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3 Things They Never Taught Me About Leadership in College

This is a blog post by Dillon Smith. Dillon is the content manager for Carey Nieuwhof Communications and a member of the Speaking Team. You can book Dillon to speak at your next event or on for an interview on your podcast here.

By Dillon Smith

There are some things they just never teach you about leadership in college, no matter how great your school is.

I’m a 21-year-old leader who has learned to thrive in a high-feedback company with a steep learning curve. And as with anything in life, I had to learn a few hard things quickly—like not using too many exclamation marks in emails, not taking video calls from coffee shops, and proper, professional grammar, for example.

But there were a few things that took A LOT of work for me to get my head around. Things college never prepared me for. And as I look around at other leaders in their late-teens and early 20’s, I see a few of my own struggles that are universal among today’s young people.

Here are 3 things nobody taught me about leadership today in college:

The more feedback we get, the more familiar we became with our weaknesses. Click To Tweet

1. How to Think From First Principles

Most young leaders reading this will have no clue what first-principles thinking is. I didn’t either.

In short, first principles thinking is the ability to dissect a problem down to the deepest level of truth; it’s the ability to see each individual part of a problem and determine what action needs to be taken to fix it. (Here is an article that gives a much longer definition.)

This is a way of thinking I didn’t even know existed but has helped me so much.

So why do young leaders struggle with thinking about problems at their deepest level?

There are a few contributing factors, but I think the primary cause is the modern education system’s heavy emphasis on group projects, and group work.

Group projects are great (in theory) for building communication and teamwork skills, but they sacrifice the opportunity for a student to overcome a complex problem on their own.

Looking back at my own schooling, my mindset was “I’ll contribute what I can, and other people will do whatever I can’t.”

There was never the mindset of “I need to figure out how to fix this problem” or “this depends on me.”

This mindset permeated into regular individual projects too. The general attitude was, “If this is too hard for me to figure out quickly, it’s the teacher’s fault, not mine.”

And that thinking actually worked. If too many people in the class were struggling with a project, the teacher would lower the expectations or throw it out completely. And the teachers that didn’t were hated by everyone in the school and painted as jerks.

Looking back, I see that the teachers that taught me the most were those teachers who everybody hated and labeled as ‘unfair.’

The teachers that taught me the most were the teachers who everybody hated and labeled as 'unfair.' Click To Tweet

The real tragedy is that I can count 3 teachers throughout my public high school career that actually made me think. And unfortunately, I’ve carried this mindset through college and into the workplace and it is doing me ZERO good.

Even though our company works as a team, all of the tasks that I need to get done are on me, not my teammates. Before this job, I’ve rarely had to solve major problems on my own before.

Most individuals who grew up in our modern education system have no clue how to think through first-principles.

Just so you can spot this on your own team, here’s an easy way to tell if a young leader struggles with this:

Ask them a really difficult question that they don’t know the answer to. What do they do? Do they try to figure out the answer for themselves? Or do they just ask the nearest person that might know?

If they do the second option, first-principles thinking is not their default. (My natural response is also to do the second option, and I’ve had to learn to overcome that.)

So how does someone learn to think through first-principles?

As I have worked for our company, Carey Nieuwhof (my boss) and I have had dozens of conversations where he asks me question after question trying to get me to break a problem down to first principles.

I’m sure this takes a lot of patience on his part, but it has helped me immensely to walk through the process of breaking a problem down with someone who knows where we’re going.

So if you are an older leader, take the time to do the same with your young staff members.

Don’t give them the answer when they don’t know; make them discover it for themselves.

They might not like it at first, but later on, they will thank you.

If you are an older leader, take the time to do the same with your young staff members. Don't give them the answer when they don't know, make them discover it for themselves. Click To Tweet

2. The Playing Field of Influence Has Been Flattened (And So has Our Judgment)

My job is to manage content for this blog and the company, and I’m learning a lot these days. As my generation gets more and more of our news from social media, the playing field of influence has been flattened, and so has our judgment.

