Keith Hawkins is a national youth speaker who addresses more than 400,000 students, educators, business owners, and parents each year. He has addressed the United Nations Global Summit, has been interviewed by TIME magazine, is featured in a book on public speaking called Between One and Many, and co-authored the books Teen Power and Beyond and Go M.A.D. He has dedicated his life and work to improving the human race by helping everyone strive for personal change in their lives. Hawkins was also one of the keynote speakers at LEAD DC and LEAD Chicago this winter. 

Advise: When did you know you wanted to become a motivational speaker for the secondary student audience?

Hawkins: I’ve been around speakers ever since I started high school. After my junior year, I knew I wanted to inspire students the way speakers had inspired me. When I heard a speaker named Phil Boyte say my name in his speech, my road to becoming a speaker was created through my imagination.

Advise: Your company, Real Inspiration Inc., has four key beliefs: relationships, empowerment, attitude, and leadership. Why are these tenants so important to today’s youth? 

Hawkins: I believe one of the most important aspects of our lives is relationships. Relationships are what help us get through our daily lives, not to mention things we might struggle with. Our relationships with our self, work, school, family, and friends help to shape who we are as individuals.

Being in a position of influence means you can empower others. If we all felt more empowered, confident, and encouraged, our environment would dramatically improve. Feeling good about who you are in your life is so important. Feeling empowered is a direct effect of happiness. The saying goes, “When you look good, you feel good.” I think it should be the other way around: “When you feel good, you look good.” Being empowered draws people to you.

Attitude is such an important attribute in life and leadership. It’s so easy to have a negative attitude about everything. When we do that, we will become one of many faces—normal, average. My coach once told me, “Faces change, but attitude stays the same.” When you challenge the way you think, then you can come up with solutions instead of only seeing why some things cannot be solved. You also see the good that is possible in all areas of life.

Leadership is what helped me and so many others become who we are today. As a young boy, my family struggled by the hands of weak leadership. I made sure when I became the leader in the home that I would stay strong in my leadership so that my family could thrive. Leadership is not so much what people say, but rather it’s about what they do. When you create good habits of leadership, then those habits make you a great leader.

Advise: Have you noticed a considerable shift in school culture issues today versus when you first began offering your programs, or are the subjects you cover mainstays in most school environments? 

Hawkins: I have noticed that the students have changed in many ways. In a lot of ways the change has been good, but at the same time there are things we can work on when it comes to our students’ culture. Students still want a sense of belonging and feeling of acceptance. Maybe the way we are going about it has changed somewhat. A student used to get most of their support from home. Now students need that support more at school. Our program is centered on the importance of creating connections with all people. It is this connection that every student will always need so that they can have a productive and fulfilled education.

Advise: Why do you think student councils and the Honor Societies are great outlets to assert student leadership? 

Hawkins: I think that student council, the National Honor Societies, and any other positive activity that a student participates in are critical to his or her success. Every student needs something to do, something to hope for, and something to love. If students don’t have positive things to keep them going, they will find negative things to do. When you go down the road of negative things in your life, it’s hard to have hope—not to mention something to love. I know when students are connected with something positive in their lives, they have something to hope for. When you have hope that helps, especially on the days that are hard when you don’t want to be at school. The connection with the activity gets you to school; hope keeps you there. When you’re fully engaged with everything school has to offer, you feel like you have a life worth loving.

Advise: During your middle/high school years, was there a particular teacher or adviser who inspired or influenced you most directly? 

Hawkins: Educators have inspired me throughout my life, especially in middle and high school. Mr. Joseph was my middle school principal. He became a father figure who gave me boundaries. Those boundaries made me coachable, and being coachable has helped me be successful in every area of my life. In high school, my activity director Don Rizzi taught me responsibility, accountability, family, leadership, and excellence. One day, my mom’s car broke down, so I had no way to get to school in order to go to a leadership conference with my student council. I called Mr. Rizzi to tell him I couldn’t make it. Instead of giving up on me, he said he would pick me up. I told him that I lived 15 miles away from school, and the next thing I knew, he shows up in front of my house with a huge yellow bus full of the student council students. Rizzi opened the door and told me, “Hop on! We leave no one behind.” That’s why family comes to mind when I think of school—one big old family.

Advise: How do you grab the attention of student audiences and keep it? 

Hawkins: I use energy, enthusiasm, and encouragement to grab my audiences. You cannot have those three attributes if you don’t have love for the people you’re speaking to. I look in the audience and I see young people who are like my kids. I see students who are brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, and grandkids. I ask myself how I would want my kids to be spoken to. What message would I want them to hear? When audiences know that you really care about them, it’s much easier to hold their attention because they become part of what you’re saying as a speaker.

Advise: Why is leadership such an important quality to instill in today’s students? 

Hawkins: Leadership is so important because we all need to be leaders. People think that in order to be a leader they need to lead others. If you’re going to make the right choice and make good decisions, you need to lead yourself first. Leadership comes down to choices and decision making. If we all made better choices and decisions, our world would be better.

Advise: If you were going to impart advice and guidance to the secondary level students of today, what would you share?

Hawkins: Remember, it’s not what people expect out of you, it’s what you expect out of yourself. You never have to prove anyone wrong; just prove yourself right. Don’t give people what you have or what they give you. Give people what you need. I will give patience, support, acceptance, inclusiveness, kindness, respect, forgiveness, and love, because that is what I need.