Leading the charge.

In many school districts, when summer arrives, administrative teams come together for the annual “admin retreat.” When I first heard this term, I envisioned principals and central office personnel packing up their camping gear, overdosing on bug repellant, and venturing into the Pennsylvania woods somewhere to discuss the trials and tribulations of the role of the administrator. For the past two years, my experience with the admin retreat has consisted mainly of day-long meetings (drowning in data) held in overly air-conditioned rooms (how can I concentrate on all of this delectable data if my body temperature is 92 degrees?) at a local conference center or golf course banquet hall (greens fees not included).

Not so this year.

Kudos to my superintendent for exploring alternative options for our retreat this year, as we spent the day immersed in stories of leadership through the lens of the American Civil War, on the battlefields of Gettysburg. Battlefield Leadership, led by former school administrator Dr. Michael McGough, was highly engaging, personally relevant, and one of the most meaningful days our administrative team has spent together.

Interwoven through his detail-rich tales highlighting the people, places, and events that comprised the battle of Gettysburg, Mike used examples of Civil War leaders’ thought processes, strategies, and character traits to shape our understanding of various leadership styles and provide us with essential principles for educational leaders. He often referenced Jim Collins’ Good to Great, John C. Maxwell’s The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership, as well as wisdom shared by Lee Iacocca in Where Have All the Leaders Gone?

I’d like to share with you several of the leadership principles and ideas we discussed yesterday.

  • “A leader without followers is just a person taking a walk.”
  • A leader understands her role in the organization.
  • A leader doesn’t allow his followers to forge ahead without first surveying the lay of the land. He leads from the front, but he always gauges where his team is, and knows how he will adjust if necessary.
  • Great leaders always have a plan B. And a plan C. A great leader is always focusing on his next move in checkers, not the move he’s about to make.
  • True leaders breed other leaders.
  • Powerful leaders know the people they’re leading. Build relationships.
  • “The absence of leadership is chaos.”
  • The people you’re leading should always know exactly what you’re asking them to do. When there are communication lapses, it causes frustration for both the leader and his followers.
  • Leaders understand that they are part of the emotional framework of the organization. They lead with civility and compassion.
  • Always be willing to adjust long-term goals based on short term successes and strategies.
  • What one thing made Lincoln such a powerful leader? Unwavering vision. (Did Lee lack this quality?)
  • A leader knows the difference between winning and not losing.
  • A great leader concerns herself with the critical mass. She does not base her effectiveness on the accolades of the two people who think she walks on water, nor the two people who criticize her every move.
  • Ego-driven leaders are not true leaders.
  • You’ll never hear the bullet that hits you.
  • Leaders effectively and eloquently react to unexpected circumstances.
  • Leaders are directly responsible for some successes, and others are delivered to them by successful team members. Know the difference. Recognize and celebrate the team members who bring the organization success.
  • It is essential for a leader’s followers to respect the leader and what he does. It is not essential for a leader to be well-liked by everyone in the organization.
  • Leaders know when to admit defeat and take responsibility for it.
  • Leaders have the desire to express a lot of things… but true leaders know what’s appropriate to express and how to do so.
  • Leadership is time, place, and situation sensitive. Leadership can be studied, refined, and augmented to meet any condition.
  • When issuing directives, make it clear whether you want the task completed effectively or efficiently. Dedication to one may be at the cost of the other.
  • A great leader knows where a person best fits within the organization. He delicately and personally evaluates each person’s performance and moves them to another role if necessary for the good of the organization.
  • Leaders make sure to differentiate between fact and opinion when someone else delivers information to their door.
  • It’s not degree or pedigree… true leaders are born of hard work. True leaders are tired at the end of the day.
  • Leaders understand the power of words and know how to use them.