In the world of social media, a Fox News or CNN headline now gets the same space as a headline from If you’re not careful you can fall into the trap of giving each headline equal influence on how you think.

As my generation gets more and more of our news from social media, the playing field of influence has been flattened, and so has our judgment. Click To Tweet

I just ran into this problem a few weeks ago.

I was scrolling through Facebook and I saw a polarizing statistic in a headline and I shared it.

Later that week I flew up to Canada to spend some time at our company headquarters (also known as Carey’s house.)

While I was there, Carey talked about how many headlines on social media are coming from truly fake news sites (private sites designed to manipulate data and lie) and how they are saying whatever they can to get more clicks to their website.

This made me think back to the post I had shared earlier on in the week. So I went back and checked it.

Sure enough, the headline I had shared was completely fake. It had no credible sources. The only site it linked to was an editorial on some local website.

But to me, that headline was true when I read it, and I am sure it was to whoever else read it.

So why is this a blind spot?

As leaders, who we read and listen to has a massive impact on how we lead.

We need to make sure we are listening to people who are actually speaking the truth. Whether we like the truth or not.

As a boss/manager, one way you could help us is to introduce us to a few voices that you trust and ask us to follow them. Also, point out fake articles to us and challenge us to quit following those people who share them (this is similar to what Carey did for me.)

As leaders, who we read and listen to has a massive impact on how we lead. Click To Tweet

3. Outrage Culture Is Normal 

As I mentioned above, one of the primary determining factors of how many people see a post is the number of engagements and shares a post is getting.

This is fine until you actually look at what posts get the most engagement these days.

Sadly, we live in a cultural moment in which posts with extremely negative words like shreds, destroys, toxic, lethal, fascist, terrorist, etc, always get the most engagement.

Overall, the trend we are seeing is that the more anxiety you can make people feel, the more attention you will get on the internet.

And negative or cynical headlines give people a lot of anxiety.

As Carey points out in his Escape The Algorithm post, this phenomenon leads to groups of people that are filled with anger and hate.

So here’s the danger for young people:

This “outrage culture” is normal for people my age and younger.

We grew up in this.

We’ve never known anything but this.

And as a result, many of us don’t understand that you can disagree with someone without disliking someone.

Sadly, today’s young people have learned conflict resolution from angry people on Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit, and that isn’t conflict resolution at all.

Today’s young people have learned conflict resolution from angry people on Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit, and that isn’t conflict resolution at all. Click To Tweet

This is really dangerous for us once we enter the workplace because we can’t just “block” or “ban” a coworker after we disagree with them.

We have to learn how to work through the conflict and keep a working relationship, otherwise, one of us needs to quit or get fired.

So how can someone grow out of this?

We need to learn to disagree without being disagreeable. (I stole this phrase from Carey… Thanks Carey!)

We need to learn to disagree without being disagreeable. Click To Tweet

Some of the best leaders in history have been masters at this. Martin Luther King Jr, Gandhi, and Jesus all had different (and much more healthy) ways to approach those they disagreed with.

They had the ability to see that other people had flawed ways of thinking, and not immediately write them off as enemies.

They saw that the future is better when enemies stand together.

We need to be taking notes from them.

The future is better when enemies stand together. Click To Tweet

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Look Around You

Do you have young leaders who need to read this post? The sooner they hear this, the sooner they fix the problems modern education has caused.

Do them a favor and talk through this post with them.

Also, what blind spots do you think I left out? Do you think I’m wrong about any of them?

Feel free to disagree without being disagreeable in the comments below:

3 Things They Never Taught Me About Leadership in College


  1. Dale Simmons on November 4, 2019 at 4:45 pm

    Great article for us old people also. Thanks for sharing

  2. Brandon Bower on November 1, 2019 at 1:54 pm

    Man, that was a great article. As a 22 year old leader I can understand some of these issues and how I was blessed to have teachers who challenged me (both in high school and college). One thing I have learned (just recently actually) that has helped me tremendously in my leadership is that “it’s okay to not know what you’re doing.” I’ve been putting so much pressure on myself to know how to do things I actually don’t know anything about. Appreciate your post and I appreciate Carey pouring into younger leaders!

