Ever been to the Jersey Shore? Myrtle Beach? Las Vegas? Do you know what all these places have in common? They all have tourist trap t-shirt shops that sell the dumbest shirts known to mankind. Many of the t-shirts (or better yet…tank tops) are so foul and offensive that I can’t even repeat the words on my PG-13-rated blog.

My daughter’s 14th birthday is today. Daddy’s little girl isn’t so little anymore. To celebrate, Caroline asked if she could invite her bestie up to Vail, Colorado and join us on our family vacation this week.  I cooked the girls’ meals. I should get a t-shirt that says, “Dads cook, too!” I’d get that shirt in a tank top…but my wife would probably divorce me!

This morning we took the gondola up to the top of Vail Mountain. On the way to the gondola we walked by a bunch of high school kids wearing the same t-shirt. Turns out there is a high school leadership symposium happening in Vail today. And the t-shirt these kids were wearing offended me more than the ones you see people wearing on the Vegas strip!

“NEVER FOLLOW. ALWAYS LEAD.”

Those were the words these poor kids were ignorantly walking around town with. “Never Follow. Always Lead.” Sad. Might as well say, “I’m a narcissist. I don’t know how to follow.” What the heck are they teaching these kids up here in Vail?

This week is our 20th Annual National Leadership Academy in Denver, Colorado. For the past 19 years, thousands of high school students from around the country have participated in our four-day youth servant-leadership academy.

And do you know what our t-shirts say? “IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU. IT’S ABOUT OTHERS.”

Other t-shirts our National Leadership Academy have printed over the years:

  • “Leadership Changing Lives.”
  • “Love. Serve. Repeat!”
  • “Leadership is Love!”

You get the point.

Here’s what the leadership symposium folks in Vail should have printed for their next generation of leaders:

“Great Leaders Sometimes Follow.”  Now that t-shirt is worth strutting around town in!

When I was in high school, I attended my first ever high school leadership program called RYLA: Rotary Youth Leadership Academy. I was 15 years old and knew jack squat about servant leadership.

At the end of this week-long camp, our closing keynote speaker was a gentleman named Tom France. He shared words during his keynote to the hundred-plus youth that changed my life…literally set me on the path I’m on today!

“There are three types of people in the world,” Mr. France shared. “Leaders, followers, and critics,” he continued. “The question is…WHICH ONE ARE YOU GOING TO BE?”

I learned that summer day back in 1985 that leadership is a choice. That we choose to lead. And we choose to serve others.

Tom France shared in his talk that the world is starving for great leaders. And sometimes great leaders need to follow. But NEVER EVER be a critic! Those words should be printed on every t-shirt at youth leadership programs.

I was CEO of a world-renowned youth leadership program years ago. In the four years I was in that executive position, I met (and learned from) some of the greatest servant leaders from around the world. Equally, however, I also met some of the greatest critics in the world. This organization has a great mission statement: to build bridges of understanding among all people. But sadly, this organization has been plagued with critics. And in my four years at the helm, I humbly learned what happens to an organization when the critics outnumber the leaders.

The world is starving for servant leaders. Communities need humble followers. But organizations will never truly make an impact (and be successful long-term) if they are outnumbered by critics.

New t-shirt: “Lead. Follow. But NEVER EVER be a critic!”

Even better t-shirt: “If you want to be a critic, don’t show up to work!”

What bothered me most about the “NEVER FOLLOW. ALWAYS LEAD.” t-shirts in Vail is that it sends the wrong message to our youth. We need to teach our current and next generation of leaders that Heart-Led Leaders know they sometimes must be Heart-Led Followers. That “followship” is critical to leadership. And leadership is critical to followship.

So the next time you are at one of those t-shirt shops in the Jersey Shore, Myrtle Beach, or Las Vegas…don’t buy a dumb t-shirt…instead get one printed up that says:  Choose to be a Heart-Led Leader!

And get it in a sleeveless tank-top…our spouses will love us for it!