I have learned many lessons about leadership over the years, but among the most powerful came while teaching at an inner-city high school in Flint, Michigan. In mid-year, I took a job teaching woodshop. The previous instructor had found himself locked in a storage cage by his 2nd period class. He got out during 4th period, and immediately quit.

In the 1970s, the boys who were enrolled in woodshop often weren’t cutting it in regular classrooms. The logic of putting disruptive — and sometimes aggressive — students in a classroom with sharp instruments and dangerous power machines escaped me. But somebody had to do it, and I needed the job.

While I wasn’t thinking about leadership at the time, the lessons I learned in that classroom are highly relevant for business leaders today. Going in, I decided to pay attention to four specific things.

First, I had to decide who I was going to “see” in my woodshop classroom. How I saw these boys, and what I believed they were capable of, would frame everything we did together. I had a choice: To see them as troublemakers, losers and rejects — or to see them as young adults trying to make sense of life, just like I was.

Second, I couldn’t make this class a success on my own — the students had to be a part of putting things back in order. It was important that they be fully engaged. We first paid attention to the space. We collaborated on how we would clean up the classroom, figured out where we stood on supplies, and fixed up the tools. Throughout this process, we were not only taking a classroom inventory, we were assessing each other.

Third, we decided together what it was going to mean to be a member of the woodshop class. We could spend a semester with me exerting control and them resisting being controlled, or we could create something meaningful. Together, we had to determine our shared future. We spent some time talking about things such as:

·   What does it mean to be a part of this class?

·   What expectations do you have of me? And me of you?

·   How should we treat each other when problems crop up or things get testy?

·   What is it that we want to do here together?

And finally, I wanted them to quickly begin a creative project using wood. The act of creation gave them a sense of ownership and meaning.

By the end of the semester, we had created a “woodshop” where all of our heads, hearts and hands were honored and engaged.

Although I no longer teach in a high school classroom, the four lessons continue to be relevant. In large organizations where we work, they come into play again and again. Leaders need to become aware of who they “see” at work. They must develop a clear understanding of what it means to be a member of the enterprise. Engagement and collaboration forges a sense of ownership and excitement.

And that sets the stage for the magical act of creation.