I learned many of the most important leadership lessons as a junior in high school, thanks to Mr. Wilson and Cassie. Tremendously valuable lessons I’d like to pass on to you too as I know it will serve you and the organizations you lead well.
Let me tell you the story…
Cassie pointed wildly at a butterfly in the distance. Her big blue eyes lit up and her voice rose with excitement. But before the 5-year-old could finish her sentence, her father, without looking up, held up his hand in a gesture that silenced her immediately. “If you don’t have something important to say, Cassie, don’t say anything at all.”
Throughout most of her childhood, she often heard, “That’s not important, Cassie,” “Nobody cares, Cassie,” “Be quiet, Cassie.” By the time I got to know her a little bit in high school, most people referred to her as “the girl who never speaks.”
Junior year, I had Mr. Wilson for A.P. English. Mr. Wilson seemed odd to me, since he didn’t lecture much, asked a lot of questions, and instead of lining the desks up in rows like the other teachers did, he organized them in a circle.
One day we were discussing Romeo and Juliet. Though this was about the pre-Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes version, the class was still animated. Students were throwing their opinions at each other like a wild game of dodgeball. True to form, Mr. Wilson asked questions and kept the discussion moving forward from student to student.
Then he pointed at Cassie and asked what she thought. The entire class turned to her, collectively drew a breath and waited. Would she speak? Cassie shifted forward then shrank back into her seat.
Mr. Wilson asked again. “Cassie, I can see you have something to add, and I would be honored to hear it—we all would.”
And almost in unison, we all nodded. Cassie raised her eyes toward Mr. Wilson. They were bright blue, innocent and scared. And after a long pause she whispered, “It’s not important,” as her voice trailed off.
Mr. Wilson responded, “Cassie, anything you have to share is important, always.” She looked around at a room full of 17-year-old faces assuring her they did want to hear what she had to say. And for the first time since we had known her, Cassie spoke in class.
I don’t remember exactly what she said, but it sounded pretty good to my 17-year-old ears. What I do remember was the real-life metamorphosis that happened before my eyes. This once inconspicuous caterpillar transformed into a butterfly. For the rest of class, she sat tall and beamed as she spoke—it was awe-inspiring.
Mr. Wilson taught me a great deal about leadership that day.
He taught me leaders don’t tell you what to think; they encourage you to think for yourself.
They don’t dictate; they facilitate.
He taught me how people and ideas thrive in the process of engagement and co-creation.
And maybe the greatest lesson Mr. Wilson and Cassie taught me was that many times the greatest contributor is not the loudest or the one who seems most confident and that every voice is important.
Seek the voices of those around you. Encourage them to express themselves, their ideas and the more powerful self they have cocooned within. Everyone has a powerful and beautiful butterfly within. As leaders it is our job to help people through the metamorphosis process so it is realized and released.