We live, teach and lead by our ideals. The heart and soul of College Possible's culture is found in the traits of an Idealistic Leader.
At College Possible we don’t aim to be good, or even great; we aim to be the best in the world at what we do. This impulse may lack an appropriate level of humility, but the stakes could hardly be any higher: if we do our work the best it can possibly be done, our students will have much better lives. If, however, we cut a corner or skip a step, or fail to give everything we’ve got, our students will have far fewer opportunities.
Our efforts to constantly exceed expectations must go far beyond our students to include how we treat every one of our partners, every teacher or professor, every parent, every donor or champion. Everyone who comes into contact with College Possible should walk away saying, “Wow. That was amazing.” They’ll be better and more willing partners because of our efforts.
One of the things that is most rewarded in college and graduate school is the ability to level a devastating criticism of a book, an article or a solution. The best way to earn a raised eyebrow and an approving nod from a professor or a murmur of agreement from your classmates (or from many bosses and colleagues) is to offer an incisive critical analysis of something. This is what we are taught to do and it is rewarded in college and beyond. As it should be, right? How can we fix things unless we can quickly diagnose the problems and identify the flaws? Absolutely, that is right.
But to really affect social change you need to develop the ability to move from critique to solution, and then to positive action. There is no question we must carefully and accurately identify problems, but to become a social change agent, the critical next step is to figure out what to actually do about it, and then do it in the real world.
Something surprising happens when we become solution oriented: we begin to generate a powerful, positive energy and everyone begins to find solutions and feel empowered, energized and fulfilled. And of course the opposite is true, too. When all anyone does is complain and criticize, it leads to a painful downward spiral that is enervating, dispiriting and ultimately makes everyone feel hopeless.
We want to be solution oriented. One of the most common responses to a problem posed by anyone at College Possible should be, “Well, what do you think we should do about it?” We need to have an aggressive bias toward developing solutions and taking positive action. It’s the only way to change the world.
This means thinking through every decision, every challenge, every opportunity from the point of view of our students and our goal of helping them earn a college degree. This takes enormous discipline and practice. You must do whatever it takes to support our students. Results matter more than anything else. Each number and every percentage change represents a student and their accomplishments. Remember, you may never have another opportunity to do such meaningful work.
This value comes from two closely related ideas: a strong commitment to our mission is necessary for great results and is central to the deep meaning many find in this work. We don’t exist to solve every problem in the world, but if we do our work well, we will be laying a foundation to erase myriad social and economic disparities. We have a mission that is tightly focused on one outrageous disparity: students from upper-income families are almost nine times more likely to earn a college degree than their low-income peers. Our belief is that if we can close this degree divide, it will help to eliminate many of the other disparities we see in the world. Our foundational idea is that if we can help low-income students get a fair shot to go as far in life as their talents and efforts will take them, then the world will truly be a better, more fair and just place.
To do this, however, we must be willing to do whatever it takes to help our students and deliver on our mission. We need to have an almost fanatical devotion to helping our students overcome whatever obstacle is in the way. We need to be the one partner in our students’ lives who they know will never, ever give up.
The only way we can truly know if we are doing this is to carefully measure every important aspect of what we do. Perhaps as much as any other nonprofit in America, College Possible is committed to the most rigorous measurement and evaluation of our efforts that is possible. We should take no comfort—none at all—in the seductive idea that we have tried really hard. It doesn’t much matter if we try really hard if a particular student still doesn’t enroll in college or graduate. We reward our team members for results, not effort. Usually these go together, of course. But the final measure of our commitment to our students and our mission is whether we have achieved our desired result.
At College Possible we want to measure our results so that we know whether we are making a true difference in the lives of the students we are here to serve. We use this laser-like focus on results in how we manage our team members, and we use it to continuously improve our efforts.
Finally, we need to embrace the idea that doing this work is the opportunity of a lifetime. To have an opportunity to devote yourself totally to helping another person achieve their full potential is a gift to behold.
Make no mistake, changing the world is almost unbelievably difficult. It can sometimes break your spirit and your heart. But when you actually help another person become more than they thought they could, you will have achieved something that no amount of money can buy. The only way to feel this deep, soul-enriching satisfaction is to actually do the work, every day, day-after-day, even when you’re tired, even when you begin to lose the faith. There is no shortcut. As the hundreds of team members who have served with us can attest, when you help change the world for another person, that is as good as it gets.
Cynicism may be the single most corrosive force resisting social change in America today. Cynicism is the idea that nothing will ever change and that no leader is truly motivated for the right reasons, that no matter what any of us do, all the injustices of the world will persist. If you want to help change the world and create positive social change, you need to reject this idea completely.
Like many of our traits, this is much harder to do than it seems. We need to find the courage to stand up to cynical remarks, to people who feel defeated or doubtful, to challenge them and be a force in the world that says, “Positive change is possible.”
