A Powerful Leadership Lesson from a Kiwi High School Teacher

I love writing. When I do it, I become completely absorbed in the process. Time stands still – and yet, time flies.

That first spark began in an English class when I was 14 – ignited by my English teacher, Mr Rathgen.

Me, around the age of 14…

Mr Rathgen looked a bit like Mr Tumnus in the story Narnia – a croaky voice and sprightly mischievousness, complete with a little goatie beard and an uncanny ability to dart about the classroom with elf-like dexterity. He also picked his nose when he was thinking deeply about something. An unlikely literary hero for an uber-conscious teenage girl, but a hero he was nonetheless.

Mr Rathgen saw in me a sliver of ability I was yet to see in myself. He saw potential – even though at the time,  it was rarely evident in my writing.

In short, he believed in me.

How did he show his belief in me?

– He stuck with me as I stumbled my way through haikus and prose, and my clumsy deconstruction of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.

– He would gently but directly ‘course correct’ me. “More of this and less of this,” were common prompts.

– He held me to account and taught me the art of self-discipline.

– He would specifically describe things I did well – and point out with equal specificity those I didn’t get right.

– He asked powerful questions that made me think.

Most of all, Mr Rathgen brought heart to his interactions with me and those he taught. He believed in a desperately self-conscious, geeky teenage girl – at a time when I certainly didn’t.

He believed in my potential.

What’s the link between my quirky, quick-witted and delightful English teacher and being a good leader?

You cannot coach someone you do not believe in. There can be no enabling the acorn to become an Oak tree if you don’t water it with the belief there is more potential to be realised than you might be currently seeing.

So, don’t coach someone you don’t believe in.

And, don’t try to lead someone before you’ve built trust.

Don’t lead just with your head – lead with your heart.

[Tweet “Don’t lead just with your head – lead with your heart.”]

Focus on building the relationship first.

Look for that spark, even if it’s only a flicker. Believe in those you lead and the potential for greater things, even if (and especially if) they don’t see it in themselves.

So, thank you Mr Rathgen, wherever you are, for believing in me and igniting my life-long love of writing.

And, if you are a leader reading this post, take a leaf out of this Kiwi teacher’s book.

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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