Give Yourself a Leadership Makeover

Do you have the humility to see where your approach to leadership is failing?

Do you have the courage to give that approach a total makeover?

If so, you could learn a thing or two from David Laude.

In 2012, Laude, a chemistry professor at the University of Texas, was at a conference in New York City.  At the time, he’d been teaching chemistry to freshmen for twenty years. By his calculation, he’d already taught 20,000 students.

While at the conference, he said something unplanned, which surprised him, as well as everyone else in attendance.   That something would wind up changing his life.  He said, “People always thought I was a pretty good teacher, but every year I wouldn’t pass about 20 percent of my students. There are 4,000 kids whose hopes and dreams I destroyed, and I just want to say I’m sorry.”

What prompted this sudden declaration?  Earlier that year, Laude had taken on a part-time role within the UT administration.  Specifically, he was now head of the project team working to raise the four-year graduation rate.  Suddenly, Laude was granted access to see the data on his own students.  And what he saw troubled him deeply.  

Laude discovered that the 20 percent that were failing his class all shared one thing in common:  They all came from an economic disadvantaged background.  This realization hit him like a ton of bricks.  He saw the data trail: Failures in his chemistry class went on to drop out of college.  As college dropouts, they would become economically disadvantaged themselves, and perpetuate the generational cycles of poverty. 

Laude knew this cycle all too well.  It could have easily been his story.  He’d grown up in a working-class house and drove a truck while in high school to help pay the bills.  Somehow, he’d beaten the odds and made it through college. 

Deep down, Laude knew that it wasn’t just his students that were failing him.  He was failing them.  He knew they deserved a better opportunity to succeed.  To create that opportunity, he’d need to overhaul his whole approach to teaching and leading.  

The first shift came in Laude’s mindset.  He abandoned the belief that there had to be a success bell curve, with winners and losers.  Laude says, “I don’t want there to be a left side of the curve.”  He wants everyone to succeed.

More importantly, Laude backs up his desire with action.  He starts by connecting and inspiring his students on the first day of class.  He jumps off the stage in the big lecture hall and gets on the floor with them.  He tells them, “I’m on your side. I’m not up there — I’m down here. I want you to know how important it is to me that you be successful.”

Early on, Laude teaches common sense techniques on how to take a multiple-choice test—strategies that students from competitive high schools already know, but students from economically disadvantaged homes have never learned.  In addition, any student who fails the first test of the semester must meet with Laude for twenty minutes.  No one’s allowed to slip through the cracks. 

The result of this overhaul to leadership?  Laude gives out 350 A’s in his freshman chemistry course.  As for the doubters, those who still think success only counts if    some students fail?  Laude’s reply: “As long as you’re OK with the students from economic disadvantage being the ones who don’t pass, then go on teaching that other way.”  This year, Laude was recognized with the University of Texas Regents’ Outstanding Teaching Award.

David Laude’s story is valuable for any of us who hold a leadership role.  Are we mainly focused on staying in charge? Or truly supporting the people who are in our charge?

Where have you made-over your leadership philosophy?  Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.