Innovative: How to Create a Powerful Student Leadership Retreat

Denise Vaniadis is a master teacher, administrator and Student Council advisor (on the local, state and national levels) in Oklahoma. Her school has created a powerful student leadership retreat that is so popular they actually have to hold a lottery to decide which students get the privilege of attending. Only about 5% of their 4,000 student population can attend.

If you are interested in taking your local, state or national event to the next level, take some notes from Denise and her crew. This post is labeled under the PLI Essential of Innovative. Interestingly enough, you might not find her comments below that innovative. That is because it's not the ideas that make their event innovative. It is in how they approach the application of these points. The creativity lives in their passion, enthusiasm and attention to detail.

Here are Denise's five top reasons why her students are so emotionally tied into this annual two-day leadership training event...

1. Cascading Recruitment. We began with our Leadership Class students and recruited about 20 more kids we could identify as potential leaders. These numbers have continued to rise to the current level of 200+.

2. Curriculum Variety. While our focus is always character development, school spirit, personal development, and servant leadership, we vary the actual activities each year so that we could have kids for four years.

3. Indoctrinated Adult Staff. I am blessed to have a Principal who is a former Student Council advisor. He naturally buys in BIG TIME to what we do. Besides him, I went after the kids' favorite teachers to staff the retreat.

4. Amazing Setting. The camp ground is a fantastic environment with space for large and small group time plus recreation facilities.

5. Campfire Time. We built the evening campfire time to have a purpose and focus on tradition, school spirit, and legacy. The emphasis is passing the torch to the younger kids. They are instructed to give their "wish" to their class, their school in general, or to the underclassmen. They bring a "wish stick" to the campfire as a symbol. It's a very simple exercise, but it works powerfully year after year.

Denise would never add this sixth one, but I will tell you that her extreme professionalism, meticulus planning and over-the-top belief in the goodness of her students and in the power of high-level leadership training is a huge reason this event is a hit every year!


Wise Judgment: Have Mercy

We just presented at a leadership conference for 500 students in southern Oregon. We had eight of our best presenters working with these students for two full days on leadership and life skills. A good part of the students were respectful, attentive and ready to learn how to get better at life. However, there were certainly a large number of "squeaky wheels" that took our presentation energy and who spent their entire time at the conference being disruptive, disrespectful and, at certain times, just downright mean.

However, I have mercy for those kids. A teenager simply acts in response to their long-term environment. You can take a good kid, put them in a negative environment and, with enough time, they will make poor choices. And the reverse is true, as well. It saddens me as a trainer, speaker, coach and parent to see a young man disrespect a young woman in front of his peers because he simply doesn't know any better. Or to see a kid playing with his cell phone right through a life lesson that could have changed his entire life.

My wish is that every student leadership conference had mandatory attendance from the parents/guardians, as well. I firmly believe we are making a difference in the lives of young people with our Personal Leadership Insight conferences. I believe even more that for some of them, their parents/guardians need it much more.

With all that said, thanks to Asia and Cynthia and Tyler and all your positive peers for leaning into the conference and taking a ton away from the experience. We wish you the best.


Skill Assessment: The Little Things Make a Huge Difference

A few of my college buddies and I took a golf weekend trip to Scottsdale, AZ. We golfed 72 holes in 48 hours. We had a great time. Scottsdale is widely known as a golfing mecca. The courses were all beautiful and well worth the green fees.

However, the hospitality varied from some of the best I've seen at a golf course to leaving us wondering what grapefruit did the service training. One great example was on the last course of our trip and it demonstrates what can happen when an organization drops the ball in assessing and sharpening its customer-touch team's key skills.

The beverage cart came around and the lady asked us if we needed anything. We replied we would like her to take our picture. She quickly and shortly shot back, "OK. Are you going to get anything else?" It is difficult to transmit voice via text, but she did not act happy about this and did not have a smile on her face.

She took the picture and went on her way and received zero tips. All she had to do was to say something to the effect of, "I would love to!" Maybe put a smile on her face. Maybe even had some fun with it. Not only would she have received a tip for her services, we would have been more inclined to order something from her (resulting in more tips.)

It is amazing how the little things make a huge difference - especially when it comes to interpersonal relations. One little smile, a hop in her step and her results would have been totally different. This little tale is yet another testament to the fact that companies, organizations and associations need to make absolutely certain someone is watching to make certain the little things are working right.
Processing Questions for PLI Curriculum Teachers/Trainers:
1. Why is it that the little things can have a big impact?

