Leadership at Every Level

The USS Santa Fe moved from last to first in morale, performance, and retention by creating leadership at every level. In his book, Turn this Ship Around, Captain David Marquet details his experience turning a ship crew from the worst performing to the best.  He says that he was trained to lead so that others obeyed and they often did. Although one day when he gave an impossible order and, to his dismay, his crew tried to follow it anyway. What was more troubling than him being wrong, was that when he asked why the order wasn’t challenged, the answer was “Because you told me to.” He realized he had created a culture of followers, who under dire circumstances were relying on the captain to tell them what to do rather than making informed decisions based on their knowledge and expertise and what was right in their context.

Much like the crew of the USS Santa Fe, when one size fits all reform movement and top down mandates treat teachers as followers instead of leaders, they will, in turn, do what is asked and implement programs but may not be meeting the needs of the students and in some cases could have unintended consequences.   Consider these examples from Dr. Yong Zhao in his article What Works Can Hurt: Side Effects in Education.

“This program helps improve your students’ reading scores, but it may make them hate reading forever.” No such information is given to teachers or school principals.

“This practice can help your children become a better student, but it may make her less creative.” No parent has been given information about effects and side effects of practices in schools.

“School choice may improve test scores of some students, but it can lead to the collapse of American public education,” the public has not received information about the side effects of sweeping education policies.

Dr. Zhao argues that “educational research has typically focused exclusively on the benefits, intended effects of products, programs, policies, and practices as if there were no adverse side effects. But side effects exist the same way in education as in medicine. For many reasons, studying and reporting side effects simultaneously as has been mandated for medical products is not common in education.It is critical that we cultivate teachers as leaders who have the skills and the mindset to question, problem solves and who continually learn.  We need teachers who can make high-quality instructional decisions and mitigate unintended consequences in their classrooms based on the learners, the resources, and the desired goals and objectives.  To create learning experiences that empower students to excel in a changing world, we can’t expect teachers to be followers who simply implement curricula and programs.


Captain Marquet advocates that to move from leader- follower and create the leader-leader culture, you can’t just empower, you have to develop skills and competence to lead and emancipate those you serve. Empowering individuals without a clear vision or alignment can lead to chaos and frustration.  For example, as I was mentoring new teachers I would often observe group work that led to more frustration than learning. One person would end up doing most of the work, kids would be off task, they would argue and then teachers would come to the conclusion that their students couldn’t do group work.  What the novice teachers didn’t see was that they had failed to set clear expectations for how to communicate, model what group work should look like and explicitly teach students how to collaborate. Collaboration and ownership over one’s own learning are powerful but this requires structures and guidance to have meaningful learning experiences. Without developing the skills or the mindsets to lead it is easy to make the erroneous assumption that others can’t do it and quickly take back control.

Develop Competence

Providing high-quality opportunities to develop the competence to move toward the vision provides the foundation for empowerment. Developing competence is about shifting the focus to collective analysis and evidence of student learning rather than the inspection of teaching.  For example, we learn about what works and how to improve when we work together to analyze student work samples, collaboratively investigate and solve problems, and share our work to assess strengths and determined next steps. When teams continuously design, implement and refine learning experiences to meet the needs of diverse learners, they develop competence.

Give Control, Don’t Take Control

For most leaders the more stressful and high stakes, the more we try to control the situation. Fighting this urge and giving control is where you will see the impact.  One teacher took a small step to give more control and instead of all students writing an essay, they could choose from a variety of formats like songs, websites, blogs, videos or create their own suggestion. By taking a risk and trying out some new strategies, she reflected, “Although I had faith that my students would produce quality work for this assignment, what they produced exceeded my expectations. Perhaps I should not have been surprised; for when you give students a sense of ownership and choice over their learning the creativity this unleashes often leads to great results. The results of this assignment make me want to develop similar projects in the future. When teachers push past their comfort zone to give more control to the students they often excel.

Empowered Teachers Empower Their Students.

When we give people control to make decisions that impact their work, they begin to develop competence, take risks and learn to trust themselves.  Marquet saw that people who are treated as followers treat others as followers when it’s their turn to lead. To avoid the leader-follower model, it is important to continue to trust people to make decisions even in the face of adversity. Policies and practices that convey a lack of trust, bog down the system focusing on compliance and unnecessary tasks instead of embracing opportunities for leading and growing individuals.

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One Reply to “Leadership at Every Level”

  1. […] who may have lost their way or are lacking motivation or are frustrated by their circumstances, leaders at all levels are instrumental in designing the culture and unlocking agency. We have to have high expectations […]

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