Written By: Hans Appel
This fall I’m launching a student-led leadership podcast called Award Winning Culture. Students will be talking about topics like Character, Excellence, and Community all under the Wildcat Nation umbrella. They’ll have a chance to dig deep into concepts like kindness, empathy, and service and understand how these impact student learning. As part of this project, I’ve set up interviews with authors, business leaders, educators, and cultural experts. Additionally, they’ll have the opportunity to chat with leadership students around the country. As you can imagine, this is a HUGELY ambitious project that’s inherently fraught with a gigantic learning curve. I assure you that we’ll be making mistakes all along the way. Did I mention, I know almost nothing about creating a podcast? I mean, I've certainly enjoyed listening to them but until recently, I had no idea how to put one together. Yes, I've gotten a few eye rolls and a couple collegues have asked me questions like: “don’t you already have enough on your plate?” Yes! I certainly don’t need anything else. And if I was less passionate about this adventure, I would and maybe SHOULD have a healthy dose of fear about creating something with students that I have no expertise in. So, why would I venture into the unknown for our students this year?
As human beings, were drawn to successful influential people. We study them, watch them, and try and be near them; all along hoping to learn the secrets of life. People watch documentaries and interviews all to garner a glimmer of insight into what makes successful people tick. We read autobiographies, stalk them on social media and aspire to figure out how they became a success. Even the most successful people in the world love to surround themselves with other successful folks in hopes of taking a tiny nugget of wisdom.
At an early age, I was drawn to watching, listening to people. I come from a long line of people watchers. My mom loved observing folks. My mom’s dad (my grandpa) would plop himself down in the middle of the mall (as my grandmother would shop) and just watch people...for hours. I’m the same way. I’m absolutely fascinated with understanding people. But without a doubt my favorite people to understand have one thing in common: Success. And I’m not just talking the wealthy, successful celebrity type of success. I’m talking the everyday full of joy, living your WHY type of success.
There’s a lady who works the deli counter at Yoke’s (my neighborhood fresh market). She’s a heavy set, older hispanic bundle of passion! She smiles, and greets all her customers and treats EVERYONE LIKE FAMILY! She remembers people’s names, usual orders and family dynamics. If I go in there without my wife, she’ll invariably ask me questions about Jen, my dogs, my students at work, etc. She’s an outgoing people-person who LOVES serving others! She never misses a day of work as she can’t comprehend, not being there. This woman absolutely fascinates me. She is a success by all accounts and I love being around her. How did she become this positive force of nature? Where did her passion for choosing love and kindness come from? Has she always been a success? Who inspired her to be her best self? Why is she so committed to living such an authentic existence? Why does she treat every customer with the same respect and patience as a dear family member? These are just a few questions I have for her? Clearly, my underlying question is where did her Character come from?
We may be drawn to someone’s personality, appearance, or talent but we stay because of their character.
Think about some of the people in your life. Initially, we become friends with folks because we have things in common, similar personalities, or even proximity. We’ll say things like “she makes me laugh”, “he’s just fun to be around”, “we like to do the same things.” But if a new friendship is going to last, I’ll bet Character becomes important. Can I be myself with them? Do we have mutual trust? Forgiveness? Do we respect one another?
Beyond friendships, lasting romantic relationships often hinge on character. While severe character flaws might be the doom of a marriage or partnership, a high character spouse is incredibly desirable for investing one’s self, raising children, and or merging lives. With trust, respect, and intimacy comes the real magic of a romantic relationship. This magic certainly needs a spark and or chemistry but the effort to #ChooseLove through life’s challenges requires a strong character.
Passion for other’s character isn’t restricted to people we know personally. Think about those celebrities I mentioned earlier. We all have famous people we admire or look up to. And most of the time our interest is purely surface level. Maybe their attractive, or funny, or we envy their talent in some way. Perhaps, they entertain us with their skill and ability. But every once in while, we become fascinated with a successful person because we think we understand their Character. Here’s the litmus test I use to determine people’s true interest in a celebrity: How much would a famous person’s fall from grace bother you, at your core?