2. When was a time you experienced a situation where a small change could have had a big impact?

3. In your life, what are the little changes that could be made to improve your quality of life?


Goal Processing: Sacrifice

As you reach for your personal and professional goals, a powerful question to ask yourself is this, "For what are you willing to sacrifice average?"

What do you want so bad that you will be willing to give up the anonymity, the comfort and the security of average? Within the answer to this question lies the energy and fervor (or lack thereof) of your journey towards your goal and, hopefully, greatness.

Processing Questions for PLI Curriculum Teachers/Trainers:

1. Why do people often settle for average?

2. For what are you willing to sacrifice average?

3. Now you will need to live beyond average, what does that look like for you?


Fostering Relationships: The Chicken Little

Chicken Little was confused and mistaken. He thought the cartoon acorn that hit him on his cartoon head was the cartoon sky. He thought the sky was falling.

There are chicken littles in the real world, too. They are also confused and mistaken. But they are most aptly defined by their contagious negative attitude. Chicken littles in the real world brighten a room whenever they leave the room.

You probably have one or more chicken littles in your life today, either at home or work or both. These are the people that always have something going wrong, they will always tell you why something can't or won't happen and they seemingly love to point out your faults. For a chicken little, every "sky" is falling somewhere.

What is the best way to deal with these little chickens? Can they have their mind changed? Why, out of all the emotions in the human spirit, have they chosen to allow a negative attitude define them?

Here are three "understandings" that should help you to deal with and make life bearable (and maybe even better) for you and for your chicken littles...

1. Understand they weren't born negative - they became conditioned over time. They learned this mode of operation slowly over the years. If you view your little chickens' negative attitude as a pervasive condition of their life, many times this makes it easier to deal with them because you know they don't have a beef with you, they have a beef with everyone and everything.

2. Understand they can't be "chicken big" overnight - it will take time. Chicken littles have perfected the art of negativity. Depending on their age, they may have been little for a long time. Don't expect overnight results or changes, but do expect them to respond (even in small, subtle ways) to your positive influence.

3. Understand you can't change a chicken little - only they can. Chicken littles are the way they are for a reason. More than likely they enjoy (even if in a very twisted way) the results they get from being negative. It is a safe place to play - never getting your hopes up and always having low expectations. It is also an easy place to play because chicken littles are all about problems and not solutions. The problems are easily recognizable and take zero work. Solutions are many times difficult to see and obviously require action to come to life. A chicken little will only change if they are presented with enough evidence that it is worth the change. Your positive behavior and language can be this evidence.

Just remember, little people talk about problems... big people talk about solutions. Be big.
Processing Questions for PLI Curriculum Teachers/Trainers:
1. Why do you think people have a negative attitude?

2. What are the benefits of having a positive attitude?

3. What are the steps you can take today to have a positive attitude at work? At home? In relationships with others?


Masterful Communcation: 5 Quick Speaking Tips

  • Index your information with keywords

  • Prepare, but don't overprepare

  • Make direct eye contact with the audience

  • Be authentic

  • Have a conversational speaking style

Click on the following link to watch an interview I did on September 10, 2007 for Oklahoma City's News Channel 5 about these speaking tips...



Integrity: The End Result of Authenticity

Read these words in the context of how others respond to you being yourself as a leader...

Authenticity leads to transparency.

Transparency leads to

Honesty leads to confidence.

Confidence leads to trust.

After all, trust is what it is all about.
Processing Questions for PLI Curriculum Teachers/Trainers:
1. What does being authentic mean to you?

2. How can you be more authentic?


Fostering Relationships: The Coach's Five Conversations

If you are called to lead or manage employees, add power to your employee evaluation process by including one or all of the following five questions in your meetings. What you will find is you will be more aptly called a coach and your evaluations will transform into conversations. Ask them the questions and then just listen. The words in parenthesis are what you are ultimately listening for...

1. What is challenging you the most? (Let them identify areas of improvement.)

2. What have been your best moments since we last spoke? (Let them celebrate success.)

3. If you could change one thing around here, what would it be? (Let them offer you advice.)

4. What do you need to do your job better? (Let them help you see process/system breakdowns from their point of view.)

5. Tell me some great things you've seen in other individuals. (Let them build up peers and self-identify areas where they can be great.)

Why is this approach powerful? Because most evaluation sessions are one-sided with the manager doing all the talking. The conversation approach interrupts this pattern and turns the evaluation meeting into a discussion of performance and puts the focus on the relationship, instead of just the result.


