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        Cultivating Leadership Through Self-Acceptance and Forgiveness

        In this lesson, students watch videos about self-acceptance and forgiveness and then explore how these qualities relate to leadership potential.

        This resource is part of the Transformative Teachers collection.

        Find out more about The Dalai Lama Center for Ethics and Transformative Values at MIT.

        Lesson Summary

        Pulled in opposite directions by the desire to conform and the drive to uncover their individuality, adolescents often struggle to find the right balance. In figuring out who they are, where they fit in, and what their likes, dislikes, values, and interests are, they may become uncommunicative, uncooperative, or rebellious at home. At school, some students become strongly opinionated, while others become confused or hesitant to speak up. As students learn self-acceptance, their growing sense of confidence and identity enables them not only to learn and process new information, but to get beyond their own personal concerns and contribute to the world around them.

        Forgiveness lays the foundation for coping with trauma by helping people to move past difficult situations and circumstances. Exploring the quality of forgiveness can allow for a deeper understanding of the power of forgiveness throughout human history, especially its role in helping create leaders. By understanding why forgiveness can free them to move on and look beyond their own concerns, students can take on more challenges as learners and as leaders.

        The lesson begins with a brief teacher-led discussion that connects the qualities of self-acceptance and forgiveness to leadership potential. Students watch a video about self-acceptance and reflect on its meaning and importance. They then do a writing activity that helps them identify and reflect on who they are. In Part II, students watch a video about forgiveness and complete an exercise that helps them put this quality into practice. Students may then (optionally) watch a video about Gandhi and/or Nelson Mandela and explore how forgiveness was a source of strength for these leaders. In Part III, students demonstrate their understanding of how self-acceptance and forgiveness can lead to personal growth and, in turn, concern for others.

        Time Allotment

        • One or two class periods

        Learning Objectives

        • Understand what self-acceptance is and its connection with helping others
        • Appreciate the role forgiveness plays in the process of self-acceptance
        • Recognize how self-acceptance and forgiveness helped form the character and actions of great leaders

        Prep for Teachers

        • Examine the media resources to familiarize yourself with the lesson content.


        • Writing materials
        • Markers and palm-sized pebbles for each student in the class
        • A trashcan or other container that can hold all the pebbles

        Media Resources

        Learning Activities

        Part I: Who Am I? (20 mins)

        1. Explain to students that throughout history, leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Elie Wiesel, and Aung San Suu Kyi have stood up against injustice. Whether struggling against class divisions, racism, or gender discrimination, these people have drawn on qualities shared by most leaders intent on solving social issues: self-acceptance and forgiveness.

        Through discussion, develop class definitions of self-acceptance and forgiveness. What do these words mean? What does each quality look like in action? Why are they important? You may want to use a personal example to describe how one or both of these qualities helped you grow and succeed. Ask students to talk about people they know, historical figures, or celebrities (actors, musicians, writers) who overcame obstacles through these qualities. You may want to choose one leader from history or current events to focus on throughout the lesson.

        Explain that by fostering these values, which students will be learning more about in this lesson, students may empower themselves to become leaders—working on issues that matter most to them in their school, in their communities, and beyond.

        Optional: To further engage students with this powerful idea, show students one or both of the following videos: Freedom Riders: The Inspiration (Gandhi) or Remembering Nelson Mandela (begin at 13:07 and end at 14:25).

        2. Distribute blank sheets of paper to students. Have them create their own identity charts by dividing the sheet in four parts and using the following headers: “My Attributes,” “Likes,” “Dislikes,” and “Dreams for the Future” and “Causes I Care About.”

        Give the students two to three minutes per section to complete their diagrams.

        3. Show the video Young Peace Leaders: Cultivating Self-Acceptance, in which students use improvisation, singing, and movement to better understand themselves, build their sense of confidence, appreciate their individuality, and use their newfound awareness to understand others.

        After watching the video, discuss the following questions:

        • What was the most memorable statement made in the video?
        • Why did that statement have an impact on you?

        Then, have students continue work defining their identity, completing the following statements on the back of their chart:

        • “For me, self-acceptance is…”
        • “In order to accept who I am, I will need to…”
        • “Self-acceptance will help me…”
        • “Self-acceptance will help me achieve my dreams by…”
        • “By accepting myself, I will be able to help the cause I care about by…”

        Additionally, have students write any new ideas about themselves and how they will achieve their goals. Ask for volunteers to share their written work.

        Before moving on, return to the discussion of leadership. Explain to students that being one’s self, expressing one’s viewpoints, and taking a stand based on one’s beliefs are demonstrations of self-acceptance common among great leaders. Then, ask students, Why and how was self-acceptance important for the leader you are studying? How did it enable him or her to become a leader and realize his or her dreams?

        Part II: Peace with Ourselves (15 mins)

        4. Show students the video again. This time, draw students’ attention to the quote from His Holiness the Dalai Lama that appears at the start: “We can never obtain peace in the outer world until we make peace with ourselves.”

        Invite students to reflect on the quote and answering the following questions, either in small groups or as a written journal entry:

        • What does this mean to me?
        • What brings me peace, and what does not?
        • Who or what do I need to forgive in order to make peace with myself?
        • How will making peace with myself help me to move on?

        5. Show part of the video Young Peace Leaders: Cultivating Forgiveness, in which middle school students label a rock that represents a situation or person they want to forgive. Pause the video at 2:15 and give each student one pebble and a marker. Ask students to use the markers to write on their pebble a situation or a person who has made them angry or hurt them. (Note: Remind students that sometimes you might need to forgive yourself for something that you did or said.)

        Next, show students the rest of the video, which shows students carrying their rocks in a backpack and eventually experiencing the healing power of forgiveness by discarding their burdens. After watching the video, have students complete this statement on a piece of paper:

        • “I will forgive _____________ because ___________________.”

        Once students have finished writing, have them paste their slip of paper onto their pebble. Invite students one at a time to the front of the class to drop their pebble into a trashcan or other container.

        Ask students to talk about how it felt to forgive. Was anger, resentment, or hatred weighing them down? How do they feel now? Did anyone need to forgive himself or herself? How did that feel? Did forgiving someone or something enable you to better accept yourself?

        Before moving on, bring the discussion back to leadership. Note that history’s leaders have proven again and again that the quality of forgiveness differentiates strong leaders from weak leaders. Mahatma Gandhi once said that it takes a strong person to forgive: "The weak can never forgive. Forgiveness is the attribute of the strong." Abraham Lincoln noted: “I destroy my enemies when I make them my friends.” Nelson Mandela based his new post-apartheid government, in part, on forgiveness. Leaders who demonstrate forgiveness unify people instead of keeping them divided. They leave an opening for reconciliation when two sides are pitted against one another.

        Culminating Activity

        Check for Understanding (10 mins)

        Have students complete the following to make a commitment to leadership or changing the world: “By accepting myself and forgiving others, I am better able to…”

        Once students have finished writing, collect everyone’s work and redistribute it at random. Students should read the sheet given to them and then take 30 seconds or so to write down an encouragement, a question, or a thought somewhere on the page. Then, have students switch papers with someone else and repeat the exercise. After three or more rounds, return the pages to the student who wrote the original thoughts. Allow students a few minutes to read and reflect on the comments given by their peers.


        This lesson is based on “Values in Action: Beyond Community Service; Extending Service Learning,” a lesson written by Shereen Wong, a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.


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