Authentic Leadership Lessons From The Dead Poets Society – What will your verse be?

This past week I was in Ottawa visiting my daughter, Hayley, who is proudly starting her teaching career in a Montessori high school. She finished her dual degree in Education and Arts this past year and is a passionate, purpose-driven new teacher.

In our conversations I asked Hayley about her vision for herself as a new educator. She referred me to a scene in Peter Weir’s 1989 wonderful film, Dead Poets Society. Set in 1959 at the fictional elite conservative Vermont boarding school, Welton Academy, it tells the story of an English teacher who inspires his students through his teaching of poetry. Hayley was inspired by the movie when we watched it many years ago. In one scene, John Keating (played by Robin Williams) teaches his pupils the reason for reading and writing poetry by quoting Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

“We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute,” explains the teacher. “We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. Medicine, law, business, engineering; these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love; these are what we stay alive for.”

To paraphrase Whitman:

“O me! O life! of the questions of these recurring.

Of the endless trains of the faithless.

Of cities filled with the foolish…

What good amid these, O me! O life?

Answer: That you are here. That life exists and identity.

That the powerful play goes on, And you may contribute a verse.

That the powerful play goes on, And you may contribute a verse.”

The teacher then stopped and asked his students to reflect upon a life-changing question: “What will your verse be?”

The scene has applicability not only for high achieving high school students but also for those who are committed to live authentically. Authenticity asks us to look within our heart and soul, and to stop long enough to ask the tough questions:

  • What is it that you care most deeply about?
  • What in your life is calling you – beyond what others expect from you?
  • How aligned are you with the life you are meant to be living?
  • What’s the difference between living in the midst of the tyranny of the urgent, and living with a sense of purpose?
  • What do you most need to do in your life?
  • How are you supporting others to find their voice?

What will your verse be?

Mentor Leaders – Lessons From School Teachers

I always love working with teachers. Like every profession, there are good teachers and bad teachers, but I have learned a lot over the years about leadership from having teachers in my leadership development programs. In Oprah’s final show, she introduced and praised her grade four teacher, an early “liberator” who made her feel valued. Think about your own teachers. There are those who just meet the curriculum requirements and help you get into the next grade, while others inspire you, build your character, and mentor you to be a better person, not just a better student. And think about the bosses you’ve had. Some merely help you get your work done, some get in your way, but some change your life. Some help you be a better employee, while others help you be a better person.

How is it that some teachers are merely teachers, but others are leaders, mentors, and life-changers? And how is it that some bosses are merely bosses, while others influence and build your moral fiber, model and teach new attitudes and behaviors, and create a constructive legacy for future generations? It is this distinction that makes a “mentor leader.”

While there are many leadership practices that amplify one’s impact on others, “mentor leaders” possess three qualities of leadership that exemplify their presence:

1) Leaders who make a difference are authentic. They are human, and humble, and present. They also aren’t perfect or attempt to create an illusion of perfection. To impact others, you can’t be phony. People will see right through it. By being who they are, they create a space where others are inspired to also be authentic. Authentic people love what they do and are open to learning about themselves. They are inspired by a purpose and a passion and as a result, they inspire others.

2) Leaders who make a difference are accountable. They can be counted on and don’t make promises they aren’t prepared to keep. They create a place where blame is viewed as a waste of time. They have high standards, both for themselves and those around them. It’s inspiring to be around people you can count on. You aren’t a leader until someone says you are, and you won’t earn the credibility to influence and be trusted if people can’t count on you.

3) Leaders who make a difference care. They care about their work and they care about the people around them. They understand that leading is largely a matter of caring about people, not manipulating or controlling them. Leaders who care measure their success by the trust they build and the value they bring to the lives of others. They are committed to serve. Mentor leaders know that their work is a means to a higher end and put people above products and processes. It’s about changing lives.

Great leadership goes well beyond merely “getting the job done,” and cannot be reduced to technique or position or power. Great leadership inspires others and comes from the strength of one’s identity and integrity – their presence. When teachers possess this presence and inspire it in their students, we are truly fortunate to have them in our lives. The same goes for the leaders in our life and in our work who can help us reach unimaginable potential.