Integrity: The Clark Kent Effect


The corporate and education worlds are full of people who want to be Superman. They want to possess super leadership powers that will allow them to communicate at the speed of light, inspire others to leap buildings in a single bound and see straight through the walls people/competitors/potential buyers put up.

The challenge here is the Clark Kent Effect. If you want to be Superman, you have to be Clark Kent, also. You have to be okay with not being in power. You have to understand that Superman was a hero not because of his powers, but because of what he did with his powers. This strength of character, inspiring integrity and service-mindedness lived within Clark Kent. It just so happened he had the powers to help others in extraordinary ways as Superman.

If you want to be Superman (or Superwoman), be Clark Kent first. Be yourself. Be humble. Be a klutz. Be a person of integrity.

Processing Questions for PLI Curriculum Teachers/Trainers:

1. What is the meaning behind the phrase “Superman was a hero not because of his powers but because of what he did with his powers” and how does it apply to our everyday lives?

2. What strategies can you put to use today so that you too will be able to be a superman?


Emotional Maturity: The Danger of Pushing Back

Two people are standing, facing each other, hands raised to shoulder-height and palms open. They touch palms and lean towards each other. As the leaning begins, a balance is achieved to prevent either person from falling. Then something happens that disrupts the balance - someone starts pushing. This action not only breaks the balance, but it causes the other person to push back out of self-defense. Of course, this response is met with more pushing. And the cycle continues until someone is tired of either pushing back or being pushed.

This demonstration happens everyday in relationships. Things are going great. There are palms touched (making a connection with others.) There is a balance (mutual trust.) Then the pushing begins (aggression, broken trust, tempers, etc.) This action causes the other person to push back and things get out of hand.

So, how can you avoid this situation? Two ways...

1. When you achieve a balance with others, maintain it. Be truthful. Be respectful. Think before you talk. Thoughtfully consider their point of view. Understand that there is a "leaning" going on - that you are connected to others and that your behavior affects their life. Live outside yourself.

2. When someone starts pushing you or when you find yourself starting to push, step away. Don't make others push back and don't waste your energy pushing back. The secret learning in the analogy above is that as soon as one of the parties stops pushing, the pusher stops as well because there is nothing left to push on. This attention and tension break stops the vicious cycle and balance has a better chance to succeed again.

Processing Questions for PLI Curriculum Teachers/Trainers:

1. Why do you think the pushing starts?

2. When was a time that “pushing” ruined a close relationship in your life?


Masterful Communication: The Seven Speaking Skills

The following seven skills are at the core of what we teach to our professional, pageant and student presentation coaching clients...

Lady Speaking with Small Group

1. Authenticity is your number one goal. The best communicators know who they are, have a real-life bond with their content and strive to make a genuine connection with their audience. The biggest challenge on the road to speaking success is getting out of your own way and letting the best of the real you shine through.

2. Nervousness and excitement are chemically exactly the same. To the human body, there is no difference between being very nervous and very excited. Don't worry about getting rid of your nerves. Begin down the path of controlling your nerves by simply thinking about them differently. Accept that it is ok to be nervous and leverage your nerves to keep you on your toes.

3. Engage your audience quickly to control their attention. Almost as important as controlling your nerves is controlling the audience's focus. Get them involved in your presentation right from the start. Ask a question. Have them share with a partner. Get them physically moving. Make them laugh. Etc.

4. Send your message through the CVS test. In today's noisy world, the most effective messages cut to the core quickly. Make sure your messages are Concrete (don't make me search too hard for the meaning), Visual (help me see it) and Simple (I'm busy - your message shouldn't be.) The quickest way to achieve CVS is through good story-telling.

5. Master the art of indexing and filtering. Great presenters are great at preparing their content. They index information based on a set range of categories, topics, types of content, etc. they deem necessary for their presentations. We refer to these as buckets. Then they fill these buckets as full as they can. The important step comes during preparation - filtering down the information based on authenticity and the CVS test.

6. Your body language sends thousands of messages while your words only send a few. The most important body language is eye contact. You should make it with specific people and make it often. Think of any presentation as a string of smaller conversations with a number of different people. Beyond that, think moderation and variety when it comes to hand movements, walking, pace, volume, and facial expressions.

7. You can (and should) develop your ability to communicate. Communicating effectively is one-part technical, one-part mental and one-part habitual. No matter your experience level, all three of these can be sharpened and improved. More importantly, because our relationships, influence level and, in many cases, earning ability are dramatically impacted by our speaking skills, you should work to implement these skills this week. If you need more help, contact us. We would love to work with you.

