Sunday, June 26, 2011

Can you teach Leadership?

There's a lot of talk about leadership.  What is it?  Who has it?  What does it take to be a leader?  etc.  Personally, I think leadership is like anything else.  We are all born with some capacity for it and some have an easier time at it than others.

But in a classroom situation, what does it look like?  Is it the same as in, say business or sports?  Probably not, as there seems to be some other element in a school situation that does not occur in business or sports; maybe because in elementary schools, there is such an emphasis on "getting along with others."  In business or sports, you do not have to be liked to be an effective leader as long as your company makes big money or your team wins the championship (e.g. several of our heads of state and a lot of NBA stars, excepting Steve Nash, of course).

Leadership is one of those things that is not listed in the curriculum, but still needs to be addressed to prepare kids for life.  So when I talk about leadership in my class, I try to give models or exemplars of different styles of leadership.
  • Sometimes it is the Best Player model.  This person is the fastest or strongest or has the best ideas.  Think Michael Jordan or Bill Gates.  Not only is Gates a great businessman, but insiders say he was the fastest and smartest programmer ever.  Sure, he has passion, but he had chops first.  In the classroom, the downside of this model for kids is that these talents seem to be God given, so they are not possible to teach, but we can still learn from their great skills.
  • What about the Grinders who lead by example?  They don't say much, but work harder than anyone. These people are my favourite types of leaders because it is just hard work, and that ethic is not God given.  In hockey, I think of Steve Yzerman or Joe Sakic.  They are quiet, passionate guys who are the first guys on the ice and the last guys off.  Sure, they have skill, but their devotion and work ethic is what sets them apart from others.  Mother Theresa is another grinder: tirelessly and thanklessly working to build a better world one person at a time.  (But her slapshot was not so good).  In the classroom, these quiet kids who stay behind to finish the project or to give their work a little extra something deserve to be recognized.
  • Another favourite leadership model of mine is the Visionary.  These people have a big idea that is so revolutionary,yet so simple that it makes people think, "That is so brilliant!  Why didn't I think of that?"  Think Steve Jobs.  Not only does he have great ideas himself (Mac, iPhone,iPad, iTunes result in iBillionaire), but he implements things in ways that other people can't see.  Xerox GAVE him the mouse and the graphical user interface (GUI) because they didn't see any potential in it!  There are pros and cons with the visionaries in the classroom.  Sometimes they have great ideas that really inspire others, but sometimes their ideas are so outlandish that everyone (including the teacher) does not understand the idea or the merit of it.
  • Unfortunately, the most prevalent style of leadership in the Boss.  Technically, this isn't even a model of leadership, but it's one that kids see all the time: the authority, the person in charge, the parent, the teacher.  I don't really need to give you examples of this model as you probably are thinking of a number of the examples you've encountered in your life.  It is a model based on power, and I guess it works somewhat in businesses, schools, or homes, but as a model for kids in a group situations, it can be brutal.  Kids get in each other's faces, trying to assert their assumed authority.  (Think of two hyenas circling a piece of meat).  Now you know why I want to supply my students with alternative models. 
  • Another interesting leadership style is the Friend.  This person makes everyone feel good, and everyone wants to have this person in their group.  They can be quiet or they can be loud, but they make sure everyone is getting along, and the group usually has fun.  Usually, they have magnetic personalities, like Oprah or Walt Disney.  On the upside, sometimes everyone feels so good that they produce amazing things.  On the downside, sometimes everyone is so busy having fun and getting along that they produce nothing.  They can be the valedictorian or the class clown.

When kids ask me what leadership is, I tell them about this last part: Leadership is the ability to get what needs to be done, done.  Sometimes you have to get in there and just work, sometimes you need to have the best ideas, and sometimes you need to be able to mobilize others.  There are so many styles, including the ones I mention here, and we all have elements of all of them.  The hard part is knowing which style to employ and when. 

Check out this great video on starting a movement.