Whoever said, “Traveling is beautiful but not as beautiful as coming home,” clearly wasn’t an out of work actor.
About two years ago, after nearly a decade of schlepping from one cramped casting room to the next, I parted ways with the love of my life.
New York City.
To say my homecoming to the Bay Area was less than auspicious would be a finalist for understatement of the century.
Returning home felt like using chopsticks for the first time; awkward, embarrassing, and a little bit impractical.
Whatever poise I embellished was belied by the realization the first half of my life hadn’t gone according to plan, and the second felt progressively more uncertain.
Then one morning, I received a call from a college where I’d applied to be a professor. I’d made the inquiry so long ago I nearly forgot it happened.
“Nick! I have the perfect class for you,” the man claimed. “It starts in a few weeks.”
The call woke me from a haze, withering the cloud of rejection that seemed to be hovering above since my return.
There was hope; a chance for me to offer value beyond a casting room or stage.
Yet, I’d be lying if I said the teaching offer didn’t feel like a ruse, a dare at best.
How on earth was I going to come up with a rigorous lesson plan for a class I’d never taught, in a community I’d never step foot in, to a group of students I knew nothing about?
This could be a disaster, I thought.
So what did I do?
I accepted the offer.
Five months later, I’m happy to report I’m still standing.
Teaching, it turns out, is less of a job than a calling, a craft even.
And like, say a carpenter, the stakes for not using your tools precisely, are just as high.
A good teacher has the power to influence, lift a spirit, and at best, bolster a sense of self-belief.
So on the days where I’d peer out into a sea of blank stares, my heart would sink, convinced I had no business teaching whatever little I claimed to know.
I felt like a fraud.
But on the days where personal stories were shared, spirited debate reigned, and no one seemed to mind the class going over time, there was nowhere on earth I’d have rather been.
After class, I’d practically skip to my car.
As a whole, my first semester turned out to be far more successful than I could have imagined.
I made meaningful connections, stress tested what worked, and walked away with some indispensable lessons on leadership that transcend the classroom.
Here are 10 Lessons on Leading a Team
Show up on time
Your credibility can erode by the second. Literally.
Honoring your commitments is the easiest way to communicate you’re invested in both the mission at hand and the people you’re leading.
Arriving on time may seem insignificant, but it’s the simplest behaviors, good and bad, that compound over time and makes all the difference.
Showing a reverence for the only resource we can’t make more of demonstrates the integrity of a person worth following.
“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”
— President Eisenhower
Invariably, it would take me a week to put together a good lesson plan.
On more than one occasion, I sat hovering over my laptop, frantically putting the finishing touches on a lecture with only hours to spare.
But it was my preparation that gave me the confidence to make the class my own.
Rather than simply regurgitating facts and dates with no context or personal connection to my students, I was able to integrate my own thoughts, which gave others the courage to do the same.
I often felt like a jazz musician riffing on a musical number, knowing I had a written composition to take me home each time.
The best part was when the students took my cue and we made music together.
Learn every name
“Names are the sweetest and most important sound in any language.”
— Dale Carnegie
I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not great with names. How I’m able to remember pages of a script or dense passages in a book but not “Isabel,” or “Ronald,” confounds me.
But the benefits of learning everyone’s name can be remarkable, even if it means putting in a little extra time.
Calling someone by his or her name is another way of saying, “I see you.”
And when you truly see someone you are honoring their presence.
Not looking past someone is a novel, if not revolutionary act, in a progressively distracted and impersonal world.
So when an individual knows their very being transcends a number on a page, their entire demeanor changes.
They gradually drop their guard, open up to new ideas, and start to forge meaningful connections.
“Thinking is difficult, that’s why most people judge.”
— Carl Jung
Every week, I hop in my car and make the 30-minute drive to a city named after the more famous version of its namesake nestled somewhere between New York and Ohio.
And though the towns are separated by nearly 3,000 miles, both cities bear a striking resemblance when it comes to their values.
Hard work and grit are the currency in these parts.
My first day at the college was met by nervous jitters, uncertainty, and if I’m honest, some preconceived ideas about my students.
But it only took me a few minutes to realize, opportunity, not intellect, is often the culprit of immobility.
That knowledge alone altered any mental hierarchy I may have mistakenly been clinging to.
Rather than distancing ourselves from those whose lives and choices may not be in harmony with our own, we need to lean in and double-down on compassion.
If some people are born on third base, with nearly every resource and advantage imaginable for a productive life, then others aren’t even born in the ballpark.
My mindset needed a makeover.
I wasn’t descending from my perch but rising from my ignorance.
As the weeks went on, I learned to meet my students where they were and not where I thought they should be.
