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Applying Yourself

July 8, 2024

My 8th grade teacher, Margaret Wingate, changed the trajectory of my life.

I get to speak to a lot of different audiences. Tomorrow is unique because it is in my hometown, in front of the 600+ leaders of the school system that I attended from Kindergarten through 12th grade. As I prepare for this talk, I’m reminded of the profound impact educators can have on their students’ lives.

In fact, my 8th grade teacher, Margaret Wingate, changed the trajectory of my life. Her classroom was in a temporary trailer. She never used the overhead, fluorescent lights, just lamps, so it always felt calm. We sat in beanbags, not chairs. When we studied the 1920s we had to make our own radio commercials. When we studied the 1970s she dressed in hippie attire every day. She was one of my favorite teachers, but I didn’t excel in her class because I didn’t apply myself.

As I have prepared for my speech to educators tomorrow, I dug through some old stuff. I opened a report I wrote in eighth grade (that must not have received a very good grade) and found a note from Mrs. Wingate. She wrote, “Kevin, if you ever get to the point where you realize your full potential and actually apply yourself, there will be no stopping you.” She was exactly right. I had some potential, but I did as little as possible to get by. Her words were very kind . . . sort of painful . . . and right on target.

This experience taught me two important lessons about leadership:

1. The Power of Words

Proverbs says, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” The words we use matter, perhaps more than we realize. Mrs. Wingate’s note demonstrates this perfectly. Her carefully chosen words had a lasting impact on me, resonating years later as I reflect on my journey.

Leaders should choose their words carefully.

2. The Balance of Challenge and Encouragement

What made Mrs. Wingate’s words so powerful was the blend of encouragement and challenge. She acknowledged my potential, which boosted my confidence. At the same time, she also pushed me to do more. This combination is crucial in motivating others to grow and improve.

Mrs. Wingate’s approach can serve as a model for us all. She didn’t just say, “You’re not applying yourself.” Nor did she simply say, “You have potential.” Instead, she combined these messages: “You have potential, AND you need to apply yourself to reach it.”

As leaders – whether we’re bosses, parents, coaches, or team leaders – we must strike a delicate balance between challenging those we lead and encouraging them. It’s not enough to simply point out someone’s shortcomings or to offer empty praise. Instead, we need to do both: highlight their potential while pushing them to reach it.

As I prepare to speak to the educators in my hometown tomorrow, I’m grateful for teachers like Mrs. Wingate who understood the impact their roles will have. Their impact extends far beyond the classroom, shaping lives and future leaders in ways they may never fully realize.

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