Tomorrow's corporate leaders might just come from Sandy Hook, CT, where the community is joining together to teach compassionate leadership skills on a community-wide basis.
What if an entire community collaborated in teaching compassionate leadership skills to children, young adults and families? I am talking about emotional intelligence on a town-wide scale. What if we measured our efforts in an affordable yet evidence-based way to inform the improvement of this collaborative effort year after year? Now scale that up – what if communities successful in developing these skills taught struggling communities how to do it themselves all across America? Imagine what that would mean for the quality of our future corporate and government leaders. Imagine what that could mean for the safety and well-being of our most precious assets -- our children. In Sandy Hook, CT, after losing 20 first graders and six of their educators to a socially isolated and highly anxious neighborhood kid, we have imagined. The idea is called The Spark Project and it is happening.
Spark was an evolution of several ideas, conversations and experiences stemming from the 2012 Sandy Hook School shooting, all focusing on how to best address root cause of violence in broad-based, sustainable ways. Several of us dads in Sandy Hook, CT had a unique experience as part of the Newtown Youth Wrestling Association community with a teenaged wrestler and mentor, Jack Wellman. Jack overcame his own personal sadness experienced after suffering a serious sports related injury in the Fall of 2012 (a feeling exacerbated by the school shooting) by helping coach and connect with young children through the sport of wrestling. Jack’s story was amazing to watch for those of us fortunate enough to experience the first-hand effect he had on our kids. However, the universality of the simple message conveyed and the value of the skills he effortlessly employed was inspiring to others as well, and earned him Sports Illustrated’s Sports Kid of the Year Award.
Importantly, it was Jack’s empathetic leadership and social-emotional skills that made him such an incredibly effective peer mentor. His ability to connect with others – both children and adults -- recalled a day when children were not so tied to their electronic devices and seemingly had a more acute sense of others’ emotions and how to interact with gentle self-confidence and compassion; how to build and maintain trust. We thought, if there were more kids with Jack’s skills focused on connecting with other children in the community, especially kids that are more socially isolated, there would be far fewer events of violence to self and others. We also thought if we could teach these same skills in an effective and sustainable way to all the good people in our community who were already devoting their time and energy to our kids on a volunteer basis – coaches, mentors, etc. – and dovetail that instruction with similar efforts in our schools, religious institutions and other community organizations, we would have a far more profound positive effect on our children and community.
The idea of teaching these skills to children on a community-wide basis was shared with Jeremy Richman, PhD, founder of The Avielle Foundation, and father of Avielle Richman who lost her life at Sandy Hook School. We quickly realized that the idea was completely congruent with much of the latest research on brain health, which suggests that “protective factors” such as self-mastery (i.e., developed executive control, high self-esteem, empathy, collaborative skills, etc.) and the ability to develop and maintain heathy, supportive relationships are critical to maintaining brain health and thus would help prevent violence to self and others. According to Richman, "the application of these insights to prevent aggression and violence is the next step, and community engagement is essential." Simply put, this is what getting to root cause looks like, and it really does “take a village” if we intend to do it right.
As it turns out, empathetic leadership skills are exactly what 21st Century corporate American needs. According to a 2014 article in Fortune Magazine entitled, Employers are looking for new hires with something extra: Empathy, “[a] mushrooming demand for employees with affective, non-logical abilities spans the economy. Empathy—sensing at a deep level the feelings and thoughts of others—is the foundation. ‘Non-cognitive skills and attributes such as team working, emotional maturity, empathy, and other interpersonal skills are as important as proficiency in English and mathematics,’ reports an advisory group of executives and educators on education reform in the U.K. When author George Anders searched for online job postings that paid over $100,000 a year and specified empathy or empathic traits, he quickly found 1,000 of them from companies as varied as Barclays Capital, McKinsey, and Mars.”
Recognizing the potential upside of having a deep, emotionally intelligent talent pool to draw from, Spark Project leaders are connecting with Fortune 500 executives and the best universities and colleges nationwide to partner in this mission. Companies and colleges are being tapped to provide employment opportunity and scholarship to those who not only excel in empathetic leadership skills but also spearhead initiatives using these skills that make a positive impact on the community, especially in the area of social inclusion and compassionate leadership. Parents will soon look at their children’s good deeds and warm hearts as a potential “ticket to ride.” When that happens, we will change the world. And, indeed, we must.