Role Models Can Be Our Most Powerful Teachers

By Robyn Pearce

There’s a story behind the story of my friend and leadership specialist LaVonn Steiner and I, and our happy decision to collaborate, authoring ‘Getting a Grip on Leadership – How to learn leadership without making all the mistakes yourself’ and I’d like to share that with you, for it relates in a most amazing way to the topic of this issue – the leadership power of role models and influencers.

Have you ever ripped out a particularly inspiring clipping from a magazine or newsletter and tucked it in your diary, placed it somewhere around your desk, or even pinned it on the wall?

Back in 1998 I’d done just that. The beautiful and heart-warming piece I clipped came from ‘Chicken Soup for the Soul at Work’ about a little boy in shabby and torn clothes, and the lesson learnt by a young lass in her father’s shop one cold North Dakota Christmas. For over three years it stayed neatly tucked in the back of my diary. Every now and then I’d re-read it, and I always chose to leave it there – it touched my heart so.

Then, in 2001 I was on a bus with a bunch of professional speakers from New Zealand, Australia, America and Canada. We were on our way to Rotorua, New Zealand, to enjoy its world-famous thermal attractions.

LaVonn and Dick Steiner from the USA sat in front of me and from that trip our friendship and collaboration was born.

Three weeks after we’d met, with LaVonn safely back in her home town and the decision to collaborate already made, I happened to do another sort-through of the papers tucked in the back of my diary. The story about the shabby little boy fell into my hand again. I looked at the author’s name. That little lass was – LaVonn!

Here for you is that story, from p. 28 of our book – the chapter which talks about Role Models and Influencers.

We come by business naturally in our family. Each of the seven children in our family worked in our father’s store, “Our Own Hardware-Furniture,” in Mott, North Dakota. We started work with odd jobs like dusting, arranging shelves and wrapping; later we graduated to serving customers. As we worked and watched, we learned that work was about more than survival and making a sale.

It was shortly before Christmas. I was in grade seven and was working evenings, straightening the toy section. A little boy, five or six years old, came in. He was wearing a brown tattered coat with worn-out cuffs. His hair was straggly, except for a cowlick that stood straight up from the crown of his head. His shoes were scuffed and his one shoelace was torn. The little boy looked poor —too poor to afford to buy anything. I thought “Hmmm, I bet he’s going to shoplift,” and I positioned myself to watch. He looked around the toy section, picked up this item and that, and carefully put them back in their place.

Dad came down the stairs and walked over to the boy. His steel blue eyes smiled and the dimple in his cheek stood out as he asked the boy what he could do for him. The boy said he was looking for a Christmas gift to buy for his brother. I was impressed that Dad treated him with the same respect as any adult. Dad told him to take his time and look around. He did.

After about 20 minutes, the little boy carefully picked up a toy plane, walked up to my Dad and said, “How much for this, mister?” “How much you got,” my Dad asked.

The little boy held out his hand and opened it. His hands were creased with wet lines of dirt from clutching his money. In his hand lay two dimes, a nickel, and two pennies – 27 cents. The price on the toy plane he had picked out was $3.98.

“That’ll just about do it,” Dad said as he closed the sale. Dad’s reply still rings in my ears. I thought about what I’d seen as I wrapped the present. When the little boy walked out of the store, I didn’t notice the dirty, worn coat, the straggly hair, or the single torn shoelace. What I saw was a radiant child with a treasure.

Dad treated people right and his business flourished. His influence had a ripple effect far beyond that small community on the prairies of North Dakota.

Little did I know on that cold December night, I had just learned my greatest lesson in leadership. Respect has become my foundation principle in dealing with people. That night I learned from my Dad that everyone has worth and value as a human being.

Excerpt from: ‘’Getting a Grip on Leadership’ by Robyn Pearce and LaVonn Steiner

Teachers as Influencers

Teachers for instance would have seen many examples of influential leadership – not just from senior teachers, but also new teachers; not just teachers, but also low-paid ancillary staff; not just paid people, but also volunteers; not just adults but also children.

Just to prompt your noticing, here’s an example I was given by a parent.

His young son Simon had struggled mightily the year before. His very experienced and quite senior teacher constantly sent notes home about Simon’s behaviour, and that same inappropriate behaviour was a regular topic at parent-teacher interviews.

The next year Simon’s class was taken over a lovely young Indian woman, a second-year teacher. His parents began to notice that Simon was happier, and were delighted to find that the new teacher was having no trouble with him.

‘What’s different?’ they wondered.

One day, in conversation with the teacher, she shared her philosophy.

‘Every day I look for something positive to praise each child for.’

We all crave acceptance; this young woman had cracked the code. Just imagine how much time she saved in discipline because she took the time to emphasise the positive.

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