Enterprise Middle School: An Award-Winning School Culture

Written By: Houston Kraft

Enterprise Middle School has, in their own words, gone from “good” to pushing on the door of “great.” Great looks like a lot of things internally at a school like Enterprise: maintaining strong attendance during a big reboundarying year (94%), increased grades, and a huge decrease in referrals (by 76%!). While internal data is good, external validation never hurts: in 2018, after over a year working with CharacterStrong, Enterprise won the Washington State ASCD Whole Child Award.


How have they seen such incredible results? It’s one part clear vision, one part consistent staff development, and many parts purpose. A small team at Enterprise leads the charge to help push the work forward (and we know that this type of teaming is critical to successful implementation!). On a recent webinar, we connected with a few of these key players (a teacher, a counselor, and the principal) to talk about what their thoughtful approach looks like. You can see that webinar (and get a lot of practical, incredible insights) here.

We’ve been so moved by their intentional approach that we’ve tried to capture a piece of their story in the video below. The testimonials from students, staff, and family are an inspiring reminder of what kind of impact focusing on the Whole Child can have across all stakeholders in a building and beyond. Some of our favorite moments in the video include a student describing (and demonstrating) how she has felt empowered to do good in her school and the assistant principal sharing how different this content is from just saying, “Bullying is bad.”

3 Action Steps to Inspire You Today:

About the Author: Houston Kraft is the co-founder of CharacterStrong - an organization that provides curricula and trainings that help educators more effectively teach the Whole Child and create positive and safe school cultures. He has worked with over 600 schools or events internationally to develop communities of compassion and character. His work has been recognized by the Huffington Post and the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation. He is a speaker, curriculum developer, and kindness advocate.

Podcast S1. Ep 36: Empowering Student Voice Through Authentic Independent Learning - Roman Nowak

Roman is a HS ELA Teacher in Rockland, Ontario, Canada. An educator for 15 years, Roman is passionate about student success, school transformation and building HOPE in schools through authentic learning experiences. Husband, father to two beautiful daughters, educational leader Roman collaborates with educators from across the world to spread kindness, to build impact globally and to tear down the four traditional walls of a school.

We talk with Roman about how we can give more voice, choice, and ownership of the learning to our students. He shares about the  independent research project he designed where the goal only was to make a difference.

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Podcast S1. Ep 35: A Strategy To Connect: The Staff Chips - Alicia Jensen

Alicia Jensen is the Principal at Ptarmigan Ridge Elementary in Orting WA. She was a cast member at Disney World in the college internship program and she also is an incredibly passionate administrator who is always looking for different ways to serve her students and staff.

We talk with Alicia about the Staff Chips, a simple and creative tool that she uses to intentionally connect with her staff.

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One Elevator Ride with Jerry West Forever Changed My View of Authentic Connection

Written By: Jake Kelfer


It was the 2015-2016 NBA Season and here I was in what I thought was a dream job. I was working in my very first job out of college as a Corporate Partnerships Assistant for the Los Angeles Lakers during Kobe Bryant’s final NBA season. For a kid that grew up loving the Lakers and having a room in the house called the Lakers Room, this was an opportunity too good to pass up.

So here I was in the middle of the season heading down to the tunnel where the players enter to get ready for the half court shot or some other contest we used to do. Every game, the assistants and I would select several lucky fans to participate in contests to win thousands of dollars, cars, or even money for charity.

Only this time, my elevator ride forever changed the way I view people and connection…

I was in the elevator and right as the elevator was about to close, a hand snuck in and stopped it from closing. I looked up and the person was none other than Hall of Famer Jerry West. If you don’t know who Jerry West is, he’s the NBA logo, a Lakers legend, and a basketball hero. I immediately got excited and my heart started to pound.

As the door closed again, the person working the elevator paused and asked Jerry, “Excuse me sir, but do you have a badge?”

Jerry looked at him slightly confused and very politely, I might add, responded, “No I don’t, but do you know who I am?”

The person looked at him. Then he looked at me before responding, “No, I don’t, sir, but I can’t let you down without a badge. I’m sorry.”

I want to make it very clear that Jerry handled this incredibly politely when he could’ve gotten upset for the person not knowing who he was. I mean, come on, he’s Jerry West!!! If you work at Staples Center (where the Lakers play), it should be a requirement to know who Jerry West is along with the other Lakers legends. At the same time, I respected the person working the elevator for taking his job seriously and not allowing just anyone down to the tunnel.

Now in that moment, I’m standing in the middle of these two guys wondering how the situation is going to be resolved. And in a split second, it clicked.

I looked at Jerry, looked back at the person working the elevator and said with as much confidence as I could muster, “He’s with me. He’s my guest, and I’ll take him down.”