We were asked to consider each thought in the context of our role(s) within the learning organization, and I encourage you to do the same. At the start of our day, we were given green and yellow index cards. Our task was to consider our goal-setting, our strategies, our actions, and jot down things we wished to stop doing on the yellow cards, since these things were not contributing to or aligning with our ultimate visions. On the green cards, we were to document ideas for how we might improve in an area or do things differently. At the conclusion of the day, we sealed the cards in separate, self-addressed envelopes, which we will receive anytime over the course of the next six months. These short messages will serve as reminders of our day together and all that we have learned.

If you would like to inquire about this learning experience and how it can serve your organization, Mike can be reached at drmike3@comcast.net. Many thanks to Mike and my administrative colleagues for a day immersed in history, learning, and camaraderie.

10 Replies to “Leading the charge.”

  1. This sounds to me like an school district moving in the right direction. What is the size of your district? How has public education been affected in the state of PA by current budgeting issues?

    I enjoy the blog postings!

    1. Hi, Michael. Our district has about 3,100 students K-12. We have certainly experienced reductions in funding on both the state and federal levels. We have had to furlough staff and all of our budgets and departments have taken cuts. We’re working to provide the best educational program we can for students in these times and will continue to plan, revise, and adjust as needed. Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment!

  2. Lynn,

    What a powerfully moving experience! The points you highlight are spot on and can really help leaders in any organization. I really liked the green and yellow card idea. Thanks for taking the time to share your reflections. Enjoy your summer!

    Be Great,


    1. Thanks, Dwight! I love the green and yellow card idea, too! I am definitely going to use that idea with teachers this year. Thanks for commenting and your support!

  3. What a refreshing idea… professional development can indeed model good pedagogy!

    There is great value in story-telling, not just from engaging an audience, but in providing rich memories of what’s been learned. The summer retreat we’ve arranged for educational leaders here in Canada will utilize personal narratives as one way to connect individual change agents within a larger network of co-learners.

    The setting matters too, and while you’re leaders have chosen an apt location for the theme of your day, we’ve settled on a venue on the edge of Algonquin Park that is purely Canadian, forcing participants to disengage from their digital networks in bringing focus to the tasks at hand.

    It would be valuable to others if the events of the day were archived somewhere. Others would not know about this event had you not brought it to our attention Lyn. How else will others be able to learn from the experience? In our case, UnPlug’d can be visited online, and the reflections of participants will all be linked to http://unplugd.ca Here’s hoping that we’ll soon have memorable stories to share as you’ve done in this space. Thanks for taking the time.

    1. Rodd, thanks for taking the time to comment! I recall reading about the Unplugd experience earlier this year. It sounds amazing! You definitely chose a beautiful setting in which your participants can share their stories. I will admit I have never taken interest in history as a subject in school… I am certain that if all of my experiences in learning about history mirrored this retreat and included storytelling, I would have been more engaged and learned so much!

  4. Lyn,
    I really enjoyed reading this post! What an incredible learning experience. Thank you for taking the time to write it up. I feel like I should add a shortcut on my desktop so I can have easy access to this post! See you soon 🙂


  5. This touches a nerve. I am a proud member of the Boy Scouts of America, earned my Eagle Scout award, and held several leadership positions for groups small and large within the program beginning when I was 13. After all the leadership training I received as a youth, I was frustrated when I entered the teaching profession and found so many ill-prepared leaders in administrative positions. I was spoiled after having grown up in an organization filled with great leaders.

    Just as I noted that there was very little emphasis on teaching SKILLS in my undergrad work (but heavy doses of theory), I fear now as I am beginning my graduate work that I will find the same when it comes to leadership skills, based on the administrators I have worked with thus far in my career. A few are great, some are good, but far too many are bad. And how can an organization succeed without effective leadership? Time will tell when it comes to my program, but that’s just a drop in the bucket compared with what is needed. It’s great to see at least one school spending time talking about what real leadeship is and how to lead.

    1. Bill, thank you for your insightful comments and for reading the post. It was a very meaningful day for our team, and these lessons have already surfaced in our conversations back at school!

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