Most people wouldn’t be surprised or impacted if a Reality Star was mixed up in something ugly. Some fans might be temporarily upset but for most a revealed character flaw wouldn’t be a deal breaker. Why? Because people don’t follow these celebrities because of their perceived character? In fact, many times we’re drawn to personalities like these because of the drama and sensationalism that’s connected to them. Character is not even in the conversation. Thus, a fall from grace would have little impact to us as fans.
However, let’s examine the outcry of passionate disgust that people like Tiger Woods, Bill Cosby, and Joe Paterno have garnered. Without even getting into specific cases with these three men, why did their fall from grace create such a lasting powerful thud? Because society didn’t just love them for their talent, humor, or greatness. People loved them because they thought they knew something meaningful about their Character. An entire generation grew up with Bill Cosby as the perfect father on TV. Joe Paterno was celebrated for his grit, commitment, and toughness as a football coach. We watched Tiger grow up on the biggest stage, right in front of our eyes...with his huge smile and powerful charisma. We felt like we knew something about them...but maybe we were wrong.
Understanding successful people’s Character makeup can be illuminating and inspiring. A few months ago, I had the pleasure of organizing a group of students to attend the SERVUS conference in Western Washington. It’s an incredibly powerful event being surrounded by 5000+ students and educators who are all equally passionate and talented with servant leadership. Imagine creating a space for some of the most highly successful and motivated individuals, putting them all in a room, and saying….now learn from one another. It’s EPIC! There are world class speakers, storytellers, and athletes with inspiring messages for all attendees. At this year’s event one of the headliners was Naomi Ban, a 95 year old, award winning teacher, holocaust survivor and living legend. Here's a clip from a recent interview with Naomi. With her broken english, humor, and incredible life story she held the room captive. Perhaps the most powerful takeaway from her speech for us centered around the importance of forgiveness. Despite everything this hero had been through, she said "if I have hate in my heart I'm not free. I'm being a prisoner of my own heart." During her 90 minute presentation, she detailed for our students what it meant to demonstrate forgiveness, grit, and love. Part way through her presentation, I asked myself a question: What is the common link between all of the incredible speakers, I had enjoyed listening to that day? Character.
Every speaker we listened to that day had unbelievably strong character and were eager to share their life’s insights into becoming successful to an arena sized group of character-focused leaders. The truth is people love learning and understanding what makes successful people...well...Successful. And invariably...very often success can be traced back to Character. Robert Half says that “hard work without talent is a shame, but talent without hard work is a tragedy.” People love to surround themselves with successful people. At that moment, as I hung on every word Naomi spoke, I had an ephiany. What if we could create a space….a format if you will...that would allow our students to surround themselves with successful people, even if it was only for a few moments? What if they could ask insightful questions to help them understand the Character, Excellence, and Community behind leadership, service, and success? Imagine the personal growth that some students could gain by learning what makes these individuals tick. And beyond that...what if we could make this available to other students, educators, and people interested in successful people?
I guess the benefits outweigh any internal fear or anxiety I may have about not being able to deliver an incredibly rich platform. Our students deserve the opportunity to learn from some of the most successful people around. Since that day at the conference, I've been diligently tracking down funding for equipment, scheduling interviews, creating a branding platform, and teaching myself how to podcast. Because our kids deserve a platform like this.
Award Winning Culture should provide students the opportunity to learn, interact and share with successful CharacterStrong individuals.
My promise to you, is to share the highs and lows of this Award Winning Culture podcast, in upcoming blogs.
But until then, how might you use student voice, integration of technology, and/or step outside YOUR comfort zone to help your students find success?
In the end, maybe the 'successful leaders' that I spoke about aren't the individuals being interviewed...they're not the authors, adult educators and experts...perhaps, through this podcasting experience, the 'successful leaders' are indeed our students. Imagine what an intentional focus on creating student leaders might do for our school, community and world.
About the Author
Hans Appel has been a school counselor in the Richland School District for the past 17 years and at Enterprise Middle School since it opened. He's passionate about school culture, servant leadership, and kindness.
Enterprise Middle School received the 2018 ASCD Whole Child Award in Washington, for its award winning culture and the 2018 Global "Class Act Award" for Kindness. By creating a culture of kindness, service, and empathy we've taken student leadership to an epic level.