to love, and to the disciplined pursuit of our character here on the CharacterStrong Podcast. Thanks for showing up. Make it a great day.
John: Thank you for listening to the CharacterStrong Podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, feel free to share on your social media. Please rate, review, and make sure to subscribe for future episodes on Spotify and iTunes. Thanks for listening. Make it a great day.