An important part of embracing the idea that positive change is possible—which is, after all, the very definition of “idealism”—is to have faith. We must hold the deep belief that things really can change, even if there is little, if any, evidence that they will. This concept of faith is built on the powerful idea of hope.
Ron Suskind’s book, “A Hope in the Unseen,” helped inspire me to start this work. The book draws its title from a passage in the bible that says, “The substance of faith, is a hope in the unseen.” There are things we cannot see, that we simply have to believe are possible if we want to change the world. All social movements are founded on this idea.
As Albie Sachs, an activist from South Africa said, “All revolutions are impossible, until they happen. Then they become inevitable.” We must be the spark that transforms the impossible into the inevitable. We must have faith that one day a family’s income and wealth will have no bearing at all on who earns a college degree.
The gap seems insurmountable today, but we must have faith that one day it will be gone. Armed with this kind of faith, you then need to have the courage to actually do something to make your hopes real. If you’re reading these words, you have probably already signed onto the College Possible cause, which will set you on the path to changing the world for our students and our nation.
To make social change, you must first be able to imagine the world from someone else’s point of view. You must try to break free from your own, sometimes narrow, views so that you better understand what someone else is experiencing, or why someone might be doing what they are doing or saying what they are saying. This is much harder than it sounds and takes constant effort.
Ultimately, this kind of understanding is the foundation of empathy, which leads many of us to find compassion for people who are suffering unjustly and may motivate us to offer our help. For some of us, it even fuels our outrage at the levels of inequality between rich and poor, in America and around the world.
In everything we do at College Possible, we need to first ask ourselves, “What is best for our students and what are they experiencing right now?” If you have a child of your own, you might ask yourself, “What would I do to help my daughter or son if they were low-income and trying to get to or through college?” Our answer needs to be that we treat every one of our students exactly the way we would want to be treated ourselves, or the way we would treat our own children.
Furthermore, we need to practice empathy with all of our stakeholders, including other educators, donors and nonprofit partners. Perhaps most importantly, we need to do this with everyone on our team. If you are on the Leadership Team, imagine living on an AmeriCorps member’s stipend. If you are a service member, try to envision what it must be like to manage six or eight service members. If you are on the program team, try to appreciate the pressure the fundraising team must feel each day trying to secure the resources to make our work possible. The permutations are many, but the bottom line is that our success depends on having a deep empathy for our students, our stakeholders and each other.
On one level, this trait seems so simple: just say “thank you” and mean it, right? Well, yes. Expressing your gratitude is important. Few things feel as good to another person as receiving someone else’s deep gratitude. But learning to be grateful is more than that. It’s about recognizing that everything we do at College Possible really depends on the generosity of others. Some people give their money or other resources, and many give their time and talent. Everyone who has contributed to College Possible had a choice to give or not to give, to join or not join. Our work simply would not be possible without thousands of people choosing, over and over, to join our cause.
Generosity is one of the single most powerful forces for good in the world. Generosity is fueled by people’s beliefs and their faiths, and it is sustained and multiplied by the sincere expression of gratitude. Learn to be grateful; it brings all the Idealistic Leader Traits in closer reach.
There is no question that the work we do is extremely challenging. Helping someone change the trajectory of their life is difficult and it takes enormous dedication and emotional energy. Some situations we encounter in this work will make you weep tears of sorrow.
But even though this work is serious and sometimes heart wrenching, we want to be a place that has fun! We want to be a place where we take joy in our efforts and in each other. We want to be a place where it is okay to have tears of laughter, too.
A great poem by Max Ehrmann called “Desiderata” ends with these powerful and appropriate lines:
And whatever your labors and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life,
keep peace in your soul. With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams,
it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.
We build a strong organizational culture with a focus on creating positive change through “Ripples.” This practice draws on a powerful speech Robert F. Kennedy gave in Cape Town, South Africa in 1966, in which he said:
It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.
The power of this speech, and this quote in particular, is that it calls on each of us do what we can to right the wrongs of the world with the knowledge that every contribution matters. Instead of waiting for a singular leader to change the world, we each must do what we can. Our moral obligation is to take action, and when we do, together, we can change the world. As Kennedy said, “Few will have the greatness to bend history, but each of us can work to change a small portion of the events, and then the total—all of these acts—will be written in the history of this generation.” Many of us at College Possible find this idea tremendously inspiring, and we hope you do, too.
By sharing Ripples, we begin to develop the habit of reflecting on the time since we last met and thinking about the individual acts of courage and belief that we have witnessed or participated in. This serves a number of purposes. First, when people share Ripples, the stories often inspire others and sometimes even provide a little nudge of encouragement to take similar actions in our own work and lives. Second, these stories help us stay deeply connected to our mission and our students.