    • Dillon on November 1, 2019 at 6:15 pm

      Hey Brandon,

      Thank you so much for the kind words! I love your insights. I’ve learned that those times where we don’t know everything are opportunities to show our ability to adapt and learn as young leaders. I hope I never lose that mindset.

      Keep going man!


  3. Matt Busse on November 1, 2019 at 12:14 pm

    Thank you Dillon, great post!
    Could you give an example or two of some first principles you’ve learned?

    • Dillon on November 1, 2019 at 6:21 pm

      Hey Matt,

      Thank you! Of course!

      For me, it was the mindset of breaking down problems that I had to learn, so it wasn’t any specific principle, but the ability to find the first principles of any problem.

      One recent example of this is from just this last week, Carey and I were looking at what made our audience love the High Impact Leader Calendar so much. He asked me what I thought until I got down to the barebones of it. The reasons people love it are that it is 1. Immediately applicable to people’s lives and 2. It is a highly practical resource that people can use every day.

      So that is a recent example where I had to break something down first principles rather than just staying at surface level.

      Does that help?

      • Matthew Busse on November 1, 2019 at 6:31 pm

        Awesome, thanks!

  4. Richard Dawson on October 31, 2019 at 4:05 pm

    Really good post Dillon and nice to see you Carey empowering another leader like this. Excellent work.

    • Dillon on November 1, 2019 at 6:22 pm

      Thanks Richard!

  5. Frank House on October 31, 2019 at 3:50 pm

    New reader. Great article! Can you post a brief real world example of problem solving relevant to ministry in which First Principle thinking was used? I have researched the concept and every example tends to focus on solving scientific problems.


    • Dillon on November 1, 2019 at 6:28 pm


      One ministry example would be if you look at why an event you host at your church is so successful.

      The surface explanation of that is well, people really love the fall festival so we need to do more fall festivals.

      The deeper look would be if you look at what about the fall festival makes it successful. Maybe it’s the type of venue you host it at, the type of band you bring in, and the kid-friendly atmosphere. If you analyze it at this level, and answer why people like those things, you can apply those things to create a spring festival that looks different, but has the same bones that makes it successful.

      Does that make sense?

      • Frank House on November 4, 2019 at 5:19 pm

        yes! great example and thanks for the detailed response

  6. Chaplain Mike on October 31, 2019 at 12:22 pm

    Great post Dillon and Carey!

    A few comments to support what you are saying and one for leaders to look at in addition to what was posted. That one first – thinking from first principles is great if you have time to think it out. With the hyper-dynamic state of our world, and sometimes in ministry, there is not time to spend in deep consideration with a lot of questions. Sometimes you must rely “on your instincts”, make an initial move and perform “in-flight” adjustments. This process is call satisfycing verses optimizing when we have time to ask questions and seek out the best solutions before acting on them.

    I completely agree with the overdosage of information we get these days. This is known as the fog of war in the military and public safety. You have to quickly discern whether the information is just that – information or if it is actionable intelligence which is verified information. Information is also dated and expires quickly, again, a reason that you may not always have time to consider multiple options and an optimal solution.

    I worked with a group of partners for almost 30 years. We knew how to push each others buttons so when we got into management and had to do programs and projects together, we made a promise to each other to always work the issues and never to work each other. We also promised to hold each other accountable with this and we did. It was amazing how much work we got accomplished and how we often succeeded over groups that attempted to thwart our progress.

    Thanks for the great post. Blessings!

  7. Larry on October 31, 2019 at 12:00 pm

    What is the most helpful tool you have found and deployed to determine what articles are unreliable? There is so much information out there.

    • Dillon on November 1, 2019 at 6:29 pm

      I just look at the deeper sources/bibliography of the article. If they don’t site where they got their information, there is no way to prove if it is accurate or not.

