You can be frustrated or be smart—what to keep in mind as you help develop the next generation of leaders

From solving problems to resolving conflict, today’s leaders need understanding and training. | by Dillon Smith

There are some things they just never teach you about leadership in college, no matter how great your school is.

I’m a 21-year-old leader who has learned to thrive in a high-feedback company with a steep learning curve. And as with anything in life, I had to learn a few hard things quickly—like not using too many exclamation marks in emails, not taking video calls from coffee shops, and proper, professional grammar, for example.

But there were a few things that took A LOT of work for me to get my head around. Things college never prepared me for. And as I look around at other leaders in their late-teens and early 20s, I see a few of my own struggles that are universal among today’s young people.

Here are 3 things nobody taught me about leadership in college:

1. How to Think from First Principles

Most young leaders reading this will have no clue what first-principles thinking is. I didn’t either.

In short, first principles thinking is the ability to dissect a problem down to the deepest level of truth. It’s the ability to see each individual part of a problem and determine what action needs to be taken to fix it.

This is a way of thinking I didn’t even know existed but has helped me so much.

So why do young leaders struggle with thinking about problems at their deepest level?

There are a few contributing factors, but I think the primary cause is the modern education system’s heavy emphasis on group projects and group work.

Group projects are great (in theory) for building communication and teamwork skills, but they sacrifice the opportunity for students to overcome complex problems on their own.

Looking back at my own schooling, my mindset was “I’ll contribute what I can, and other people will do whatever I can’t.”

There was never the mindset of “I need to figure out how to fix this problem” or “this depends on me.”

This mindset permeated regular individual projects too. The general attitude was, “If this is too hard for me to figure out quickly, it’s the teacher’s fault, not mine.”

And that thinking actually worked. If too many people in the class were struggling with a project, the teacher would lower the expectations or throw it out completely. And the teachers that didn’t were hated by everyone in the school and painted as jerks.

Looking back, I see that the teachers that taught me the most were those teachers whom everybody hated and labeled as “unfair.”

The real tragedy is that I can count 3 teachers throughout my public high school career that actually made me think. And unfortunately, I’ve instead carried the group-think mindset through college and into the workplace and it is doing me ZERO good.

Even though our company works as a team, all of the tasks that I need to get done are on me, not my teammates. Before this job, I’ve rarely had to solve major problems on my own before.

Most individuals who grew up in our modern education system have no clue how to think through first-principles.

Just so you can spot this on your own team, here’s an easy way to tell if a young leader struggles with this:

  • Ask them a really difficult question that they don’t know the answer to. What do they do? Do they try to figure out the answer for themselves? Or do they just ask the nearest person that might know?
  • If they do the second option, first-principles thinking is not their default. (My natural response is also to do the second option, and I’ve had to learn to overcome that.)

So how does someone learn to think through first-principles?

As I have worked for our company, Carey Nieuwhof (my boss) and I have had dozens of conversations where he asks me question after question trying to get me to break a problem down to first principles.

I’m sure this takes a lot of patience on his part, but it has helped me immensely to walk through the process of breaking a problem down with someone who knows where we’re going.

So if you are an older leader, take the time to do the same with your young staff members.

Don’t give them the answer when they don’t know; make them discover it for themselves.

They might not like it at first, but later on they will thank you.

2. The Playing Field of Influence Has Been Flattened (and so has our judgment)

My job is to manage content for Carey Nieuwhof’s blog and company and I’m learning a lot these days. As my generation gets more and more of our news from social media, the playing field of influence has been flattened and so has our judgment.

In the world of social media, a Fox News or CNN headline now gets the same space as a headline from If you’re not careful, you can fall into the trap of giving each headline equal influence on how you think.

I just ran into this problem a few weeks ago.

I was scrolling through Facebook and I saw a polarizing statistic in a headline and I shared it.

Later that week I flew up to Canada to spend some time at our company headquarters (also known as Carey’s house.)

While I was there, Carey talked about how many headlines on social media are coming from truly fake news sites (private sites designed to manipulate data and lie) and how they are saying whatever they can to get more clicks to their website.

This made me think back to the post I had shared earlier in the week so I went back and checked it.

Sure enough, the headline I had shared was completely fake. It had no credible sources. The only site it linked to was an editorial on some local website.

But to me, that headline was true when I read it, and I am sure it was to whoever else read it.

So why is this a blind spot?

As leaders, whom we read and listen to has a massive impact on how we lead.

We need to make sure we are listening to people who are actually speaking the truth whether we like the truth or not.

As a boss/manager, one way you could help us is to introduce us to a few voices that you trust and ask us to follow them. Also, point out fake articles to us and challenge us to quit following those people who share them. (This is similar to what Carey did for me.)

3. Outrage Culture Is Normal

As I mentioned above, one of the primary determining factors of how many people see a post is the number of engagements and shares a post is getting.

This is fine until you actually look at what posts get the most engagement these days.

We live in a cultural moment in which posts with extremely negative words like shreds, destroys, toxic, lethal, fascist, terrorist, etc., always get the most engagement.

Overall, the trend we are seeing is that the more anxiety you can make people feel, the more attention you will get on the internet.

And negative or cynical headlines give people a lot of anxiety.

As Carey points out in his Escape the Algorithm post, this phenomenon leads to groups of people that are filled with anger and hate.

So here’s the danger for young people:

This “outrage culture” is normal for people my age and younger.

We grew up in this.

We’ve never known anything but this.

And as a result, many of us don’t understand that you can disagree with someone without disliking someone.

Today’s young people have learned conflict resolution from angry people on Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit, and that isn’t conflict resolution at all.

This is really dangerous for us once we enter the workplace because we can’t just “block” or “ban” a coworker after we disagree with them.

We have to learn how to work through the conflict and keep a working relationship; otherwise, one of us needs to quit or get fired.

So how can someone grow out of this?

We need to learn to disagree without being disagreeable. (I stole this phrase from Carey… Thanks Carey!)

Some of the best leaders in history have been masters at this. Martin Luther King Jr, Gandhi, and Jesus all had different (and much more healthy) ways to approach those they disagreed with.

They had the ability to see that other people had flawed ways of thinking and not immediately write them off as enemies.

They saw that the future is better when enemies stand together.

We need to be taking notes from them.

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