The person looked at me and asked, “Are you sure?” I turned to Jerry and he nodded so I said, “Yes, he’s with me.”

20 seconds later, the elevator comes to a stop and we get off. We take a few steps and Jerry turns to me and says, “Thank you for doing that. I really appreciate what you just did for me.”

My whole body shivered and chills went through my body. Here I was, a first-year assistant taking a gamble unsure of how it would play out only to have Jerry share his gratitude.

Now, if you’re thinking that bringing someone down an elevator isn’t that big of a deal, you’re right. It had nothing to do with the elevator.

As Jerry walked away, and as I reflect on that moment now, I realize something changed. I realized one of the most fundamental truths in our lives…


It doesn’t matter what someone’s job title is, how much money they have, how old they are, how smart they are, how rich they are, what background they come from, or anything at all for that matter. What matters is that we understand people are people, and we all have the same basic desires to be loved, be heard, be complimented, and to feel valued. We all search for appreciation, recognition and love.

Jerry could’ve walked off the elevator angry and upset, but instead, he chose to thank me which meant the world to me. To him, he just said thank you, but to me, it was a moment I’ll remember forever

I could’ve stayed quiet and let Jerry figure out the situation with the person working the elevator, but because I could help, I did.  That small decision to act with intentionality in order to provide value has impacted how I act towards others ever since.


Think about all the people you’ve ever come across. It’s probably a lot of people. Think about how many we ignore when we are walking down the street or when we see someone on campus but don’t know how to respond. Think about when we see someone we know but don’t really want to talk to for whatever reason so we go with the classic fake text message to avoid eye contact or we turn our head at the last second.   

What if we made it a goal, knowing people want to be loved, valued, and heard, to choose our actions based on intentionality and authenticity? What if we made it a challenge to put a smile on everyone’s face we interacted with? What if we gave one person a compliment per day? What if we choose to act with the goal of helping others before ourselves?

What if we told our friends we appreciate them more often? Our families that we love them? Our teachers that we respect them? What if we choose to only have positive self talk with the voice inside our heads to build our confidence?

When we change the narrative from judging people and expecting people to be a certain way to being intentional with our actions and being authentic, we can live a happier lifestyle with more love, kindness, and connection.


  1. Greet everyone you see with a smile and some form of positive interaction – high five, hug, handshake, compliment, etc.

  2. Create a poster for your classroom or a print out for your desk that says – Am I doing everything I can to elevate others through intentional actions and authentic connections?

  3. Tell a family member, colleague, student, teacher, friend, spouse, that you appreciate them, love them, respect them, and/or value them.

About the Author:
Jake Kelfer is a lifestyle entrepreneur and life elevator. He is the bestselling author of Elevate Beyond and Elevate Your Network and a high energy inspirational speaker on a mission to elevate and motivate millions of people to achieve their definition of success. He is the founder of the Professional Basketball Combine which helps NBA draft prospects turn their dreams of playing pro basketball into their reality. He and his work have been featured on Forbes, Sports Illustrated, ESPN, NBC Sports, USA Today, Bleacher Report, and many other major media outlets. Connect with Jake at www.jakekelfer.com or on social @jakekelfer!

Podcast S1. Ep 34: What Does it Mean to be an Authentic Teacher? - Robert Hand

Robert Hand teaches at Mount Vernon High School. His subjects are Family and Consumer Sciences and Leadership. He is currently teaching Careers in Education - Recruiting Washington Teachers, Leadership, Nutrition, and Life After High School. Robert is the 2019 Washington State Teacher of the Year.

We talk with Robert about what it means to be an authentic teacher, and he shares about how important it is to model authenticity for our students everyday.

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Podcast S1. Ep 33: Climate Mapping - Scott Backovich (Part 2/2)

Youth motivational speaker Scott Backovich has dedicated his life to doing one thing: inspiring teens through speaking at their level. He’s been a featured speaker at conferences and schools across North America, appeared regularly on both television and radio as a teen help advocate, and established himself as a worldwide youth speaker that students can trust. His stories connect. His lessons inspire. Best of all — Scott’s advice sticks.

We talk to Scott about climate mapping, looking at the highs and lows of an entire school year, and he shares some ways that schools can be intentional in the more stressful times for students.

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Students Feel Invisible

Written By: David Volke


When I was a kid, I would often imagine what it would be like to be invisible. I envisioned having the ability to go anywhere and do anything without people knowing it was me. Like any young child, my dreams were vast and full of imagination! I thought of amazing feats I could accomplish while being invisible like sneaking into a movie theater, being the best at hide and seek, or stealing a cookie from the kitchen without my mom seeing me. Okay so maybe these were not the most creative ideas, but they were what dominated my thoughts when I would tap into my imagination and pretend to be invisible. As I grew up I realized that being invisible wouldn’t actually be all fun. I remember going through high school and having moments in time when I felt invisible, as if life was happening all around me but I was not a part of it. Now as a father and educator, I have come to the realization that there is a growing trend in our young people today: students are feeling more invisible than ever before.

