My daughter graduated from high school this past May, and is currently on The World Race (a gap year program, #3n9, living on 3 different continents over 9 months). This is not simply traveling around the world with a backpack; rather, they are assigned a host ministry with which they serve in each country. She started with 3 months in Guatemala, then moved to South Africa and Lesotho (I had to look that one up!) for 3 months, and is now finishing up serving in Cambodia. This isn’t an easy program. Several participants have opted out and have come home. Living out of a backpack in some pretty tough conditions (relatively speaking) can be challenging (situations like limited running water, sleeping on the floor, lack of fresh food), let alone having to process some pretty rough realities of our world around poverty, illness and abuse.

While they may be on this program to help change the lives of others, I can safely say that my daughter and the other participants on this program have had their lives changed even more immensely. The knowledge, maturity, independence, confidence, tenacity, and perseverance they have gained on this trip is incredible.

I sent her a text the other day: “What is one thing you have learned from your experience on the World Race? Don’t think, just answer, then ask your peers the same question! Go!” Their insights are spectacular, and incredibly relevant for every one of us. I work in leadership development, and these responses are life lessons that even the most senior executives should strive to achieve and demonstrate every day.

Here are their answers! Out of the mouths of babes (she may be 18, but …) come some pretty amazing insights! I think you will agree with me …

1.   “Every day we have choices. We have a choice to dive into relationships with people we meet. We have a choice to make someone smile, to take a risk, and to change a person’s world.

Lesson: Great leaders know the business value of choosing to dive into relationships with people (employees, customers, shareholders). They take time to invest in people knowing that relationships trump everything else when it comes to getting things done, and knowing the loyalty that builds when they actively invest in getting to know others. Who are you going to actively work on building a relationship with today? Are you changing anyone’s world today? How?

2.  Life to the fullest does exist, we just have to choose it.”

Lesson: Great leaders know that they are in charge of their destiny. They know that they have the choice to influence and determine many outcomes. They aren’t passive, but rather they operate from intention. They aren’t bystanders, but rather active participants. I rarely work with great leaders who blame other people, or circumstances for their failure. Great leaders take accountability and know they have choices in how their lives unfold. There is a can-do attitude, a stick-to-it-iveness, and a sense of optimism that surrounds great leaders. Do you choose things and go after them, or wait for life to happen to you?

3.  “Don’t have expectations … ever (of other people or of the world).”

Lesson: Great leaders know that missed expectations can be a dangerous thing. Putting our expectations on other people sets us up for failure and disappointment. The only person we can control is our self. We can and should encourage others, challenge them, and hold them accountable, but at the end of the day, you will frequently be disappointed if you live life expecting things from others. Focus on your own performance, your own deliverables, your own leadership, and the rest will follow. When was the last time you were disappointed because of a missed expectation? What could you have done differently?

4.  “People are beautiful. It is your responsibility to find it in them, not theirs to show you. Be curious, not judgmental. You can learn a lot more from a stranger than from a friend.” 

Lesson: Great leaders are curious. About everything! Especially about people. Great leaders don’t think they have all the answers, but rather they know how much they can learn from talking with others and asking questions. They reserve judgment. They ask, and then they listen. What questions have you asked today, and what did you learn? Who have you asked that may offer a different or unique perspective (perhaps one you may not want to hear)?

5.  “Joy starts with thankfulness.”

Lesson: Great leaders know there is a reason that so much has been written in recent years about keeping a gratitude journal, or dedicating a part of each day to being intentional in thinking about thankfulness. When we realize how much we have to be thankful for, and actively recognize those things, we become more joyful. Gratitude and appreciation build loyalty. Think about the times you have received a hand-written note of thanks from someone. You still have it, don’t you? Who have you intentionally thanked on your team today? When was the last time you sent someone a hand-written note?

6.  “Leadership begins with servant-hood and is not simply a title you get.”

Lesson: Much has been written about the concept of being a “servant-leader,” but my daughter and her peers have learned that authentic leadership comes when you do serve others which is exactly what they are doing. Great leaders know that you can have the title of CEO, President or Senior Executive, which infers “leader” and yet that title alone isn’t sufficient to earn them the respect of others. Ultimately, great leaders know that they have to earn the title of leader through their actions in the workplace and community, and through their interactions with others. How are you demonstrating servant-leadership with your team? Have you earned your title of leader?

7.  “Don’t put a Nalgene® (water bottle) in the freezer. It will explode. Thank goodness for lifetime warranties.”

Lesson: Yes, there is a leadership lesson in this one too! We all make mistakes. Sometimes we freeze. Sometimes we explode. We often make a mess! Fortunately, we can honor our own lifetime warranty. Great leaders have an amazing opportunity to build credibility and trust when they honor their own warranties and admit mistakes, then work to make things right … at no additional cost! Has your team been able to take advantage of your ‘lifetime warranty’? Have you ‘repaired’ a broken situation at no cost to them?

8.  “Trust people.”

Lesson: Our team recently became certified in Patrick Lencioni’s “5 Behaviors of a Cohesive Team.” The first behavior, and the absolute core foundation of this work, is to have a team that trusts one another. Great leaders know this. They start from a place of assuming people are acting with good intentions. When this is the starting premise, suspicion disappears, and the potential for misinterpreting comments and behaviors is minimized. Trust people, until given a reason to not trust. It’s that simple. Do you assume the best in others as your starting point or do you begin from a perspective of mistrust and suspicion?

There you have it. Eight incredible responses to one simple prompt of, “What have you learned on the World Race?” These responses, from a group of 18 year-olds, are as applicable to our corner-office based leaders as they are relevant to a group of adventurous young adults. These are our future leaders. I think they are off to a great start, don’t you?