Helping Our Students Lead with Dignity

Dr. Donna Hicks has served as a conflict negotiator in the Middle East, Sri Lanka, Cuba, and Northern Ireland.

And in February, she sat down – via Skype – to chat with some of our seventh and eighth graders about a topic close to her heart: dignity.

Last year, the entire faculty read Hicks’ bestselling book Dignity: The Essential Role it Plays in Resolving Conflict and, at the invitation of Head of School Dr. Gary Krahn, Hicks visited TVS to talk about how to “create a culture of dignity.”  As she notes:

Dignity is our inherent value and worth as human beings; everyone is born with it . . . After people learn about dignity, a remarkable thing happens. Everyone recognizes that we all have a deep human desire to be treated as something of value. I believe that it is our highest common denominator. This shared desire for dignity transcends all of our differences, putting our common human identity above all else.

Whenever educators encounter something new or profound, we immediately wonder how to bring this knowledge to our students.

This semester, Dr. Krahn is teaching a Selectives class focused on leadership, and a discussion of dignity is central to their investigations. This may seem like an unusual focus for a leadership course. But think about it this way: as a society, we sometimes view leadership too narrowly. In a recent New York Times article entitled “How to Get a Job at Google,” the man in charge of hiring at the Internet giant stated that leadership is one of the five characteristics they look for in candidates. However, they are not necessarily looking for traditional leaders. He clarifies that they are looking for

emergent leadership as opposed to traditional leadership. Traditional leadership is, were you president of the chess club? Were you vice president of sales? How quickly did you get there? We don’t care. What we care about is, when faced with a problem and you’re a member of a team, do you, at the appropriate time, step in and lead. And just as critically, do you step back and stop leading, do you let someone else? Because what’s critical to be an effective leader in this environment is you have to be willing to relinquish power.

Emergent leadership requires us to be empathetic, collaborative, and committed to the greater good. It’s team-focused, and there is no better way to build the trust of one’s teammates than by treating them with the dignity they deserve.

This week, I sat down with three students in the leadership selective who had Skyped with Dr. Hicks. I wanted to hear how they were beginning to think about dignity – how they defined the term and what role they felt it might have in our middle school.  As we talked, one student offered, “Dignity is the way you treat people: how you speak to them and how you make them feel. They should come away feeling positive.” Another responded, “Dignity means everybody has value and you respect that value.”

The conversation continued with this thought from a student, “It’s important to leave a positive impact on the people around you. We are all born to give to the people around us… to make each other happy.” As another student noted, true leadership and success is, in essence, “impacting others around you in a positive way.”

Much of the work we do in advisory, class meetings, and courses like The Skills for Tomorrow and Selectives centers around helping students value the voices of others and ultimately see themselves as change agents – people who can affect their world in positive ways.  There’s no perfect recipe for teaching this, but dignity is a key ingredient; it levels the playing field and brings people together as equals. As Hicks writes, “The glue that holds all of our relationships together is the mutual recognition of the desire to be seen, heard, listened to, and treated fairly; to be recognized, understood, and to feel safe in the world. . . . Dignity has the potential to change the world.”

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