Leadership Starts with You

I’ve had the privilege of working for some amazing leaders over the years. Those leaders that had courage. Those leaders with an articulate vision. Those leaders who valued people first. Those leaders who helped foster cultures of risk-taking and innovation. Those leaders who modeled the way and led by example. Those leaders who were willing to challenge the status quo and do whatever it took for those that they served.

Traveling the nation and working with educators gives me great hope. Being with educators across the country every week affords me the insight as to the vast array of work that’s being done to support our students. There is so much good happening in our education world.

I’ve worked with amazing leaders in states like Mississippi, with buildings that serve students where 100% of the enrollment live below the poverty line. In places like this, I’ve met some of the most dynamic, passionate, talented educators who serve some of the most brilliant, determined, hard-working, courageous kids.

I’ve also worked with the other side of the spectrum, in some of our country’s wealthiest suburbs, where money is plentiful and outfitting the newest VR & STEM lab with the latest technology, and spending tens of thousands of dollars on such products each year is more than feasible. In places like this, I’ve also met some of the most dynamic, passionate, talented educators who serve some of the most brilliant, determined, hard-working, courageous kids.

Yet if I’m fully transparent in these thoughts, the converse is also true. I’ve worked with leaders in some of the poorest areas and leaders in some of the wealthiest areas of our nation, whose leadership I’d struggle to place my own children under. (Please know I say that as respectfully as I can.) These interactions have been limited as the vast amount of school and district leaders that I work with are people-loving, kid-centered, dynamic, and talented individuals who pour their hearts into other people each day.

With the vast experiences above, from urban to rural, from large to small, and from poor to wealthy, incredible school and district leaders can be found in every type of demographic.

What I’ve come to know, is that…
…a school’s budget doesn’t make a great leader.
…a school’s location doesn’t make a great leader.
…a school’s size doesn’t make a great leader.
…a person’s title doesn’t make her/him a great leader.

In Learning Transformed (#LT8Keys), Eric Sheninger and I address this issue as we contrast “Leaders by Title” (LBTs) with “Leaders by Action” (LBAs). We share:

In our opinion, the best leaders have one thing in common – they do, as opposed to just talk. Leadership is about action, not position. Some of the best leaders we have seen during our years in education have never held any sort of administrative title. These leaders had the tenacity to act on a bold vision for change to improve learning for kids as well as the overall school culture. These people are often overlooked and may not be considered “school leaders” because they don’t possess the necessary title or degree that is used to describe a leader in a traditional sense. Yet the impact of these leaders on an organization can be much greater than that of an LBT. Make no mistake about the fact that you are surrounded by these people each day; both physically and virtually. They are teachers, students, parents, support staff members, and even administrators who have all taken action to initiate meaningful change in their classrooms or schools. These leaders don’t just talk the talk, but they walk the walk. They lead by example in what might be the most impactful way possible – modeling. These leaders do not expect others to do what they are not willing to do. These unsung heroes do not need a title to have a significant influence. It doesn’t take a title for these leaders to be agents of change.

Everyone has the ability to lead in some capacity and our schools, and kids that are being shaped inside them, need more educators to embrace this challenge. Never underestimate your own unique talents and abilities that can help shape the future of our schools to create a better learning culture that our students both need, and deserve. Some of the very best school leaders walk our halls every day – our teachers and students. Great leaders work to build capacity in these people and empower them to lead change.

Leadership is defined by action, not by one’s title on a business card.

From my experience, quite often, especially in toxic environments, educators will talk about “a lack of leadership” which is often paired with “morale is low” in the conversation. Toxic school cultures are real. Toxic, egocentric, self-serving “leadership” is real. In these environments, innovation will not thrive. Risk-taking will be minimal. In these places, it is ultimately the students who will lose the most.

This cycle will continue until hearts change or other leaders rise.

Some of the greatest school leaders I’ve ever worked with, have been the third year teacher that runs through walls for kids every single day. Or, the support staff member, who makes far less than they deserve, yet is a backbone to the building. Or, the 35 year veteran teaching her last year, but making every day count, and although it’s her 20th year teaching second grade, she recognizes that it’s her students only year in second grade.

True leaders don’t see it as someone else’s responsibility to make great things happen. True leaders don’t see it as someone else’s responsibility to make their schools a great place to work. True leaders don’t point the finger outward, before they point the finger at themselves and look inward.

Leadership starts with you.

Regardless of your role, regardless of your position, if you work in a school, you are a leader for kids. If you work in a toxic environment, you have two choices; maximize blame and minimize impact, or maximize impact and minimize blame. If you work in a toxic environment, and the perceived consensus is that it’s due to one person, what would happen if you and every other adult in the building did everything in their power to make it the greatest school on the planet to work? Some may call it a utopianistic thought. But why?

Toxic environments are real. Yet, to move that environment forward we must own part of the process, regardless of our title.


So much of the role of leadership comes down to one word – mindset. It’s easier to point the finger, than it is to take responsibility. It’s easier to make an excuse than it is to fight an uphill battle. It’s easier to hide than it is to rise in the midst of uncertainty.

If you want your school to have great leadership, it begins with you. If I want my organization to have great leadership, it begins with me. It’s our mindset, our actions, our circle of influence that we can move forward. We can’t do it for others. We can only do it for ourselves.

"If you wouldn't follow yourself, why should anyone else?" — John C. Maxwell

Every one of us is responsible for the culture of where we work. Each of us contributes to it. Each of us either builds it up, or tears it down, even just a little bit, each day. Right now, your school’s culture perfectly aligns with the mindset and actions of the adults in your building. If we want things to change, we must look inward before we look around us. We must move ourselves forward, if we want the whole group to move forward, otherwise, we’re part of solidifying the foundation of the status quo.

While toxic school cultures and poor leadership are very real, so too are countless schools and districts that people run to each day. Places of joy. Places where both students and staff want to be. Places where leaders take responsibility and model the way. Places where the adults do whatever it takes for those that they serve. These places aren’t made by one person. Cultures of innovation are the culmination of action-oriented leadership by many inside the organization.

Where leaders rise, our kids win.

The work is hard.
But our kids are worth it.

Together, we can do this.