As a global society, we are more interconnected than ever. Yet adolescents today are reporting higher instances of depression and anxiety compared to any generation before. How can this be? Students today are under societal pressure from the use of social media and media in general to act a certain way, to look a certain way, to “be” a certain way. Our students are entering schools with these struggles on top of adverse childhood experiences (ACES), which lead to feelings of loneliness, isolation, and the feeling of being invisible.

Adolescents are already in a transition period in their lives and dealing with everything that puberty and hormones bring with it. In the age of social media, and the focus those platforms bring to individuals and the "all about me" culture, students are increasingly being inundated with exterior expectations. A Pew Research Study found that 70% of teens ages 13-17 see anxiety and depression as a major problem in their peers. We need to bring more awareness to this issue and help people empathize with what students today are dealing with and how it is vastly different than most adult experiences when we were adolescents. “The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority, they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.” Do you know who said that? The Greek philosopher Socrates wrote it around 2500 years ago. One reason students can feel invisible is when adults tell them that they know what it’s like to go through school. Students are told that the adults in their life have lived through what they are going through and that simply isn’t true. As a middle school kid, I didn’t have to worry about social media, cyberbullying, or the pressures of being involved in year-round activities. I think that we can all oversimplify the situation students are experiencing today. The reality is that many students have not been taught how to best cope with many of the situations that come up.


We need to teach students the skills of social interaction, the benefits of healthy media use, and we need to let adolescents know that we care about them. As an educator, I know some teachers acknowledge their students’ individuality by creating secret handshakes with each student and doing those handshakes as they enter the classroom. A friend of mine, Bryan Slater, created a check in Google Form for his students to complete each day so that he knows how they are doing and what he can do to help them. One of the middle schools in my district used Sawubona, a Zulu word for “I See You,” as their yearlong theme and they recently held a schoolwide assembly in which they highlighted the achievements and successes of students and staff alike, all based upon the theme, “I See You.” Each morning at my school, students are greeted by staff and fellow students as they enter the building. We smile, say ‘good morning’ or ‘have a great day’, offer a high five or a wave, and play some upbeat music to start their day.

So how can we help? We need to do a better job seeing each other. What I mean by that is appreciating one another and the value that each person brings. There’s a quote in my classroom that reads, “The keys to success: Keep going no matter what happens, and help others with their needs.” The time we give to things in our lives lets people know the things we value. At the beginning of the year in my classroom, I have students write down something they can teach me and every year I learn new things from them. They bring experiences and passions and knowledge that I can learn from, that we all could learn from, if we simply took the time to do so. One of the most personal things about us is our name. We take value from other people using our name. It pains me to think that there are students out there who go through an entire day and never hear their own name. They don’t hear it at home, from friends, from teachers, and they go home feeling as if they weren’t seen by anyone all day. They feel like they are invisible. Using their name, smiling, shaking hands, high fiving, fist bumping, waving, some sort of acknowledgment that we see them as individuals, we value them as people, and we want to hear their voice.


  1. Greet your students at the door. Connect with them using the Four at the Door + One More strategy, which is Eye to Eye, Name to Name, Hand to Hand, and Heart to Heart.

  2. Get involved in student activities. Go see a game. Watch a play. Volunteer at an event. Remember that some students might not have another positive, consistent adult in their life other than you.

  3. Model character. We often expect students to know how to act even though they may have never learned how to properly show patience, forgiveness, honesty, or kindness. Show them what those character traits look like.

  4. Names are important. Learn student names and use them when you can. You could be the only person that says it all day. Make those little moments count.

As a kid, I dreamt that my superpower was to be invisible. Now as an adult and an educator I dream for the superpower to help all students feel visible.

About the Author:
David Volke has been teaching for seven years, in grades 9-12 in San Pedro Sula, Honduras and for the last five years at Liberty Middle School in Camas, WA. He teaches 6th grade English language arts and ancient history, 6th and 8th grade leadership classes, and is the Liberty Climate and Culture TOSA as well. David was recognized as the 2019 Educator of the Year for the Camas School District. One of his core beliefs is that we need to be educating the whole child, as the teaching of academics only is not providing students with everything they need to be successful in the world today. David truly feels that students want to do good but they don’t always know how to do it. We need to model and actively teach students the eight essentials of character development if we expect students to show these traits in their everyday life. David believes that we need to make kindness normal and choose love in order to make our schools, businesses, and communities a better place.  

