You’ve got brains to burn — that’s what my ninth grade teacher said to me. According to the Brandon School Division, her name was Mrs MyFanway Keogh but I believe most knew her as Van Keogh. She likely had no idea how profound that one statement came to be for me, and actually, remains something I grasp onto every once in awhile.

I have one sibling, an older sister. As you can imagine we are very different but very similar. Within a family, siblings assume positions like the achiever, the peacemaker and the life of the party. When one position is filled, the other siblings fall into a vacant one. Most birth order research states that children born first are the achievers, the middle the peacemakers, and the baby the life of the party. Some believe birth order affects your personality and actually the kind of parenting you receive. I don’t disagree, but I’m not absolute on the fact that your role is your role forever. I believe you can move between roles as you mature and gain life experiences or as your siblings move through life and take on other roles leaving their role vacant.

When Mrs Keogh told me I had brains to burn she caught me off guard. I was in the middle of horsing around when she said it, with a smile on her face, so I knew she wasn’t angry, which was important. Why was it so impactful? To be frank, my sister was the smart one. My sister was the one who did well in school and achieved good grades. I was not. Or at least that’s what I believed to be true about myself. Her comment made me stop and consider that maybe, just maybe, I was smart too.  

I have come to realize smart is relative and that far more of us are smarter than we accept. My parents did not say or do anything that perpetuated or encouraged my self-belief. In fact, I bet they didn’t even know I didn’t think I was smart. I never thought I was stupid, but equally did not think I was smart. As in birth order, my sister was smart, therefore I was not. It seemed pretty straightforward in my 14-year-old brain.

Today, I employ a few check statements. This is when I check on what I just said to determine its validity. I do that in two ways. One is adopted from my friend Amy ‘Hdawg’ Hyatt who tells me, ‘‘Don’t make it mean that” when I assume something about what someone said or did. It’s a great tool because it makes me think about whether or not I am potentially making the situation or comment mean something it might not mean at all. I make things (and so do you) mean things based on my past experiences, or my assumptions about people, or what I am assuming they assume about me. Confused?

My other check statement is from Dr Wayne Dyer, an American self-help author and motivational speaker, who encourages us to ask this question, “Is it true?” As an example, I did not consider that I could be smart. So when I put myself into the not smart category, I should have asked, “Is it true?” Is it true that I am not smart? What have we convinced ourselves of that is not true, and what are we making things mean but they might not mean at all?

Mrs Keogh changed the trajectory of my thoughts with one bold statement. What if this woman that I trusted, respected, and liked was telling me the truth? Imagine if I was smart? Imagine.

Part of our evolution as human beings should include understanding our own fears and self-imposed limitations, as well as our beliefs. As leaders, (and remember I believe we are all leaders in some way at some time), it is important to see the talent you have on your team and equally important to say it out loud.

Mrs Keogh’s statement did not come on the first day of school; she had paid attention to me throughout the year. I believe, although I do not know for sure, that she had learned about me, taken note of my skills and talents and then she said them out loud. That’s what a leader should do— pay attention, take note of skills, talents, and challenges. Then help your team notice it for themselves by saying it out loud.

Part of being self-aware is the ability to assess what you tell yourself, what it’s based on, and ultimately, if it’s true. We collect, harbour, and set up rules based on so many things other people tell us about ourselves. We need to be our own fact finders. We need to look a little deeper and be boldly honest with what is true and discard what is not true. Sometimes, we don’t always like the things that are true about ourselves. But, maybe that’s a good thing because the first step to moving on or changing our behaviour is self-awareness. o, be honest and be brave.

As a leader, your level of self-awareness directly affects your ability to lead. Leaders should review their own assumptions and beliefs about their team members. It is important to take inventory of what you have made, actions, behaviours and comments mean and then ask,  “Is it true?” Perhaps you are harbouring thoughts that are preventing you from being your best leader. Or maybe you can see this as an opportunity to grow, move on, and be so much more than you have told yourself is possible.

Mrs Keogh was telling me a few things. One was that I was smart. The other was that I was not using my smarts to their full potential. That I was not using the full strength of my available brain. That I was, in fact, not working that hard. Her comment ignited change; I ended up doing very well academically that year and even made the honour roll. Imagine how I would have done if I was smart?


Thank you, Mrs Keogh, who has since passed, but is worthy of the praise. She was indeed, an example of good in my educational journey and my life. I am grateful she was the kind of leader who told me the truth in a way I could hear it, in a moment I didn’t expect it, and in a method that has never left me.

We never know how our words will impact someone, we never know what rule they create based on our judgements, or what rule they break based on our encouragement. Imagine.