      One reliable source is Gallup polls. I LOVE their stuff.

  8. Roxanne Smith on October 31, 2019 at 9:56 am

    Some really great incites here. I know I can grow in these areas as well.


  9. Scott on October 31, 2019 at 8:58 am

    Refreshing. Thank you, Carey and Dillon.

  10. Ross on October 31, 2019 at 8:06 am

    Hey Carey and team. This is a well done post. Have you folks seen anyone apply the “first principles thinking” approach to identify the challenges the church is facing in our Western culture? And if so, is there a well articulated list of those problems you could pass along? Perhaps you’ve done this yourself and I missed the post; I’m a bit of a newcomer.

    • Roxanne on October 31, 2019 at 9:59 am

      Great question! I would love to know the answer to this as well.

      • Chris C on November 3, 2019 at 8:47 am

        Take a look at Larry Peabody’s page . His book, “Curing Sunday Spectatoritis” looks at some of these. (btw, I have no skin in promoting this). It will challenge some basic thinking and take you back to first principles.

  11. Roger Tabler on October 31, 2019 at 7:58 am

    I would appreciate/enjoy blog posts if written like prose, rather than spread out like poetry. Keeping a flow is easy for the reader, truly!

  12. Paul Noblin on October 31, 2019 at 2:06 am

    This is a great article. Once again, it really nails it down. Sometimes, the wisdom of Carey and his guests need to be thrown away.

    I have wanted, since high school, to wrap an old Bible in duct-tape. I want organize a co-ed touch football game, using this duct-tape Bible as a football. The game would be played at a Christian college. I just want to watch this game. Sometimes, one must stop analyzing and just get in the game.

    Like the author of this article, I am amazed at how problems are solved by the leaders of Churches. Little analytics are evolved in many paths to a solution. It is very important to to break the problem into it’s simplistic components.

    I am even more critical than Carey’s friend and guest. Most people, even leaders, really don’t know what they are talking about. They don’t know how to think. I am sorry.

    Do you believe that the Bible is the Word of God? If you do, why haven’t you read every Word of it? I have read the Bible twice. Once for content, and another time for context. I recommend that every Christian do this. Read the Bible twice from Genesis all the way to Revelation. If my name was mentioned in the Bible, I would be delighted if people would read my name in the most important book ever written. Get everyone on the same page.

    Also, I have noticed that people really don’t know how to think. If you have read the Bible, solutions will appear when you need them. Furthermore, I have found the best way to think. There is only one reality, and only one way to think. Few people correct their thinking process. Many just accept what they are told without realizing that their thinking is flawed if only by teachers and life experiences that are not perfect. There is only one true way to think, and it is a straight and narrow path.

    Do not jump at the sound of a bell. You are not a Pavlov dog. Think more like a rabbit who considers his options before executing his best optionn.

    Carey is probably tired of my persistent and repetitive posts. I sure wish that I could remember the author’s name. The article is right on point, don’t you think? Anyway, here goes…

    The Key to the Universe;
    Revelation One Nineteen
    Write down a brief account of your day, your problems that day, and a list of tasks to do the next day.
    ©1985 Paul Noblin

    Read Rev.1:19 (KJV).
    “Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter;”
    Write down the past, present, and future.
    Align your inside mind with the outside world (reality including Christ), and you will be one with All.
    Telepath Love & Perfection.
    The past is not fixed. The past is in flux and is constantly changing.
    You can bend reality.
    You are the center of your own Universe.
    Reprogram yourself.
    It takes only 15 or 20 minutes of your evening.

    You must join our organization. The S. P. C. P. – The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to People.
    Just bury $40.00 in a jar in your backyard. We will contact you. Presto. You’re in!

    Warm Regards… paul.

    God bless Carey, his family, and his ministry. We pray for our Missionaries and soldiers, over seas and at home. We pray for the lost and the sick. Thy will be done. Forgive us for our sins, and praise You, our kind and magnificent Father in Heaven. In Jesus Name we pray. Amen.

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