Podcast S1. Ep 32: Ask to Give - Scott Backovich (Part 1/2)

Youth motivational speaker Scott Backovich has dedicated his life to doing one thing: inspiring teens through speaking at their level. He’s been a featured speaker at conferences and schools across North America, appeared regularly on both television and radio as a teen help advocate, and established himself as a worldwide youth speaker that students can trust. His stories connect. His lessons inspire. Best of all — Scott’s advice sticks.

We talk to Scott about Ask to Give, a practical tool that can change the way we think about the way in which students are being reached.

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Podcast S1. Ep.31: Getting 6th Graders off to a Successful Start - Marc Gallaway

Marc Gallaway who is the Principal of Selah Middle School in Washington State and has been in the same district for 21 years. He was the 2018 Washington State Middle-Level Principal of the Year and is a force for change in his state and beyond.

We talk with Marc about the intentional things that his school is doing to help get new 6th grade students off to a great start as they begin middle school.

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If Every Day Were Shoesday

Written by: Barbara Gruener

Picture this: You’ve just enjoyed an invigorating, productive morning on an out-of-state trip to plant CharacterStrong seeds of inspiration, but when it comes time for you to leave, you’re told that there’s severe weather en route to the airport. Proceeding with caution, you are fortunate to follow the storm and arrive with lots of time to spare. You turn in your rental and head toward the terminal. You check in and print your boarding pass, but as you walk toward your security checkpoint, you see that your flight home has just been cancelled.

In that moment, how do you feel? What do you want? What do you need? What would make the fact that you’re probably going to be spending the night at the airport more palpable?

For me, that would be the terrific three: Empathy. Compassion. Kindness.

Nervous and frustrated, I do an about-face and head to the ticket counter. The customer-care agent didn’t seem to feel the same urgency in problem-solving my situation as I did. Nor did her tone carry much kindness when she told me matter-of-factly that nobody was getting into Houston tonight because both airports there were closed because of storms. She offered to send me through Georgia, South Carolina, Denver even, but was quick to add that wherever she sent me, I wasn’t getting home tonight.

As she’s glibly going through my options for travel the next day, it occurs to me that I’m in need of lodging. Hopeful that she could assist me with that, she curtly informs me that when flights are cancelled due to weather, you’re on your own.

On my own was not the empathy I was hoping to experience; couldn’t she see that in my eyes?

When I didn’t jump on her offer to take the 6 am flight through Denver to try to get home tomorrow, she asked me to step aside while I decided so she could assist the customer behind me.

Step aside? Not the compassion I craved; couldn’t she feel what my heart needed?

I couldn’t help but wonder: What would she want from me if she were in my shoes?

I also tried to switch places and walk in her shoes as we searched through my options; maybe she’d had a hard day. What did she need from me?

With her airline’s options exhausted, she ended up reserving the only spot she could find on another airline, one that would take me through Dallas and have me home in time for dinner the next day. Just before we finished, I asked if there were a hotel nearby and she said yes, that there was one just upstairs.

I booked it up the flight of stairs to book a room, and that’s where I found the empathy, compassion, and kindness I needed.

Carina: Can I help you with a reservation?

Me: Do you have any rooms left for tonight?

Carina: Yes, and we have a distressed passenger rate of $89.


Wait, did she see in my eyes and feel from my heart that I was a distressed passenger? Today must be Shoesday at that airport hotel.

By that, I mean that someone has clearly put themselves into the shoes of those distressed travelers to think through how we might be feeling and imagine exactly what we might want and need:

A friendly reservation specialist. A comfortable room. A fair price. A free bottle of water. A caring waitress at dinner. A custom-made omelet at the breakfast buffet. A noon check-out time.

In stark contrast to my aforementioned airport experience, I felt heard, valued, understood. And it felt like my story mattered.

Were they able to change my circumstances? Not at all. But with every caring interaction, they totally changed how I felt about my weather-dependent schedule change.

The experience left me wondering how this customer care might transfer to our character building.

Children and adults alike come to us distressed, probably more often than we care to admit. Some questions to consider as we model mattering:

  • What is our distressed-passenger policy as we help our learners take flight, even on those days when their personal weather is stormy at best? Are we getting an emotional barometer at the door every day?

  • How much better do we serve them when we’re willing to step into their shoes to figure out where they are so that we can meet their needs and get them where they’re going? Do we go the extra mile by connecting personally?

  • How do we make sure that no one goes it alone or gets sidelined as we create a culture of character and climate of caring? What’s our best practice for moving from me to WE with intention?

  • How do we show our students empathy, compassion, and kindness, especially on those days when the detour they didn’t want to take becomes the path they have to travel now? How do you provide a forum for allowing them to share what’s going on in their world beyond the school day?

