leadership, Reflections & Questions

What we can learn about leadership from the Parkland student survivors


Living in DC, I’m no stranger to political protests. So when I saw that the Parkland students were organizing a march to end gun violence, I was curious to see how adept they would be at rallying the public to their cause. Turns out: most professional leaders would benefit from taking a page from their book.

Here are a few of the reasons they’re leading so effectively: 

They have a clear vision. They know what they want, they aren’t mincing words, and they’re keeping everyone focused on the goal. Check out the March for Our Lives website and tell me when you last saw a corporate mission statement this clear or compelling.

They are fantastic storytellers. Every student who took the stage last Saturday made the mission come to life by sharing personal stories that (to borrow from Simon Sinek) illustrated WHY this mission is so important. Corporate leaders often spend a lot of time telling people what to accomplish and how to tackle it – but miss the ever-critical WHY that connects people to the mission.

They came prepared. I stood through two hours of students taking the stage to speak and do you know what I didn’t see? Anyone get up there and attempt to wing-it. These students knew that their words mattered, they appreciated the opportunity that had been offered to them, and they took it seriously. Sometimes the more comfortable we get in leadership roles, the more inclined we are to cut corners and shoot from the hip. Being candid can be great, but not when it results in a missed opportunity.

They are inclusive. They have identified common ground on a potentially controversial issue, and they are deliberate in making the case that it’s not a left/right issue, but something that is a shared issue regardless of party affiliation. They could have made this all about Parkland and their personal experience, but instead they reached out to other kids affected by gun violence – like those from Chicago and DC and LA –  and shared their spotlight with them. Leaders help amplify other voices.

They are vulnerable. A lot of people think CEOs should remain buttoned up and unemotional, even when the chips are down. But the most effective leaders know that it’s more important to be authentic than it is to be controlled. Letting people see you handling situations not just as a leader, but as a human, helps them trust you and want to follow you.

They are unflappable. I was blown away by Sam Fuentes’s composure. If you don’t know who I’m talking about: she threw up in the middle of her speech (on-air for the world to see) and instead of crawling off the stage to cry, she laughed it off and FINISHED. That takes perseverance to a whole new level.

They can stomach discomfort. Emma Gonzalez used part of her time at the microphone – a few minutes at least – to stand silently in observance of the six minutes and twenty seconds the gunman shot her classmates. Imagine how uncomfortable that must have been: standing on a stage, looking out at hundreds of thousands of people who weren’t sure what you were doing, and just continuing to stand. Now think of that within a leadership context and I’m sure we can all come up with examples of times we’ve caved and done the easy thing because we simply wanted to step out of the discomfort.

It comes down to this: we should stop acting so surprised by these students, because leadership has nothing to do with age or credentials or degrees. It’s not something that’s conferred by a title. Leadership is all about how you show up. It’s about being someone others are inspired to follow. These kids are nailing – and the rest of us can, too.



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