This week I had the privilege of spending an afternoon with a team of new assistant principals.
As we talked about their first semester, they shared the lessons they’ve learned in time management, communication, and problem solving. They are finding their unique places on new teams, understanding their new roles for the first time, and learning new lessons every day.
Being a school leader involves an overwhelming number of daily tasks, requests from teachers for help, and situations with students that require thoughtful intervention and assistance. It’s no easy task. And it’s certainly not one for the faint of heart. At the same time, it is not one you can accomplish alone. No amount of self-determination or grit will accomplish as much as what happens when you understand the power of others on your team.
Lessons from Rowing Champions
As I talked to these new leaders, I was so impressed with their courage and determination. But I was also reminded of lessons in teamwork I’ve been learning from the book, The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown (2013).
Brown follows the life of one rower, Joe Rantz, whose struggles match the difficulties of so many during the Great Depression. Rantz led an especially difficult childhood, losing his mother at a very young age, and being left on his own for much of his youth and teenage years. His older brother helped him finish school and enroll in Washington State University. But the only way he could afford to attend college was if he could make the rowing team, which would allow him to work a part-time campus job as a janitor at the YMCA.
Throughout his training, Joe was noticeably talented. He was strong, intelligent and tenacious. But he was also a loner. As a result, he and his team struggled to find just the right chemistry to be a champion rowing team.
Brown describes the ultimate goal of any rowing team is to experience what rowers call “finding their swing”. But this only happens when rowers understand and execute their own individual roles while also relying on the other rowers to execute theirs with such trust and precision that they reach optimal rowing efficiency and speed – discovering the ultimate beauty, joy and glory of rowing.
Why is developing teamwork one of the most important, but difficult tasks of school leadership? How do you learn to execute your own role as a leader while building a climate where others are willing to rely on each other to use their combined skills toward accomplishing something beautiful?
What Makes a Great Rowing Team?
In Chapter 10 of the book, Brown gives a description of the teamwork required in rowing that is so poignant, I want to quote a couple of paragraphs in full:
“…the greatest paradox of the sport has to do with the psychological makeup of the people who pull the oars. Great oarsmen and oarswomen are necessarily made of conflicting stuff—of oil and water, fire and earth. On the one hand, they must possess enormous self-confidence, strong egos, and titanic willpower.They must be almost immune to frustration. Nobody who does not believe deeply in himself or herself—in his or her ability to endure hardship and to prevail over adversity—is likely even to attempt something as audacious as competitive rowing at the highest levels.
The sport offers so many opportunities for suffering and so few opportunities for glory that only the most tenaciously self-reliant and self-motivated are likely to succeed at it. And yet, at the same time—and this is key—no other sport demands and rewards the complete abandonment of the self the way that rowing does. Great crews may have men or women of exceptional talent or strength; they may have outstanding coxswains or stroke oars or bowmen; but they have no stars.The team effort—the perfectly synchronized flow of muscle, oars, boat, and water; the single, whole, unified, and beautiful symphony that a crew in motion becomes—is all that matters. Not the individual, not the self.”The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown (2013). Chapter 10, emphasis added
What I love about this passage is the acknowledgement that achieving hard goals requires courage, tenacity, and self-determination on the one hand while on the other hand, relying on others is the only way to move beyond your own strength to the collective strength of the whole team.
In other words, courage plus teamwork equals the accomplishment of seemingly impossible goals.
But Brown goes on to describe something else important: When the main character, Joe Ranz finally realizes his need to trust his other teammates, rely on their unique skills and strengths, and trust them with his own contributions – then they begin to find their swing and move toward their ultimate goal of winning an Olympic gold medal.
How Do You Build Effective Teams?
Here are three thoughts to keep in mind:
1. Avoid the trap of looking for (or trying to be) the “Superstar”
In Principal Matters Podcast, Episode 041, I refer to a TedTalk by Margaret Heffernan who speaks about the research of William Muer. In Muer’s experiments with laying hens, he theorized that if he could isolate the best layers from flocks of chickens into a group of “super chickens,” then he guessed he could create a “super flock” of productive layers.
What he found instead was that chickens in untouched flocks outperformed his “super chickens” because the exceptional layers tried to peck one another to death. In Heffernan’s speech, she explains how this lesson also applies to her research on what makes productive teams. Her research shows that highly productive teams have three components:
• They show high degrees of social sensitivity to one another.
• They are groups who give equal time to each other without one voice dominating and with no “passengers” on the team.
• The more successful groups had more women on them.
This kind of teamwork happens when you build structures for shared leadership. Whether you are relying on school leadership teams, student leadership teams, or involving parents in decision-making, strong teams are developed by showing openness to others’ opinions, giving equal time to hearing many perspectives, and including a diverse group of voices.
2. Help others look outside of their own interests
A district school leader recently told me that she had taken a group of teachers in a bus ride to tour their community. She drove them into a part of their city where students were living in the most difficult conditions.
She wanted them to see for themselves the kinds of environments many of their students were facing outside of school. This perspective was helpful. When teachers understand that some students are living without electricity or food, they are a lot more compassionate about why they struggle do finish homework, for example.
The same mindset applies in shared leadership. Even though you may have a great idea, it is important to seek the input of others and value their perspectives as well. You’ll accomplish a lot more with a mindset of togetherness than simply assuming you have the best ideas just because you’re the leader.
3. Building trust means being trustworthy
It’s easy to talk about trust, but you only build trust through consistent, long-term actions that show others you can be trusted. That means you must avoid empty threats, you must keep your promises, and you must have the backs of those on your team.
And if or when you fail, you admit it, ask forgiveness and move on. One of the most valuable lessons I learned as a teacher was to apologize to my students when I had been unfair or overreacted to a classroom situation. What I discovered was their willingness to trust me more and give me a second chance when I was honest with my mistakes.
As I look back at some of my own decisions as a school leader, many times I have had to be humble enough to admit when I called it wrong, and pivot my position going forward.
It’s a delicate balance to lead with courage while also building a culture of reliance on others. At the end of the day, if you are encouraging shared leadership, and your decisions are in line with the core values and goals of your school, then you can sleep well at night–even if not everyone buys in. Cultures of trust take time to build and require constant nourishment. Resistance shouldn’t keep you from pushing for higher degrees of collaboration. In fact, it’s a natural part of the cycle.
Let’s Wrap This Up
“Finding your swing” in leadership, like rowing, may seem like an elusive and lofty goal. But something beautiful happens in collaboration and teamwork. Ultimately, it means you move from self-determination to the joy of helping others. And in the process, you rediscover the reason you are an education leader. No doubt you must have a good measure of courage to be a leader. But you also must learn to rely on others to if you want to really lead strong school communities.
In Daniel James Brown’s narrative non-fiction book, Boys in the Boat, he explains, “…Even after the right mixture is found, each man or woman in the boat must recognize his or her place in the fabric of the crew, accept it, and accept the others as they are. It is an exquisite thing when it all comes together in just the right way. The intense bonding and the sense of exhilaration that results from it are what many oarsmen row for, far more than for trophies or accolades. But it takes young men or women of extraordinary character as well as extraordinary physical ability to pull it off.”
Now It’s Your Turn
As you think about your school teams, what is one way you can invite more input from your teachers, students and community members? What structures do you have in place to schedule times of shared feedback and reflection? How can you recognize and celebrate the strengths and unique abilities others bring to your team?
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