Life’s greatest lessons don’t typically come from acts of intentionally seeking knowledge, so much they come when knowledge unintentionally finds us. Education scholar John Dewey identified this phenomenon as collateral learning. In his groundbreaking book, Experience & Education, Dewey wrote:
“Collateral learning in the way of formation of enduring attitudes, of likes and dislikes, may be and often is much more important than the spelling lesson or lesson in geography or history that is learned. For these attitudes are fundamentally what count in the future.”
I want to extend the reach of my most recent collateral learning experience, which took place last Friday at Firefly Autism, a world-class school in Denver, Colorado, that serves 250 students of all ages, including 100 in-home students. I was there to deliver my Peernovation workshop to a Vistage Group. While I always seek to learn something new from every group I visit, this time, my biggest takeaways came from a school tour before the start of the meeting.
Our host for the group meeting was Executive Director Jesse Ogas. Jesse’s school tour served as a masterclass on the power of purpose, the importance of expressing and living one’s values, and the magnitude of seeing (treating) each person for the complete human being that they are. Imagine if every company addressed these areas as well as Firefly Autism. Let’s explore in greater detail.
Everyone at the school, regardless of their role, recognizes why they are there and whom they are serving. It drives everything they do and how they conduct themselves in any situation. Their purpose is to transform the lives of children with autism. Partnering with families, they create life-long relationships through thoughtful, innovative, empirical learning treatment programs. Their vision is to live in a world where the lives of children with autism, their families and communities, are transformed through learning.
Their purpose and vision (as described) were exhibited palpably by every person I met. I also saw challenging work being conducted in an environment that prizes a sense of joy. I watched firsthand how it fueled a level of patience and understanding that will redefine those terms for most of us. If you want to sneak a peek at what our better angels look like, look no further than here.
Purpose clarifies. During my time at MullenLowe, we did not fight AGAINST one another; we fought FOR the best idea. Because we enjoyed the shared purpose of creating the best advertising in the world, it always served to remind us never to take conflict personally. The only reason people got heated during meetings was because we cared about the work. We enjoyed a state of psychological safety and accountability that kept us in what Amy Edmonson calls our “Learning Zone.” Our purpose was our North Star.
Purpose, vision, and values are essential. Still, without explicitly identifying the behaviors that bring them to life, they are left open to communication, and all too often, the kind of inconsistency that can do more harm than good. One place where these behaviors live for everyone to see is in the office of the school’s Director of Psychological Services, Dr. Tanner Simpson. Painted on the wall is where we see how we should “choose to be.” These behaviors apply to staff, family members, students, and community leaders alike. If it were up to me, they would serve as a mantra for the entire world.
Choose to be:
- Respectful – Treat others the way you want to be treated.
- Kind – Show that you care.
- Friendly – Say hello. Smile. Make a new friend.
- Generous – Share what you have with others.
- Courageous – Be brave, especially if you’re afraid.
- Honest – Tell the truth, even when it’s hard.
- Polite – Say please, thank you, and you’re welcome.
- Helpful – Lend a hand. Do what is needed.
It’s the behaviors that deliver on the purpose and create joy in learning. So ask yourself whether in your company you articulate and live the behaviors that help you realize your why and bring joy to your employees, vendors, customers, and community alike.
Seeing the Whole Person
Autism is not a disease or an illness. Having autism means your brain works differently from other people. It does not define the student, which is why Jesse told us that they don’t treat autism; they treat and educate the whole person (and their family). The entire Firefly team gets to know the students and their families and develop a plan for each student that will help them advance at school and home.
How many leaders, pre-COVID, took the time to get to know their employees as complete human beings? A more thorough understanding of the whole person helps leaders support and challenge their employees in a manner that will help them realize their full potential – inspiring the kind of behaviors that will serve the organization’s purpose as well enouraging your people to discover their own.
It shouldn’t surprise you that the tagline for Firefly Autism is the theme for this article:
Helping them discover the world. And helping the world discover them.
When the world discovers us and delivers the unexpected gift of learning something new or reminding us about what matters in this world, it’s up to us to act. So share this article and take a moment to reflect on the last time a life lesson discovered you and what you did to make your organization or the world a better place as a result. It’s up to you.
It’s about what you choose to be.
Written by Leo Bottary.
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