What does it take to sustain a lasting leadership effort? In this past week’s Peer Perspectives on Leadership presentation, Richard Cheng (WG’14) described how long lasting leadership impact is born through steadfast belief, cultivated with unwavering resolve, and refined by continuous innovation. The lessons he learned through his experiences in Teach for America and as Co-Founder of Domus Academy have profound implications on how we as leaders can create and sustain a lasting impact in the teams and organizations we will soon lead.
The first challenge is to choose the mission to which we commit our precious time and energy. On one end of the spectrum are those efforts that sound interesting or profound, but are not necessarily immediately compelling. On the more extreme end are those issues where, once we become aware of their existence, we simply must do something about – to the extent that if we do not, we won’t be able to sleep at night. For Richard, serving the most marginalized youth in the U.S. urban education system was his urgently compelling issue.
Such a strong belief led him to a conviction, and then a compulsion, to take action grounded in empathy and high expectations for the students he taught. Further, such action is best directed through specific, tangible goals and it’s important for these goals to be personally compelling as well. However, one thing Richard learned through his experience is that it is crucial to choose personally compelling goals while simultaneously ensuring the goals serve the target community. For example, Richard desperately wanted to establish his school’s credibility and chose to compete directly with the industry-leading private school in terms of grades, scores, and a list of industry-standard accomplishments. He dedicated himself to beating the other school, to the point of exhaustion, only to realize that his students didn’t care if he beat the other school at all. What they needed were practical life skills to help them deal with the daily challenges they faced. This discovery led him to refine his efforts and do what was right for the school and the students.
Richard’s final realization about what helps establish lasting leadership efforts was the idea that to avoid exhaustion and to continually meet the needs of his students, he needed to pursue constant innovation. At every step of the way, innovation led him out of difficult situations. Innovations like implementing extensive data tracking for the whole school, a pay to learn program, and entrance into social venture competitions all served to provide personally fulfilling avenues to support his chosen mission.
So what’s the takeaway for us while we’re here at Wharton? The first step may actually be the most challenging to achieve – find a mission to which you can passionately dedicate your whole self. The kind of mission that keeps you awake at night. Allow that strong belief to develop into a compulsion for action and back it up with tangible goals. Finally, when all else fails, innovate and keep going strong!
If you are interested in nominating a classmate with a compelling story to speak for the Peer Perspectives on Leadership series, please contact Lindsay Schroll, (WG’14) at email@example.com. Also, like our Facebook page (Wharton Peer Perspectives on Leadership) to stay up-to-date on upcoming presentations!