The Character Movement

Barb Hilbert on ethical leadership

How do we build the next generation of ethical leaders?

By Barb Hilbert, Luther Automotive Group CFO

As we move away from 2016 – a year that has been punctuated in such extraordinary ways by rancor, incivility, violence, and uncertainty – I’ve struggled with how to write about our responsibility to model ethical leadership and character for our children when we’ve been inundated daily with grown-ups acting badly.

With that in mind, the Youth Frontiers Ethical Leadership Luncheon in December was especially encouraging. The room was filled to capacity with people who believe, as I do, that the need for ethical leadership has never been more important. It was such a valuable opportunity to come together as business leaders, members of the clergy, educators and community leaders to talk about why character matters. I left that day with a full heart and faith in our community’s ability to make a difference in how young people feel about themselves and the world around them.

One thing that keeps me emotionally connected to the mission of Youth Frontiers is the experience of attending retreats.  A few weeks ago, I visited a Respect Retreat for ninth graders from DeLaSalle High School.  They were a great group of kids: energetic, expressive, respectful to their teachers and Retreat Facilitators and in general, just happy! They were goofy in that 14-year-old way, and it made me smile just to look at them.

Every Respect Retreat ends with an activity called the “campfire”, otherwise known as a candle in a mason jar. The Retreat Facilitators dial down the energy and ask the students to make a personal commitment to do one of three things: respect themselves more, respect others more or stand up for respect. Then, the students have the opportunity to share their commitment with their classmates.

What was so profoundly striking that day was that at least three-quarters of those who shared committed to respecting themselves, to stop beating themselves up for not being “enough” – not being a good enough student, not being pretty enough, not being a good enough friend, not performing well enough in sports. One young man even said that he sometimes felt like he wasn’t a good enough son. Each of the students’ stories differed, but the feeling of insufficiency pervaded nearly all of them.

This revelation unnerved me. I had just spent over two and a half hours thinking that these kids had the world by the tail when really more than half of them suffered from significant self-doubt.

Imagine how it might feel to be 14 years-old and say out loud something that is personally painful. But then, imagine how it would feel to find that other 14-year-olds – maybe some you’ve never talked to before – have the same hurt, even those with good grades, clear complexions, popularity or athleticism. Imagine suddenly discovering a new sense of connectedness with your class.

Helping kids understand that they matter and that they have the power to make a difference is at the very heart of what Joe Cavanaugh had in mind when he founded Youth Frontiers 29 years ago. But what can we do to make this real in our own lives? My personal mantra and resolution for this new year is “pick one”.  Pick one kid who needs a lifeline, who needs to know that he or she matters and is not alone. Pick one kid who has no idea what it’s like to be treated with respect and dignity and show that kid that he or she is worthy of it. Imagine the exponential power in that kind of sharing. That is how we will demonstrate ethical leadership for our future leaders.

Thank you Barb for your wise words and generous support of our work. You can see more photographs from our Ethical Leadership Luncheon here.

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