Why Strong Leaders Use Sugar Instead of Vinegar


Danny Brassell was a new teacher and he really didn’t know what to do with seven-year-old Belinda. She was the smallest kid in his classroom and it was hard to imagine she could be as much trouble as she was proving to be.

When you focus on the negative, you tend to get the negative.

Danny’s normal disciplinary methods weren’t working so he kept Belinda in at recess one day and made her clean the classroom. Even that didn’t work. She said she enjoyed it and asked if she could do it every day — and then she went right back to fighting with the other children.

When Danny caught her using a bad word while insulting a little boy, he decided it was time to call her mother. Belinda defiantly announced her family didn’t have a phone. Danny said he would walk her home after school and talk to her mother in person. That scared Belinda. She was silent for the rest of the day, visibly worried.

Now Danny felt sorry for her. But he had been told by the experts that he should stand firm; that’s how good teachers did it. After school, he walked that frightened girl home, and what he found was a ramshackle house with a front yard filled with debris. As he stood on the front porch waiting to be invited in, he heard Belinda’s mother screaming at her inside. Then she spoke to him through the closed front door: “What’d she do this time?”

Suddenly, Danny decided to try a different approach. “Well, I didn’t come to tell you what Belinda is doing wrong. I came to tell you what she is doing right.”

There was silence, so he continued to search for whatever positive — and true — comments he could make about this mother’s little girl. “Belinda really likes to participate in class,” he added. “Belinda is also always at school on time and I wanted to thank you for that.”

Finally, the door opened, to reveal a mother who was now smiling.

Danny continued describing every positive thing about Belinda that he could think of and decided to omit any mention of her bad behavior — realizing her mother was probably all too familiar with that.

As Danny walked away from the house, he heard the now proud mother yelling out to her neighbors: “My Belinda’s helpin’ other students in her class. Her teacher says she’s really improving.”

Belinda was very grateful, and she tried to be a good girl for the rest of the school year. She didn’t succeed 100 percent of the time, but she had indeed been transformed by Danny’s sudden change in strategy.

I think we all try a variety of management styles as we go through life: gentle or firm, autocratic or collegial, tough love or softy. We’re searching for the right way to lead, to mentor, to teach. Danny Brassell’s story about his own search for the right approach provides one of the many lessons that influenced me in “Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers,” our latest book for educators.

I shared a stage with Danny, now Danny Brassell, Ph.D, at a couple of teachers’ events in California earlier this year. Danny is on a mission to share his teaching methods with educators and with corporate audiences as well, because what he learned in his years as a teacher is equally valuable in the business world. Good leadership techniques work regardless of the environment.

When I interviewed Danny for the Chicken Soup for the Soul podcast, he talked about that day with Belinda, and how it was a turning point for him as a young teacher. He went on to work with all kinds of parents, among them parents who were incarcerated and parents who were inebriated, but he never worked with parents who didn’t want to hear something good about their children. He said, “Kids who are problems are so accustomed to hearing the negative. It’s such a surprise for them to hear the positive instead. And it’s a wonderful surprise for their parents, too.”

Danny said, “When you focus on the negative, you tend to get the negative.” Even when you’re not dealing with a disciplinary problem, the more positive approach is always the way to go. He asked, “Is it better to put ‘–2 out of 20’ on the top of a test, or ‘+18 out of 20?’ It’s a subtle difference, but it’s an important one.”

He told me another story in the same vein. He was assigned 16 eighth grade boys who no one else wanted to teach. Eight were African American and eight were Latino. Danny says, “If their life wasn’t miserable enough, they got stuck with the white dude as their teacher.” On the first day of class, Danny said to them, “You know guys, you’re all going to have to help me out. This is my first time teaching in the gifted and talented program.” He said they all looked at him like he was from outer space. But it worked. Danny treated them like geniuses and they started acting like geniuses.

Here’s another great thing that happens when you make a conscious effort to look for the best in a little girl named Belinda, or you tell 16 eighth grade boys that they’re gifted, or you treat your colleagues like they’re fabulous. That conscious change in strategy — looking for the good, and expecting it — actually causes a real change in your attitude. Because now you’re focusing on the good, not the bad. And you start to see so much more potential in your students, or your coworkers or your employees.

I get the occasional flawed work from my team, or I get a Chicken Soup for the Soul story that needs a lot of help. I go back to my colleagues or our writers and I thank them for the “great first draft” and then I edit like crazy. That creates a mentoring opportunity, and it also leads to better performance from that person in the future — because he or she feels empowered to keep trying, instead of just giving up. Now, he or she sees a road to success, one that has already been paved with one or more small victories.

“We have a choice every day. We can fill people with negative energy or positive energy,” said Danny on my podcast. Exactly. So we’ll lead with sugar instead of vinegar, and we’ll compliment before we critique. That’s how we empower the people in our lives to achieve their best — and make our own jobs a little easier while we’re at it.

To read more about Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers, please visit https://www.chickensoup.com/book/198706/inspiration-for-teachers. To learn more about Dr. Danny Brassell, please visit To read more about Chicken Soup for the Soul: Inspiration for Teachers, please visit https://www.chickensoup.com/book/198706/inspiration-for-teachers. To learn more about Dr. Danny Brassell, please visit https://www.dannybrassell.com.

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