“We” Will Always Be Better Than “Me”


Somewhere buried within the thousands of pages I’ve read on leadership, I read a story about an interaction between John Wooden and one of his players. Wooden, the legendary UCLA basketball coach who led his team to seven straight NCAA Championships (10 total), was not giving the player as much time on the court as he would have liked. The young man, likely one of the best collegiate basketball players in the country, decided to express his disappointment to his coach. He approached Wooden and said something woodenquoteto the tune of, “Coach, why aren’t you giving me more playing time? I’m the best player on this team.” To this, Wooden replied, “You’re right, you are the best player on this team; but, we are not the best team when you are playing.”


Since reading that story, I’ve often spent time imagining the look of bewilderment that must have immediately fallen over the young man’s face when the Wizard of Westwood, arguably, the greatest coach in the history of sports, told him that the team was more important than the individual.


Additionally, I’ve often thought about just how right Wooden was in that moment. Achievement, particularly the kind of achievement that stands the test of time, is never attained in isolation: “We” will always be better than “me.”


Those who aspire to leadership in education need to remember this. More importantly, leaders must practice this. Here are some practical ways that leaders foster a “we” will always be better than “me” culture:


Leaders are inclusive, not exclusive. Leaders who build teams on “we” rather than “me,” spend time ensuring that everyone in their organization feels valued for their contribution. This can range from telling the new teacher that they have something to offer with respect to professional development to taking time to thank secretaries and custodians for how their work contributes to the success of the school. Great school leaders know that everyone has an important role to play when student success is on the line – and they work to ensure everyone feels valued in their role.


Leaders make their schools flat. There’s nothing to be gained from hierarchy. Leaders who successfully make their schools flat encourage everyone to speak up, they invite new thought that challenges traditional methods, they drop the use of official titles, they seek input from community members and students about how the school should operate and include those thoughts when making decisions with staff, and they decentralize the office as the center of thought by shifting it to hallways and classrooms all over the building.


Leaders encourage teamwork. The collective wisdom of an entire staff will always trump the wisdom of even the most intelligent person. Just was “we” will always be better than “me, people will always be smarter than one person. This means that leaders expect that their staff work together to do their jobs. Teachers should be encouraged to meet regularly within Professional Learning Communities, departments, and on specific task-forces, not because it’s cool to have meetings, but because these are proven to be more effective than doing it on their own.


Leaders encourage staff problem-solving. When problems arise, leaders who understand teamwork encourage their teams to solve them. Rather than attempt to always provide the answers, leaders encourage staff members to find the answers and to deal with the issues themselves. When this happens, the problem not only gets solved quicker, but leadership capacity is built within individuals, which helps them to further contribute to the team mentality.


These are just some ways school leaders develop a team mentality within their schools; I know there are more. What are some ways you build the “we” will always be better than “me” mentality in your school?

Angelo DelliSanti is the proud principal of Jesse C. Carson High School in Kannapolis, NC. For more by Angelo, read his writing at carsonhigh.blogspot.com

Jumpstart Teacher Leadership & Create District-Wide Leadership Principles


Does your district (or school) have leadership principles that define and empower every person as a leader, like the ones from the Kansas Leadership Center in Wichita, KS?


The 5 Leadership Principles from the Kansas Leadership Center (photo Laura Gilchrist, KLC Wichita, KS)

If the answer is no, that’s a lot of leadership potential in your schools just ‘sitting on the shelf.’


If the answer is no, kick off your commitment to teacher leadership and create your district or school leadership principles with a collaborative teacher and administrator team. 


Superintendents and principals, invite teachers to co-create a set of district-wide leadership principles that will grow every person in your district and ‘give permission’ to innovate! The voices of teachers are a most valuable resource to every school and district. Pull up chairs and get teachers to the table. Teachers can make a school shine from the inside out if they are empowered as innovators, ideators, and collaborators. In case you didn’t know, teachers who believe in themselves and know that an entire district believes in them, will inspire and empower students. Inspiring students to their greatness is our true calling.