  • How do we extend this stranded-traveler policy to our colleagues, to our students’ caregivers, and to the stakeholders in our community to make sure that every day is a Shoesday for everyone at our school? How do people know that they matter in your schoolhouse?

As we work with intention to teach and model stepping into another’s shoes and walking for a spell, let’s elevate empathy with our every interaction by listening to understand, by extending unconditional positive regard to everyone, and by asking ourselves this question from the picture book, Hey, Little Ant, by father-daughter duo, Phillip and Hannah Hoose:

If you were me and I were you, what would you want me to do?

It’ll make a world of difference to the weary travelers we’re walking alongside of in our school family, to understand, feel, and know how much they matter to us.

Happy Shoesday!

About the Author:
Barbara Gruener enjoyed the gift of growing alongside learners from Pre-K through High School for  34 years, first as a Spanish teacher and then as a school counselor. She is the author of The Corner on Character blog and the book What’s Under Your Cape? Her newest passions include hosting her Character Speaks podcast, being a Character Strong teammate, and serving as a mentor and coach.


Podcast S1. Ep.30: Rolling Out A School Branding Campaign - Coach Don Bartel

Don Bartel has been a teacher and coach in Washington state for 22 years. He has coached and/or taught at the middle school, high school, and collegiate level.  He has served as a head coach at three different high schools for a combined 15 years; and has been the head football coach, leadership teacher, ASB adviser, and activities coordinator at Eastlake High School in Sammamish, Washington for the past six years.

We talk with Coach Bartel about the branding campaign they have created at Eastlake High School and how that has positively influenced the school’s culture.

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Podcast S1. Ep.29: The #1 Problem for Professionals in Positions of Leadership - Dr. Jennifer Macaulay

Dr. Jennifer Macaulay has a PhD in Organizational Psychology from the University of Washington. She has over 30 years experience coaching, teaching, researching and consulting in organizational and leadership effectiveness. Her clients have ranged from school districts to governmental agencies, Fortune 500 companies, hospitals, small start-ups and not-for profits.

We talk with Dr. Macaulay on the importance of leaders helping others around them, and she gives some tips on how to understand and develop others.

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C’mon! Tell Me the Truth! Do You Like Me?  Am I OK?

Written by: Brent Grothe & Kay Dodge

Many of us in our search for meaning and significance in our lives, whether we realize it or not, tend to view our worthiness in terms of a math problem:

My performance + others’ opinions of me = my self-worth.

In our previous post we focused entirely on the first part of the equation, performance, which we know as Big Lie #1. Today we are addressing the next part of the equation, approval, as the second of four ways way we seek to justify ourselves and measure our  worthiness. This second Big Lie can take over our lives and keep us from loving and serving others as we are called to do.


Big Lie #2: I must be approved and accepted by others in order to feel good about myself.

The second Big Lie tells us that in order to have self-worth, we must be accepted, respected, and approved of by others. Just as Big Lie #1 battles our sense of worthlessness by forcing us to perform, Big Lie #2 battles those same feelings by forcing us to look to others for justification. How we view ourselves becomes entirely based upon our perceptions of how others view us. Rejection is our biggest fear because being rejected and losing the approval of others means that we are worthless. This is why the Lie #2 is nicknamed the ‘approval trap’ - we will often do anything, become anyone, in order to get approval and avoid rejection. As one student put it, “I have always been afraid of rejection ever since I was a little kid. But I had no idea that there was a whole lie devoted to the subject.”  

At the very root of Big Lie #2 is the belief that we, in our true, authentic selves, are not enough. We look at all our bad habits, our insecurities, our hateful thoughts, and believe that no one would ever truly be able to love and accept us if they saw us as who we truly are - and so we hide behind characters and personas we create for ourselves, constantly molding ourselves into who we think those around us want us to be. Forget Meryl Streep or Tom Hanks - those of us living under Big Lie #2 are the greatest actors because, even after the curtain closes or the director yells “cut!”, our acting goes on.

One of the characters we adopt when struggling under Big Lie #2 is what we will call the “Yes Man” persona. Yes Man works overtime to be and do everything that anyone asks him to do in the hopes it will win him the approval he seeks. We have no boundaries and are easily manipulated by those around us in hopes it will earn their love for us. Robert McGee claims in his book, The Search For Significance, “We try to copy the customs, dress, ideas, and behavioral patterns of a particular group, allowing the consensus of the group to determine what is correct for us.” So we end up lonely, disconnected, and ravaged by the constant pressure to conform. “Growing up I have always been scared of being rejected,” says a girl, “so I would always try to change myself to be ‘cool’...I am afraid to be myself because the world is tough and I don’t like to be judged or rejected...the fear of rejection fuels my life and what I do.”  We likely aren’t so blind as to be ignorant of when people are taking advantage of us, but we continue to let ourselves be manipulated for fear that, if we don’t, we will be rejected. Our entire self-worth is built upon the acceptance of others, and the fear of losing that acceptance overpowers the pain we experience when we realize we are being used.


