Civility: The Overlooked But Most Important 21st Century Skill?


For more than two decades, forward-leaning educators have focused on a set of skills that for some reason all started with the letter “C”: creativity, critical thinking, communication, collaboration, etc. I want to add another “C” to that list, one, I would argue, that will be more important to the world going forward than all the rest. Civility. If we don’t get this one right, we may not have a framework in which the others will bear fruit.

What is Civility


Civility: The ability to hold civil conversations, despite profound differences. The framework of a civil society based on objective realities, and laws that apply to all. A respect for rights, based solely in the fact that we are all members of a shared civilization. So many important words derive from that root “civil”.


One of my strongest early lessons from Wisdom Road is that people across the spectrum of politics, geography, culture, race, and income are sick of incivility. A small, powerful minority thrive on the extremes of incivility; they make a living off of prying others apart. The rest of us want to be able to look each other in the eye; converse across a dinner table; share our thoughts as humans, not members of opposing teams. We don’t enjoy polarization and bickering. We feel good when we are civil with each other.


We may think we teach civility in school but how much time do we really spend on teaching the skills of human-human interactions? I know those were not areas of focus when I was in school, and I don’t see many schools today teaching how to listen, empathize, discuss, reflect, value, and respect with those who might have powerfully different life experiences and world views than our own.


There are huge financial and political incentives to pushing all of us into silos and bubbles of selfish interest. If we re-learn civility, we will not all agree on everything, but more of us will agree on SOME things…and we will get along better on the rest.


I am pushing us to think about the most important next horizon in education. It is not STEM; it may not even be DEI. Even “purpose”, which I argued is a huge part of our educational mission in a VUCA world, derives strength from civility. We can each have our own purpose, which is fundamental to living a good life, but if we cannot reconcile our purpose with that of others, through civil interaction, then we risk operating in a bubble that makes sense, or proves fruitful, to a group of one. That is not a path to success for our species.

About the Author

grant lichman

Since 2012, Grant has visited and worked withmore than 125 schools and thousands ofteachers, administrators, and students around the country.  Grant told us that when he visits schools, it is as much to learn and share what they are doing as to impart his own guidance.  “I like working with people more than I like just talking at them”, he said.  He is a leader in a new style of organizational vision and strategy development for schools that is ongoing, inclusive, transparent, rooted in the principles of design thinking, and, Grant says, “a bit messy”.

When we talked to Grant about adding his voice to ours, he said that he left his one-school job in 2012 “because I saw both a growing realization that schools need to change and a gap in our abilities to make those changes.  On the one hand, we have teams of educators who know how kids learn, but have little or no background in organizational change management.  On the other hand, we have experts in organizational change management in the 21st century who have never spent any time in schools.  I have both of those strands in my DNA, and finally a lot of school teams realize the urgency in shifting away from the rigid, traditional, teacher-centric, industrial age model of learning.”

Grant puts his thinking, writing, and work with schools into a simple context. “Essentially, effective schools work on three levels”, Grant told us. “There is a 30,000-foot level of ‘what is our vision; who do we want to be; at what do we want to excel; what is our North Star?’  There is the 10,000-foot level of ‘how can we align the operating system of our school in direct support of that vision’ and the ‘Ground Floor’ level of ‘what are we going to do with our students every day’.  My wheel house is in the upper levels of this simple matrix. Once I have helped school/community teams to find their true North Star of differentiated value, and to build those integrated systems in support, I am working myself as fast as I can out of the relationship and turning the work over to those who are experts in pedagogy, program, and learning.”

Grant has offered to share his thinking with us from time to time. You can see more of his work, including links to his books and articles at, and follow him on Twitter @GrantLichtman and LinkedIn.