Leadership is Knowing When to Lead and When to Follow

At 5:07 pm one Tuesday in October of 1989, when I was in my second year as director of a school in Oakland, California, the ground began to shake. I was off campus, up on the third floor of our house, down with the flu and in bed. First, I heard a railroad train coming up the street. Then, looking out the window I saw the basketball hoops on the playground across the street swaying like trees in a wind. Then, our house turned into a kite. 15 seconds, later it went back to being a good house.

Then, my phone started to ring: Earthquake!!! Where are you? Turn on the T.V.! Get down here! What are we going to do? This was my experience of the “Loma Prieta Earthquake.”

By the time I had gotten dressed and driven to school all the children had been picked up and taken home, and only the Director of the After School Program was still there. He reported that everyone was safe. We walked the building together looking for signs of damage, but found none.

Nonetheless, when I got to school the next day everyone was anxious and everyone was angry at me. My job was to keep people safe, and people did not feel safe. Papa had been absent in our moment of crisis.

suzanne abbey - Google SearchIn February people were still angry. As we sat in a circle at one of our weekly faculty meetings the air was thick with their anger. With accusation in her voice the third grade teacher asked me one of those put-you-on-the-spot type questions. Taken aback, I didn’t respond.

Before I could think of what to say, Suzanne, the new second grade teacher, spoke up from the other side of the circle. In a mock stage-whisper, she said: “As your advisor, I suggest you say…” and told me what to say.

I smiled, relaxed and repeating it exactly. Everyone laughed, and the anger that had laced our community for the last four months fled the room. I felt in charge again.

Ten years younger than I, Suzanne was also new to the school, and I hardly knew her. If she was my advisor, that was news to me.

Leadership does not come with your position in a group. Leadership doesn’t come with a title. Leadership is not a set of traits that a few people have. Leaders are not elites. Leadership is an action that anyone can take at any moment in any group regardless of position. Notice Suzanne, listen to your own genius, and lead.

cooperative learning groups - Google SearchI watched Matt Ronfeldt once as he moved among the tables in his eighth grade algebra class with a clipboard. His 24 students were seated four-to-a-table and talking with great animation about the algebra problems in front of them. Fifteen minutes before they broke for lunch, Matt stopped them and said, “Great work everyone. I was thrilled with how you were working together. Here’s some feedback for you.

“Mikaela, you exercised leadership when you asked, ‘Wait. What are we solving for?’

“Taharka, three times I saw you take someone else’s idea and build on it.

“Danielle, remember when you stopped arguing and just wrote down what you thought the answer was and slipped it across the table to the others? Notice how that shifted the conversation?

“Table 4, I love how you each seemed to know when to speak and when to listen.

“Okay, close your eyes for a minute. Go back over the last half hour, think of how you worked together. Remember leadership moments. [pause] Okay, think of who did the most listening. [pause] Got it? When I say ‘Go’ open your eyes and point to who did the most listening.”

Matt went on like that till lunch giving each student feedback on how they exercised leadership. The students were learning algebra, Matt was teaching leadership, and everyone had been a leader at one time or another.

Of course, this teacher and student behavior was greatly assisted by the fact that five years earlier the faculty had made a rubric of leadership behaviors, taught them in class, and graded for leardership on the report card. However, anyone in any school can find a leadership opportunity and take it.

cooperative learning groups - Google Search-1

Leadership is a set of disciplines enabling you to create a moment that benefits a group and increases the likelihood that others will lead, also.

A leadership culture is like twitter: everyone has followers; everyone follows; everyone learns when to do which.


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7 Responses to Leadership is Knowing When to Lead and When to Follow

  1. Pam Swallow says:

    An excellent and humble piece on leadership, in its many forms. Another gold star.

  2. Rick says:

    Thanks, Pam. When they train leaders, leadership lesson number one should be (and as far as I know it isn’t) What to do when they’re counting on you, and you aren’t as awesome as you think you need to be.

  3. Thank you for another excellent post, Rick. This opens up so many wonderful possiblities: “Leadership is an action that anyone can take at any moment in any group regardless of position.” And Matt Ronfeldt is such a gifted teacher! Not only are his students given free rein to work together, they’re gaining powerful insights about teamwork dynamics.

  4. Shirley says:

    Very nice posting..as always.
    I wonder what would happen if all activities that were conducted at school were handled as learning exercises about group dynamics and leadership? That’s what I wish school was really all about….a place where kids could learn life skills, civics, and leadership. The seismic shift that would cause would sway the basketball nets too.
    There is loads of time to stuff in the academics if it’s needed in the twenties…but teaching a child to ask questions and engage in conversation and debate, in a thoughtful and peaceful way…that’s what we’re missing so much of, in our world.

  5. Rick says:

    Right, Schools are beginning to wake up to the fact that they need to graduate creative problem solvers. Now, let’s add the notion that social problem solving is the most challenging and the most brain-building, and builds the necessary creative skills for solving all problems.

  6. Gary Gruber says:

    “Apparently, there is nothing that cannot happen today.” Mark Twain

  7. Rick Armstrong says:

    Schools, Common Core Standards, and industry all do call for ‘creative problem solvers’. As standardized state & national tests, by their limitations, focus on content knowledge the rhetoric sounds like lip-service only. With high-stakes testing, it is SO tempting for schools and teachers to focus on brute-force methods of ‘pouring in’ information, not trusting that building confidence, leadership, values, and problem-solving in children not only are more important but also lead to academically students. Rick – thanks for providing a forum for these views

    Analogy: In the 1960-70’s, Lombardi’s Packers and Woody Hayes’ Buckeyes were very successful with their “3 yards and a cloud of dust” brute force running approach. Nowadays, with 3-4 300 pound defensive linemen, runners are quite unimportant on most (not all) teams. Now, 5-receiver sets, tight ends who catch passes, reverses, etc. achieve the same goals (points) using much more creative methods. But then, our society truly values scoring TD’s! 🙂 (I do love sports, but consider them a “bit” over-emphasized in our society.)

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