What’s worse, all the time we are working overtime to please everyone we ignore our own needs and instead help others with theirs. We might ignore our own negative feelings, seeing it as our responsibility to be the “fun” person that everyone loves to be around or, on the other side, only allow ourselves to feel as happy as those around us. We heap responsibility for others’ emotions upon our own shoulders, desperately hoping that in return they will grant us the approval we so desperately need. Yet all this work we put in, all this time and energy, can come crashing down around us with a single angry word, or even a glare from across the room. Such blows can cause us to lash out and hurt those we care about as our instinctive fight-or-flight brain scrambles to preserve our lie, our illusion of identity based on others.

The other character we might adopt as a way of dealing with Big Lie #2 is the “No Man”. No Man is a persona we most often retreat to after overextending ourselves for too long. Being a Yes Man for too long can cause anxiety and burnout from always working to make others happy, and such a character cannot be sustained forever. So, we take up the No Man, we protect ourselves from rejection by rejecting everyone before they have the chance to reject us. We become apathetic, angry, and resentful, directing the negative emotions we feel about ourselves and our unworthiness towards the world.

When we hide behind a character to win the acceptance of others, we are denying ourselves what we truly crave: the joy of being fully seen and fully accepted. Sure, people might claim to like, or even love us - but it’s not the real us they know. As McGee puts it, we, “hide behind a wall of words, smiles, and activities...quite lonely in the midst of all [our] so-called friends.” Big Lie #2’s nickname is the Approval Trap because the more addicted we become to the approval of others the more disconnected we become from people and from ourselves. All our relationships are superficial; every time we come close to creating a real, meaningful relationship that little voice whispers in our heads, “If they only knew who you really are, they would never love you”.

We find it excruciatingly difficult to be vulnerable and open ourselves up to others, to reveal our inner thoughts or motives, because we think that others will reject us if they know what we’re really like.  And so our fear leads us into superficial relationships or isolation. “I am scared to put myself out there and be vulnerable because I don’t want people to judge me for who I really am,” writes a freshman boy.  We shut others out because we think it is better than the alternative of being rejected. Author C.S. Lewis puts it perfectly in his quote about vulnerability:


To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.

Big Lie #2 isn’t always easy to catch, particularly in leadership, when we are told that leading is primarily serving and meeting the needs of others. The lie twists our perceptions, telling us that by working hard to meet everyone’s approval, we are doing our job as leaders. But lies can only tell lies. When we let Big Lie #2 control us, when we devote our time and energy to making others like us, the only person we are truly serving is ourselves. Our true motives remain selfish as we work to feed our never-ending appetite for approval. Loving someone as a leader requires us to hold people accountable, to set boundaries and remain firm in them, and to create real, authentic loving relationships with those around us. We need to learn the difference between showing forgiveness and holding people to the best versions of themselves; we need to learn that in saying no to some things, we are saying yes to the truly important things. None of that is possible if we let Big Lie #2 control us.

The Truth: What others think and say about you is secondary to who you are and who you want to be. Love is not earned. You can be your own self. What you do for others in love changes what you believe about yourself.

We do not have to struggle to make the choice between living as a character or being rejected. The truth is, the person you really are, the real, messy, complicated human is beautiful, and worth sharing with the world. None of us can ever truly know what is going on in someone else’s head; when we base our self-worth off of others perceptions, we are basing our self-worth off of unreliable information. People will not automatically reject you if they see you for who you are - yes, there is risk, but that is part of being vulnerable. With no risk comes no reward, and the reward for letting ourselves be seen is one of the most beautiful things we have the chance to experience as humans. If we can learn to let go of our lie and start living in the truth, we will begin to experience the deep, authentic connections that our soul craves.

So what are we to do?  How do we get out of this trap and make the truth our reality?  Well, first of all we need to become aware that we do live by this lie. We hear again from students: “I’ve started to notice how [the fear of rejection] can affect me daily. Sometimes I won’t say certain things or wear certain outfits that I like because I don’t know if everyone else will ‘approve’ of it. This causes me to sometimes not take risks and be vulnerable with people because I’m too scared of what they will think.” Ah, but then she writes, “Now that this has been pointed out to me, I have been trying harder to not care for approval and do what I think is best for myself.” Awareness is the first step towards living in the truth. Think of how many people are living by lies and don’t even know it. The first step towards freedom is realizing you are in a cage in the first place.


