ILLINOIS SCHOOL BOARD JOURNAL
Famed coach offers leadership pyramid
Dennis White and Greg Reynolds
Dennis White is a former Illinois school superintendent who now teaches in the School of Advanced Studies, University of Phoenix. Greg Reynolds is a visiting assistant professor at Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville.
The perception exists among many community members that school leaders exert a powerful, if indirect, influence on teaching quality and student learning. Leadership is a team process in the classroom and the boardroom.
No one can run an organization by themselves. A school superintendent must work with the board of education and the administrative staff as a team. The way a team is led will have a major impact upon the success of the organization … in this case, the school district.
Experience has shown that when asked what they want from a leader, team members will often identify several values:
• Commitment to people, as well as task.
• Desire to support and serve the team, as well as lead from the front.
• Enthusiasm, energy, inspiration and sufficient expertise.
• Willingness to shoulder responsibility rather than pass the buck.
• Ability to make the team come together to achieve more than a group of individuals.
The late John Wooden, a championship basketball player and arguably one of the best-known coaches in the sport, is an excellent example of a team leader.
Affectionately named the “Wizard of Westwood,” he won 10 NCAA national championships in a 12-year period, seven in a row as head basketball coach at UCLA. His incredible 88 consecutive wins earned him an unprecedented national coach of the year six times.
He is a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame as a player and coach. And, at the time of his death in 2010 at age 99, the Associated Press reported that he was one of the most revered and beloved coaches in the world.
Renowned for his short, simple inspirational messages to his players, Wooden’s baseline mantra was his Pyramid of Success, written in 1948. Interestingly enough, this book was used as often with his players on how to be a success in life as it was to be successful in basketball.
Until his death, the former UCLA coach still kept in touch with many of his former players, but that only seems natural for a leader whose “pyramid” includes friendship, loyalty and team spirit as three of its 15 blocks.
Playing the game
Wooden was the classic example of it not being about the number of wins and losses: it’s about how the game is played. In fact, his players say they don’t recall their coach ever stressing the importance of winning a game. It was about sticking to the fundamentals.
John Valley, who played under Wooden on the 1969 and 1970 UCLA national championship basketball teams, said: “On the first day of practice, I remember him saying, ‘I’m not going to be talking to you about winning or losing because I think that’s a byproduct of our preparation. I would much rather be focused on the process of becoming the best team we’re capable of becoming.’”
At a workshop some years ago, Coach Wooden explained, “Everything starts with character.” He immediately recited one of his most famous quotes: “You should be more concerned with your character than your reputation because your reputation is what others think you are, but your character is how you truly are.”
Wooden said his leadership arose from a “pyramid” and without it, his teams would not have reached the success they enjoyed. He effectively intertwines success and leadership in such a way that the power of his pyramid can be the elusive road map to success as a school leader.
In Pyramid of Success, Wooden defines success, in part, as the peace of mind gained from knowing you made the necessary effort to become the best of your ability at anything and everything you set as a goal.
A school administrator may find peace of mind most elusive. The workday pressure seems to never stop. Teachers, students, staff, parents, community members and board members alike are merely a few daily interlopers.
Place these factors under the umbrella of fiscal responsibility and it is easy to understand routine in school leadership is, at best, elusive. Every decision has a price. Typical work responsibilities that should take 20 minutes can be stretched to two hours. The unintended consequences brought about by previous decisions can be overbearing.
Abraham Lincoln believed that you can get there much faster if you know where it is you are going. Coach Wooden has provided an invaluable legacy through his Pyramid of Success road map that can provide the type guidance to get to the destination of improved leadership.
Loyalty, friendship, cooperation, enthusiasm and industriousness make up the base of Wooden’s pyramid. Without an effective leader, a negative void forms that is detrimental to the entire school district.
Teachers, staff and students arrive at the school every day seeking an enthusiastic, friendly leader from whom they can expect cooperation as they go about the business of educating children. In a school with an industrious leader, devotion to the school’s vision and student learning will be self-evident.
Self-control, alertness, initiative and intentness make up the second row. The school leader must understand the complexities of effective decision-making. It is only through intensive and alert behavior this occurs.
Being alert to the internal and external climate of the school enhances the type of self-control necessary for making successful decisions.
Condition, skill and team spirit are next on the list. Believe it or not, Wooden did not always speak to athletic conditioning as the defining factor for the success of his teams. He claimed mental conditioning is the necessary element to withstand critics and deal with success in a consistent professional way.
Skill improvement can only occur if the leader is willing to recognize weaknesses and set a realistic plan in motion to overcome and master areas that are lacking. Wooden’s insistence that self-glory take a back seat to working together was the basis for much of the team’s success.
Poise and confidence are second from the top of the pyramid. Confidence is a must, because over-confidence or issuing short, sharp directives is not leadership. It is merely assertiveness, according to Ozan Onay in his July 2011 Leadership blog. Assertiveness does not move an organization.
Onay quoted John Lilly, the former CEO of Mozilla, as stating that leadership visualizes the successful organization and goes about making it so. Furthermore, leaders get others to help move the organization forward.
Onay also claims that fixating on a convenient solution is motivated by opportunism. Not all problems have quick, easy, and painless conclusion. Leaders who understand problems have a variety of solutions.
Wooden encouraged understanding problems first and allowing solutions to arise from this enlightenment. Poise is not a byproduct of problem solving; poise enhances problem solving.
At the top of the coach’s pyramid is competitive greatness. A school leader cannot retreat in the face of daily responsibility. Success is often measured by matching competitive greatness to the problems presented. The emergence of a type of competitive self-satisfaction becomes a strong motivator to overcome any obstacle.
The challenge is to analyze your own behavior with those pointed out in Pyramid of Success to see where you match-up. Read more about the different building blocks and seek out detailed descriptions of the pyramid online.
If you find a high correlation, congratulations! If you fall into the category that indicates a less than satisfactory correlation, know that understanding and improving leadership behavior is at your fingertips through the pyramid.
Leadership within the school organization can be defined many ways. Coach Wooden provided practitioners with a set of simple and powerful tools. His book can become a road map to gain self-satisfaction and piece of mind knowing that the children in your district get your best effort every day.
These factors are particularly intriguing because they challenge the beliefs and traditional conceptions of leadership. They push us to gain a better understanding of how we relate to others.
Furthermore, Wooden asks us to examine how we distribute power and authority. We consistently have called on ordinary people to do extraordinary work, and many times we succeed. We can succeed more often if we understand and implement the tenets of leadership put forth by John Wooden.
The notion of sustainable improvement may well represent today’s major learning edge in school leadership.
Ozan Onay, Leadership, http://regardingwork.com/2011/07/01/leadership/
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