I asked a group of educators on Voxer if their districts or schools had a set of leadership principles that empowered everyone in their ecosystem. The answer, in each response involved a long pause and a ‘No’. “We have group norms and a mission and vision,” said one educator. Her next comment was that those things are related to management, not leadership.


Approach Leadership and Management with Intentionality


Leadership is often confused with Management. They are not the same thing. Managing is telling and directing. It’s about subordinates. Leading is encouraging people towards a vision. It’s about growing leaders. Management has been ‘on the field’ in education, playing in every game. We’re behind. Leadership has been waiting on the bench, as a subordinate, and is ready to come in and help the team WIN.


What is leadership? 


Leadership is about empowering others to believe in themselves and act as leaders and innovators. In education, we’ve relegated student and teacher ideas and dreams to the bench. We’ve missed chances for kids to see how powerful and smart they are. With an intentional shared statement of leadership beliefs, we can let everyone know we value their talents and want them to act on them.


If you believe that anyone can lead, anytime anywhere, your school becomes a place where every person’s ideas are regarded with interest and analysis, with action and gratitude. If you believe it must include others, collaboration is a must.


To create shared leadership principles and beliefs, administrators must initiate the work with teachers and then model it with sincerity and integrity. If it’s not modeled, lived and breathed by the administrators, it will not fly. If it is done right, it can transform the culture of learning!


Design Your School Culture


Design your school culture. Stop being a victim of it.  Design it with district leadership principles and beliefs at the core. After you adopt the shared leadership principles, teacher and student voice are activated as positive players in your school culture. When principals, teachers, students, and superintendents are active leaders in buildings, whose stories are shared on social media and in the community, schools will start shining from the inside outpowered by leader agency and innovation.


Empower every learner in a school/district to lead and innovate. What might happen? Ask Amazon and Google about how they designed their culture of innovation and leadership.


Google’s 9 Principles of Innovation for Every Organization
Amazon Jobs Leadership Principles


Teacher Perspectives on How Leadership Impacts our Work


The problem I see, from my 21 years teacher perspective, is that the power and authority inherent in administrator positions–if used as a tool of compliance, control, or shield from actually leading–can shut down innovation (and true learning) in teachers and students. Hello, fixed mindset. Hello, compliance culture. Hello, we’ve failed to elevate kids to their true genius and passions. Leadership is not something you DO to people, it is something you do WITH people.


When teachers or students go to a new school, they find the answers to these questions quickly:


“Can I be creative? Am I sought out for ideas by the principals? Will teachers, principals listen with interest to my ideas? Am I ‘just a teacher’ or ‘just a student?”


It doesn’t feel good to be in a school culture where you are not valued as a leader. This is a major reason I see teachers leaving for other schools or for other professions.


Leadership Principles posted and talked about daily, because they are part of the district/school culture, can help make sure no one feels like ‘ just a teacher’ or ‘just a student.’ (The fact that these statements are common make my heart hurt. Future blogpost)


District-wide Leadership Principles: A Perfect 1st Task for Teacher Leadership Initiative 


Adopting district/school leadership principles and living them, modeling them from the top down, builds an innovative and growth mindset into every person in every school. It encourages communication and connection across the district, in all directions. Leadership principles show that ideas and passions are valued, everywhere and by everyone.


Once your teacher/administrator team has crafted your district-wide leadership principles, the teachers will work like crazy to figure ways to get kids living these principles. It is up to every person in the district after that, not just the teachers, to LIVE the leadership principles as well.

Design the school culture of your dreams with leadership principles flowing through its veins. Start conversations at your school or district. Administrators, no time like the present to invite teachers to make this happen for your school or district. Teachers, ask if there are leadership principles like the ones above from Kansas Leadership Center. Ask to form a teacher leadership team to work with administrators and create one! We’re all leaders.


Make it happen. Get leadership flowing through the veins of your school or district ecosystem. 


I invite you to share comments, ideas, experiences below in a larger, growing conversation on this important topic!


Laura Gilchrist is a Teaching/Learning coach at a high school in Kansas City, Kansas who spent 20 vibrant years as a middle school science & social studies teacher, doing PBL and storytelling from her room. Read more by Laura here.