Then, the real, heart-changing work begins. We need to begin seeing ourselves as being worthy of love and belonging - not because others approve of us, but simply because we are human. We must move into a mindset of unconditional acceptance, where we can say to others, “I love you and accept you no matter what you do. There is nothing you can do that can make me stop loving you.” We must stop playing the approval game, constantly looking to live up to the approval standards of others, and instead begin to live in the reality of love and acceptance. Instead of putting on a mask, we can challenge ourselves to let ourselves be seen, to love unashamedly with our whole hearts. We can begin to look for the good in others and do good for them. As we strive to live up to the standards of this perfect, humanizing, harmonizing agapé love it lessens our need for approval and wipes away our fear.

Character Dares:

  • Before you say yes to something, an opportunity or adventure, ask yourself why you are saying yes. Are you saying yes because you think it will win someone’s approval? Is what you are saying yes to in line with the person and leader you want to be? In saying yes to this, what are you saying no to? Take a minute or two to think about it - or even better, journal it somewhere.

  • Start a journal of self-reflection to figure out the real you, who you truly are when you aren’t trying to gain anyone’s approval. It’s hard not to mold ourselves to others expectations when we don’t even know who we are! Some questions to get you started:

    • When and where do you feel the most in tune with yourself?

    • What are 10 (non-physical!) things you love about yourself?

    • What are your core values?

About the Author:
Kay Dodge was one of the leadership students Brent Grothe, her leadership advisor, challenged to pursue a life of humble service and has never been the same since. She is passionate about loving people, which is what she considers to be the purpose of life. One day she hopes to master her ego and love others and herself without reservation. She is beyond thankful for the opportunity to write about her passion with her former teacher and current friend.

Brent Grothe spends his days challenging high school kids to consider pursuing lives of deep meaning and purpose rather than ones of shallow happiness. He’s been presenting the suffering and joy of servant leadership for a long time and thinks he’s finally, in a real way, understanding it himself. On a never-ending quest to clearly articulate the slavery of ego versus the freedom of humility, he plans to stay in the classroom as a leadership teacher until someone decides to retire him. He’s been involved with activities and Mt. Adams High School Leadership Camp for 40+ years and he still can’t believe he actually gets to teach life for a living while at the same time being blessed with friendships with the likes of Kay Dodge.

Podcast S1. Ep.28: It's Your Character Not Mine - Bryan Slater

Bryan Slater is an experienced classroom teacher and has spent the last 15 years teaching high school Social Studies in Tacoma, WA, Lagos, Nigeria, and Sumner, WA. He currently teaches IB 20th Century Topics and Theory of Knowledge to 9-12th graders at Sumner High School.

We talk with Bryan about the paradigm shift that he has had surrounding the strategy of, “ It's Your Character Not Mine.” He shares how it can change the way that we see fault, take responsibility, and respond better in different situations as we go through the day.

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Podcast S1. Ep.27: The Caring Game - Character in Athletics With Coach Scott Westering Part 5/5

Scott Westering is the son of Hall of Fame Coach Frosty Westering. He had the privilege of coaching with and being mentored by his father for 23 years as an assistant at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma Washington.  Scott was the Head Coach at PLU for 14 seasons, taking over the position from his father who retired after 32 years. Over the last 20+ years Scott has been a highly sought after speaker, having presented to hundreds of teams, coaches, and athletes. His talks have spanned corporations, conferences, and clinics - including USA Football and two Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony speeches.

We finish up this five part series talking about the final piece of the Attitude Games: the Caring Game. Scott talks about the importance of character is when it comes to our attitude, strength in serving, and the secret ingredient of great teams: they care about the success of each other

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Podcast S1. Ep.26: The Challenge Game - Character in Athletics With Coach Scott Westering Part 4/5

Coach Scott Westering is the son of Hall of Fame Coach Frosty Westering. He had the privilege of coaching with and being mentored by his father for 23 years as an assistant at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma Washington. Scott was the Head Coach at PLU for 14 seasons, taking over the position from his father who retired after 32 years. Over the last 20+ years Scott has been a highly sought after speaker, having presented to hundreds of teams, coaches, and athletes. His talks have spanned corporations, conferences, and clinics - including USA Football and two Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony speeches.

We talk with Scott about the Confidence Game, the third part in the Attitude Games. We chat about the power of choice, the most powerful thing that we possess, and how we can help our athletes in challenging situations, choose to focus on the process, not the results.

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Podcast S1. Ep.25: The Confidence Game - Character in Athletics With Coach Scott Westering Part 3/5

Coach Scott Westering is the son of Hall of Fame Coach Frosty Westering. He had the privilege of coaching with and being mentored by his father for 23 years as an assistant at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma Washington. Scott was the Head Coach at PLU for 14 seasons, taking over the position from his father who retired after 32 years. Over the last 20+ years Scott has been a highly sought after speaker, having presented to hundreds of teams, coaches, and athletes. His talks have spanned corporations, conferences, and clinics - including USA Football and two Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony speeches.

