17 Jan Why leaders lead, part 03 — Praise

When I started teaching, a colleague of mine and I started the Leadership team — a student-centric group aiming to improve the school culture and experience. It’s divided into nine units with teachers heading each of them, according to their strengths and interests. They’re all named after a value they find important : courage, loyalty, responsibility. Here’s a story about my unit, trust.


Why leaders lead, part 03 – Praise

The four parts of this story aim to show why leaders do what they do. Those who lead don’t choose to do so as to merit a better rank, achieve results, receive the credit, garner praise, or be shown recognition. In teams where leadership is valued and cultivated by all team members, motivation stems instead from more collective reasons :

  • Team members are trusted as experts within their domains and are expected to counsel leaders and teammates with solutions instead of bringing forth problems.
  • Results are secondary to the growth of team members, allowing them to better their craft and to develop their leadership abilities.
  • All team members vie for the growth of their team, and sacrifice their time and effort to protect its integrity

Part 03. Praise

Each year, every teacher at my board gets to declare one non-refutable personal day and have a day off. It’s like a sick day, but you don’t need a doctor’s note. It has to be approved in advance by your principal, of course.

I’m terrible at taking these. I always find excuses at the end of the year or so to take it.

In 2013, I used it to make it to Cinqo de Mayo with friends in Ottawa. It’s a tradition. But not one that happens every year. So perhaps not a tradition. But it was one that year.

In 2014, it consisted of driving to Kingston to pick-up a poster project. Could have done that on a weekend. Afterwards, I made my way to school to help out my phys-ed colleague and do some work.

In 2015, I was more prepared. I wanted to spend it accomplishing something. I spent it supervising and refereeing the volley-ball tournament with my same phys-ed colleague, with whom I coached the teams.

My principal was confused as to why I would want to spend it that way. There’s something to be said about reaping the fruits of your own labour, but the reason was much more communal. If you want your work or your team to be excellent, you have to make sacrifices. If you want to cultivate a positive atmosphere where trust and belonging hold important places, it has to start with giving away parts of yourself, even when no one else notices. Leadership may be showcased in the glittering moments, but it’s developed just as much during the the lacklustre ones, when no one is looking.

One of the students in my Leadership team unit was part of this volley-ball team. She’s one of the better players and she’s extremely focused on her performance. But she’s rather unassuming when she plays. She’s nonchalant most of the time, regardless. More vocal teammates can take care of the cheering, she’d rather concentrate on the winning.

But something happened when those vocal teammates started making consecutive errors during play and losing confidence. No one was cheering anymore. They were much too concentrated on avoiding mistakes to think of encouraging their teammates. Volleyball is a sport like most others : the other team wants to make it difficult for you to play the ball. You often need to change positions and scramble to avoid the ball falling on your side of the court. When a team fears making errors, it’s easier to rely on someone else to play the ball, since your don’t risk making a mistake.

Knowing that you are willing to sacrifice your own performance and take the risk of making mistakes to help others is enough for your teammates to take risks themselves.

Coaching can be tricky in these types of situations. Before she would reenter the game, I would talk to this student about the impact a player can have on his teammates. Not only through her actions and her words, but also by their cadence and gravity. Energy and dynamism are contagious. Knowing that you are willing to sacrifice your own performance and take the risk of making mistakes to help others is enough for your teammates to take risks themselves.

And that’s precisely what happened. She entered the game being vocal and making sure others knew she was willing to make mistakes for the good of the team. Even if temporarily, she redefined what being member of the team meant and required : effort and trust. Not only did the team start having more success as she entered the game, but all her teammates stopped looking nervous and started having fun.

Coaches are allowed to award a sportsmanship certificates at the end of the tournament to a student who demonstrated a team spirit and encouraged others. My colleague noticed the (uncharacteristic) effort this particular student made and was adamant on awarding it to her.

The truth is that those types of things don’t matter to her. She doesn’t care about them. And I was very close to telling him, but a few things stopped me from doing so.

  1. She deserved it, and it would serve as a great way to teach her and her teammates about the importance of sacrifice for the greater good.
  2. While such things don’t matter to her, they matter to my colleague. It’s not about the certificate, it’s about what it represents. He works hard to instil strong values in his students, and makes sure to recognize when they make efforts to demonstrate them.
  3. Great leaders aren’t motivated by praise, but they have to accept the fact that they will often receive it. Accepting praise with humility is a skill, especially when it comes from an individual that has recognized your efforts and wishes to personally thank you because it meant something to him. It shows you think of thinking of others, that you treat others the way they want to be treated. She still needs to develop this skill. A lot of us do, too.