John DePass, 16, is a senior at Annapolis High School in Annapolis, Md. In the spirit of ‘leaders aren’t born; they’re made,’ DePass in the following essay explores the true essence of leadership, gathered from personal insight as a recent FBLA president and LBW student.
The best window into understanding leadership is often to live it. I joined the Future Business Leaders of America (FBLA) chapter at my high school when I was a freshman. I sought a club where students could learn more about business, meet corporate leaders and pursue team projects, like launching a business that helped our school. The club was started with all good intentions, but by my junior year, it had deteriorated. I learned quickly that not everyone defines leadership in the same way.
Too many of our FBLA members began to see the club as a pathway to presidency — a title that, if nothing else, looked impressive on college applications. They weren’t joining for the hard work of building a sustainable institution for our school. The jockeying for power led to almost everyone in the club taking on the title of president even if they were filling that role in name only. But, hey, would admissions officers really check? I was disenchanted by the unethical and unproductive approach to our FBLA club. We were not properly managing funds, scheduling events or meeting the guidelines of the national organization that runs all FBLA clubs.
So I took on the challenge in the past year to turn things around. As the official president, I have been working with like-minded students to begin seeking FBLA members who genuinely believe in the mission of business leadership. I have talked with our advisor and school administrators about giving us more guidance and encouraging the appropriate use of funding. In addition, we are partnering with an area school that has a successful FBLA program to mentor us as we try to strengthen our own FBLA infrastructure. While the club has made great progress, my team and I still have a lot of work to do – and we are doing it cohesively and with a vision. I have come to understand leadership more clearly.
My FBLA journey, together with my time this summer at Wharton’s Leadership in the Business World (LBW), have clarified my perception of leadership. In my eyes, a good leader is someone who overcomes obstacles, manages other people and has the ability to endure the long road from failure to success. You’ve heard of Marvel Comics’ Fantastic Four fictional superhero team. Well, here are my Leadership Four, traits worthy of any business superhero:
- A strong work ethic: Leaders pick up the slack when others lose momentum; they devote 120% when everyone else can only give 70%, and they persist when the going gets tough. Leadership is not easy, especially in the business world. Chief executives earn the big bucks because ultimately they are responsible for everything that happens within their companies. Hard work often sees them through difficult challenges.
- Networking savvy: Have you ever heard the phrase, “It is not what you know; it is who you know?” In business, your professional network sustains you. Networking is essentially the act of establishing relationships with other people. The skill is important for business leaders because strong relationships with other executives create new opportunities and often lead to business deals.
- Respect for the team: Leaders must play well with others. Being a team player does not always come easy to me as I jockey for my voice to be heard. I am learning that my opinion is not necessarily the final word. I need to accept criticism and feedback from others without bristling and becoming defensive. When you have several passionate and intelligent people in one group, ideas explode (literally and figuratively) and it can be hard to be productive. However, when a team works together effectively, all those ideas and opinions fuel a successful outcome. A true business leader accepts people for who they are and leverages their strengths to build a company.
- Tenacity: Business leaders don’t take no for an answer. Respected Philadelphia commercial realtor Bart Blastein says, “If you want something badly enough, go after it!” Many aspiring entrepreneurs and leaders face constant rejection, and instead of moving forward with their ideas, they give up. Rather than quitting, leaders use rejection and criticism to improve their products or ideas – they use that little “no” word to further ignite their desire to succeed. How sweet it is when they prove the naysayers wrong.
My senior year is underway — in some ways the end of a journey, and in so many others a new beginning. I will be holding my first FBLA meeting on Sept. 17, and I plan to call on these new leadership principles often. I feel I have the tools to make an impact and leave a lasting legacy.
Like John DePass, have you have ever taken on a challenging leadership position that required innovative thinking and challenging obstacles? Describe your experience. What did you learn about leadership?
Why is the teamwork issue especially difficult for DePass? Now place that in the context of a business with 25 employees. You are the CEO. Why wouldn’t a ‘command and control’ approach work well in that setting? What would be some of the challenges of not listening to the ideas of the team?
What leadership quality is missing from this list? Add a 5th bullet point with your own leadership quality and why you think it is especially important.
Are you an FBLA member? How do you respond to DePass's difficulties with his FBLA club?