We talk with Scott about the second part in what we call the Attitude Games: the Confidence Game, and look at what really breeds confidence in us, in our students, and in the teams that we coach.

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The Danger of Ego

Written by: Jared Smith

In 7th grade, I got my first ASB position. I was the treasurer at my middle school and to be completely honest with you, I thought I was pretty dang cool because of it.

My mindset quickly flipped from wanting to help my school, to wanting to help me.

People noticed me and it felt good.

People said hi to me and it felt good.

People liked me and it felt good.

But I allowed that good feeling to overshadow my good for others. I thought I owned the school and I walked like it, talked like it, and acted like it.

One day, I was heading to an ASB budget meeting with my usual cool-guy strut when my friend Dane asked, “Hey, where are you going? Why aren’t you in class?”

To which I responded, “Oh you know, just some ASB stuff you wouldn’t understand.” Very sassy.


And almost before the last word could even leave my mouth, our football linemen coach Mr. Ingersoll, one of the most intimidating men I know to this day, pointed at me. I swear to you that when his pointer finger went my direction, the whole school froze and he said, “Jared, you’re not as cool as you think you are, so stop acting like it.”

I brushed it off at the time. But as I continued to make it “all about me,” my relationships began to crumble. As I continued to make it “all about me,” my influence began to disintegrate.

This happened because my actions of love were forced and faked. I did not meet new people to make them feel like they belong, I met them so that they would know me. I did not hold open the door so people felt like they were seen, I held open the door so that they would see me.

When our actions are fake, so are the results.

I started to feel stressed, lonely, and isolated while always trying to impress people.

When we rely on other people to fill us up, we will never be full. It is as if there is a hole in our cup created by our ego and, no matter how much good goes in, it will never be enough.

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And the only thought that kept creeping into my mind was, “Jared, you’re not as cool as you think you are, so stop acting like it.”

When we realize that we are not as cool as we think we are - when we realize that it is not “all about us” - it gives us freedom.

Freedom to love people. Freedom to be ourselves. Freedom to make an impact.

And it fills the hole. I have only been around this world for a short time, but the only time I have ever felt full, the only time I have ever felt my true best, is when I make others feel like the best.

Don’t let your influence be held down by your own ego. If you need a reminder like I did, Mr. Ingersoll will happily refresh your memory: “You’re not as cool as you think you are, so stop acting like it.”

Ways to work on our ego:

  1. Write down 3 things each week that you are proud of yourself for. That way the reward is internal and you are not seeking it from others.

  2. Ask a mentor or friend you trust for 3 things that you can work on. By striving to improve we can focus on the work ahead of us, not our successes.

  3. Ask a mentor or friend you trust to keep you accountable and call you out. We all need someone to tell us when our head gets a little too big.

About the Author: Jared Smith is a student at Central Washington University. And when he is not keeping up on homework, he is traveling to speak with people all over the place as well as producing his own clothing line. Jared opened up his own business named Project Love People when he was 19 years old. And is on a daily mission to GROW MINDS. HAVE FUN. and LOVE PEOPLE.

Podcast S1. Ep.24: The Comparison Game - Character in Athletics With Coach Scott Westering Part 2/5

Scott Westering is the son of Hall of Fame Coach Frosty Westering. He had the privilege of coaching with and being mentored by his father for 23 years as an assistant at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma Washington.  Scott was the Head Coach at PLU for 14 seasons, taking over the position from his father who retired after 32 years. Over the last 20+ years Scott has been a highly sought after speaker, having presented to hundreds of teams, coaches, and athletes. His talks have spanned corporations, conferences, and clinics - including USA Football and two Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony speeches.

We talk with Scott about the importance of attitude, as we focus on character in athletics, and we dive in to the first game in what we call the Attitude Games: the Comparison Game.

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Podcast S1. Ep.23: What Is Your Model of Winning? Character in Athletics With Coach Scott Westering (Part 1/5)

Coach Scott Westering is the son of Hall of Fame Coach Frosty Westering. He had the privilege of coaching with and being mentored by his father for 23 years as an assistant at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma Washington. Scott was the Head Coach at PLU for 14 seasons, taking over the position from his father who retired after 32 years. Over the last 20+ years Scott has been a highly sought after speaker, having presented to hundreds of teams, coaches, and athletes. His talks have spanned corporations, conferences, and clinics - including USA Football and two Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony speeches.

We talk with Scott about the “Three-Sided Coin” model of winning and the work of putting a focus on character in athletics.

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