Leaders: You Go First

New Rule: Leaders: You go first

Simon Sinek (2014) wrote a book titled, Leaders Eat Last. The premise of the book was that leaders take care of others before they take care of themselves. He included a story about the Marines. At the time I read this book, I happen to have a maintenance engineer at my school, Mike Dixon, who was an ex-Marine. I asked him if it was true, that leaders eat last. Mike said, ‘yes, they eat the same stuff but they eat last.’ It is always nice to have stories verified.

Sinek quotes John Quincy Adams, “If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.” Too often either the leader, outside forces, or those in positions of authority create dissension within organizations and can cause people to turn on others. Next is a story from Sinek’s book.

The Circle of Safety
A lion used to prowl about a field in which Four Oxen used to dwell. Many a time he tried to attack them, but whenever he came near they turned their tails to one another so that whichever way he approached them he was met by the horns of one of them. At last, however, they fell a-quarrelling among themselves, and each went off to pasture alone in a separate corner of the field. Then the Lion attacked them one by one and soon made an end of all four. Aesop, sixth century B.C.

Think about it. How often do external pressures cause us, in education, to turn “on” one another rather than “Turning to One Another.” The italicized is a book title by Margaret Wheatley (2009). One of Margaret’s quotes that struck me was, “Will we have the courage to reclaim time to think.” I believe we have to think and talk together in order to solve complex problems. We, in education, are always in motion trying to satisfy every need for everyone. If we do engage in reflection, it is like being irresponsible or lazy. Fortunately, our Learning Omnivore group is going to spend a day with Meg on August 2, 2019. I am excited to learn with her. Learning Omnivores are taking time to think and talk with each other.

It occurs to me that a book summary of the two books mentioned above might be worthwhile for a post. I’ll work on that later.

So, here is my point. If leaders want honest feedback, authentic evaluations, and possess a strong desire to get better for others, YOU GO FIRST. We all know modeling is the first teacher for kids. Kids watch adults. Oliver Wendell Holmes said, “what you do speaks so loudly they can’t hear what you are saying.

Here is another quote from Sinek’s book. A study by two researchers at the Graduate School of Social Work at Boston College found that a child’s sense of well-being is affected less by the long hours their parents put in at work and more by the mood their parents are in when they come home. Children are better off having a parent who works into the night in a job they love than a parent who works shorter hours but comes home unhappy. This is the influence our jobs have on our families. Kids are watching every move we make.

Staff watches what the leaders do. Observing the behavior of the leaders signal whether or not the leader is serious about improvement or it is just words. The farther apart the words and actions, the less trust in the system. If you want teachers and support staff to take evaluation and feedback seriously, leaders must model it first.

During the past three years, I have changed my coaching practice to Stakeholder Centered Coaching (SCC) developed by Marshall Goldsmith, Frank Wagner, and Chris Coffey. Highly successful businesses have used this model for years. Marshall reports a 95% success rate for those leaders who want to demonstrate better leadership. There are a few educators that are trained in this model. I am certified to use SCC. (yes, shameless self-promotion)

Here is a short description. The leader wants to get better at some aspect of leadership and identifies eight to twelve stakeholders A stakeholder is someone who reports to the leader. An example would be teachers and/or support staff who has credibility. If it is a superintendent they normally identify principals, central office staff, etc. The stakeholders must be people you trust. I usually ask, “if this person walked into your office and told you of a problem, you would take it seriously because they are trustworthy.” I didn’t say you agreed with them all the time. They also can’t be someone who is an adversary. You trust your stakeholders to give you honest opinions. In the end, they will be the ones who will determine whether or not you have been successful.

I ask four questions of each stakeholder. What are the strengths of the leader? What are the challenges for the leader in their leadership behavior? If you had one or two things you would recommend the leader do differently, what would they be? Anything additional you think is important for me to know. I collected the information and find themes that emerge. I do not share individual comments with the leader. We decide on one or two goals for the leader to work on during the year.

Yes, some leaders want to do five or six things. If they can’t do one or two, they will never do five or six. Most times getting better at one or two things helps other issues. Once we decide on the goal(s), I check with their supervisor to make sure the supervisor believes these are the right goals(s) to work on. I will do a mid-year check with the stakeholders and another check in for a final feedback session.

We then coach around the agreed upon goal(s) all year, typically 8 – 10 months. In May I hold a final check In with the stakeholders I ask them to rate the leader on a scale from -3 to a +3 and anywhere in between. If the leader does not average a +1.0, I don’t get paid for coaching. I, as the coach, have skin in the game. I do charge for doing the initial, midyear and final feedback sessions with the stakeholders. We agree up front on the fee for being successful at the end of the coaching.

In the beginning, I am clear about the expectations of the leader. First, they must be willing to have courage, to face the data and feedback honestly. Second, humility is required to listen, learn, and admit you may not be as good as you want to be on some aspect of leadership. Finally, discipline to follow through with agreements and new ways to get better results. Obviously, if the leader does not follow through during the year, we terminate the agreement. With no follow through, they probably won’t change and I won’t get paid anyway.

So, leaders, if you are serious about improving one or two things that will increase your leadership knowledge, skills, and applications, YOU GO FIRST. People will see this and they are more likely to follow the leader who puts their authenticity on the line.

So, eat last, model first, and be authentic while working to get better


Goldsmith, M. (2007). What got you here won’t get you there. New York: Hyperion

Sinek, Simon. (2014). Leaders East Last. New York: Portfolio/Penguin

Wheatley, Margaret. (2009). Turning to One Another. San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler


Shift Happens. If you don't adopt New Rules, drop the "f" in Shift!