When I realized whatever knowledge I had wasn’t greater but simply different, I never again made the mistake of assuming I knew more.
As a result, I learned far more from my students than they from me.
Invite people to not know
During the fourth week of class, a student pointed to a map I’d projected on a screen and asked what unnamed country was highlighted in green.
I’d traveled the world over but not to this particular corner of the globe. I was embarrassed I didn’t know and started to pretend that I did.
I glanced back at the map before looking back at the student.
“I don’t know,” I finally admitted.
Any ridicule, whether from my students or within, never came. Instead, my ignorance had been illuminated, and I felt liberated.
More importantly, conceding I didn’t know something gave my students permission to do the same.
Taking ownership of what we don’t know is a sign of courage rather than a flaw in character.
Don’t take anything personally
The greatest gift being an actor has given me is having absolutely no fear of failure.
Trying to make headway in the most competitive and least meritocratic industry on the planet means your survival depends on your ability to not take things personally.
Some weeks, I walked to class with an extra bounce in my step. My bag felt lighter, no longer weighed down by the insecurity of an uninspired lecture.
I’m going to knock their socks off with today’s class, I’d think.
But even on my best days, there’d be a student dozing off, leaving early, or staring blankly into a touchscreen.
What am I doing wrong? I wondered.
Why can’t I reach them?
When one of my students had missed a string of classes I started to believe she no longer found any value from my class.
The one afternoon, she sent me an email informing me a close family member had died.
I realized no matter how much we speculate, we have no clue to what’s really happening behind the scenes in someone’s life.
Trying to make an assumption with no context is not only unproductive but irresponsible.
“But for this quiet moment, if only for this moment, and against all reason, let us believe, and believe in our hearts, that somehow it would be so. I’d hear your cry, you mine — And each of us would find a blinded hand.”
— Tennessee Williams
One of the most moving experiences I had in a theater was during my first year at drama school.
During a pivotal scene in the play, the lead character delivers a drunken monologue uncharacteristically revealing all the pain and turmoil of his life that would eventually lead to his downfall.
At the end of the actor’s speech, an elderly woman sitting in front of me whispered, “Beautiful.”
I want to make people feel like that, I thought.
Looking back, what made the performance so compelling was the artist’s willingness to be vulnerable. It was then I realized there’s great courage in vulnerability, not weakness.
Of course, it’s important to maintain boundaries in any professional environment, but sharing our frailties and doubts is an invitation for others to do the same.
By taking solace in our shared humanity, we can step into issues of substance rather than dance around them.
With greater transparency, discussions take on a life of depth and 3-dimensional problem-solving.
Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku argues the root of many children’s dislike of science can be summed up in two words:
Too often we fail to invest in an idea, project, or experience because it’s not presented in a compelling way.
We then mistakenly assume it’s the subject not the ambassador that’s the cause of our apathy.
Conversely, when a concept is shared with a sense of enthusiasm and a desire to aid in discovery, it can make all the difference.
Look at how many people tuned in to watch the launch of The Falcon Heavy?
Millions of people, who hadn’t browsed a physics book in years, suddenly longed to reach beyond the stars.
If you’re not excited about what you’re teaching, there’s no chance others will be.
Sharing your passion is not only contagious but the easiest way to lead by example.
Make the content relevant
On the first day of class, I could have easily droned on about notable ancient Greek plays, peppering the lecture with dates and quotes from people who died 2,500 years ago.
The result would have likely been a class longing for relevance from a teacher puffed up with self-importance.
Instead, I talked about how the Greeks believed their words held up the pillars of the universe; that if their prose weren’t expressed with enough vitality and passion those pillars, along with humanity, would perish forever.
Sharing that story invited my students to share their own.
Too often in school, we’re taught to memorize facts and events that have no context to our personal lives.
As a result, we become good company at cocktail parties but lack skills transferable to our everyday lives.
The lessons we tend to remember are the ones reinforced through personal experience, or have principles we can directly connect to our lives.
Ask how people are doing
“People won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
— Theodore Roosevelt
The first piece of advice my advisor gave me was to ask each student how they were doing before class.
“You might be the first person who’s asked all week,” he told me.
I took his advice to heart.
At the start of each lecture, I asked every single student about their wellbeing, making sure I didn’t pry.
And each time I made the inquiry I was met with surprise, then relief.
He was right, many of the students hadn’t been asked in a while.
This one, seemingly innocuous gesture, went further than I could have imagined.
“A lot of the teachers I’ve had could give a crap less about their students but you’ve stuck out for me.”
Taking an interest in the lives of your team establishes meaningful connection, commonalities, and cultivates the trust necessary for building something great.
Visit Nick at NickMaccarone.com.