Processing Questions for PLI Curriculum Teachers/Trainers:

1. What makes up the best you?

2. Why is it important to get your audience engaged early?

3. Who was the best speaker you have ever seen? What was their message? Why was it memorable?

4. What are some strategies for indexing your content?

5. Why is it important to make eye contact with individuals?


Skill Assessment: The Dirty Little Secret of Big Performers

Think of three wildly successful individuals in three significantly different fields...


Think very specifically about why your brain connects the concept of "successful" with each person...

? ? ?

Think about the nature of these characteristics. Do you perceive them to be in the skills, talents, or attitudes category....

Skills Talents Attitudes

Chances are your big performer A, B and C had very different reasons why they are successful and chances are almost as good those "success attributes" fall under different categories. The lesson here is that successful people seem to be very unique in terms of how and why they are high achievers...

The dirty little secret of big performers is they do have two very important "somethings" in common.


Regardless of industry, position, personality, market conditions, expertise, training, talent, skill or attitude, big performers are willing to do the small, non-sexy, gritty, "down in the trenches" tasks the average or under performers either don't want to do or don't think they should have to do. Big performers are in a never-ending battle with entitlement.


Big performers don't see themselves as "big performers." They see themselves as growing performers. They are constantly getting better, learning, stretching, risking, pursuing and running. Big performers are in a never-ending battle with complacency.


Integrity: Output vs. Outcome

Expert Leaders understand a project's success needs to based on both the overall outcome, as well as each team member's output.

The concept of hard-work is not directly labeled in the Personal Leadership Insight "Ten Essentials of Leadership" structure (Vision, Integrity, Innovative, Wise Judgment, etc.) However, internally we have always housed this very important leadership concept under the Integrity Essential. We've believe a person of integrity not only does what he/she says they will do, but they give 100% to everything they do.

When judging the success/failure of a project, the final outcome many times has too many moving parts that are out of our control. Thus, this metric can sometimes be a poor test of true success/failure.

However, each team member's output during the project is controllable. Call it what you want, energy, enthusiasm, passion, drive, or ambition, high-level output is what makes great teams outperform the competition. Here are a few of the dynamics that create high-level output...

1. Everyone on the team is engaging a core strength.

2. The team leader is trusted.

3. The mission of the team was created by the team and/or each team member went through an "ownership" process.

4. Everyone on the team is clear about why their individual output matters to the team's success.

5. There is an established protocol for how decisions are made.

If your team is not functioning at the level you know they can, cross-reference this list with the dynamics of your team and look for disparities.

Finally, output discussions are only relevant after a team has determined how and how often it is measured. Once clarity of expectations is obtained, high-level output becomes easier and easier to create and sustain.

Processing Questions for PLI Curriculum Teachers/Trainers:

1. Why is it important to have some way to judge the success or failure of a project?

2. What are some ways to increase your team’s performance in those five dynamics?

3. What is an example of a time when a team had a failing outcome but would of succeeded by output standards?


Goal Processing: Measure it for Meaning

This is the second of a series of posts in direct response to questions student leaders have asked us over the past few weeks. Thank you to those student leaders who took the time to voice your questions.

Q: How do I know that I am doing the job I am supposed to be doing as an elected student leader?

A. I picked this question to blog on today because I just finished a book that every manager/CEO/team leader/coach should read and implement. It is the Three Signs of a Miserable Job by Patrick Lencioni. Without giving away the plot, this student leader's question speaks directly to one of the three signs - not knowing how to measure your performance.

If I could sit down with every student organization advisor on the chapter, state and national level today and give them one metric to work on that would dramatically improve the impact of their organization, it would be to help their leaders (both adult and student) to know what success looks like in their job and help them measure it on a regular basis.

To the student leader wanting to know if they are doing a good job or not, your first step is to ask your direct report - the person who is directly responsible for helping you do a good job. Ask them point blank if you are doing a good job and ask for specifics. Formulate a list between the two of you of the measurable tasks/outcomes that would signify a job well done. This list might include the number of letters/e-mails/Facebook messages you write to members, the number of assignments you completed on time or early, the amount of hours you invested in a certain time period working on organization related items, etc.

After your initial conversation and brainstorm with your advisor, you will not only have a clearer understanding of how you are doing today, but you will have a list of benchmarks for the future.

Processing Questions for PLI Curriculum Teachers/Trainers:

1. Why is it important to have some benchmarks for your position?

2. What outcomes/tasks signify a job well done for you?