Teach Followers Before Leaders

I’m disheartened by a growing number of school mission statements, emphasizing “leadership” without any mention of preparing students to become wise followers.

If everybody’s leading, who’s following?

After all, all leaders were once followers.

The Twelve Disciples followed Jesus Christ, the Jews followed Moses, The Knights of The Round Table followed King Arthur, Plato followed Socrates, The Reverend Martin Luther King followed the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi, and Kobe Bryant seeks to follow the example set by Michael Jordan.

The list is by no means exhaustive.

If any school hopes to create tomorrow’s leaders, they must first nurture great followers. Unfortunately, too many great schools aren’t catching on. Take a look at several school mission statements: private, public, charter, it doesn’t’ matter. Many claim to foster tomorrow’s leaders, and none (at least that I can find) place any emphasis on shaping smart followers.

What about students who don’t excel in one or more disciplines, whose path to leadership seems much more uncertain? Have too many adults remained complacent, branding these students as “ those people,” followers?

I recently stumbled upon Missionstatements.com, a nifty site that compares various mission statements. Under the “School” category, the site lists 30 schools and colleges from around the nation—and the word “lead” appears 28 times. Below, I include the mission statement of three leading independent schools in New England. Having grownup in Boston, as a product of private school education, I affirm that all three schools are truly first-class institutions:

Noble and Greenough School

Noble and Greenough School is a rigorous academic community dedicated to inspiring leadership for the public good. Through mentoring relationships, we motivate students to achieve their highest potential and to lead lives characterized by service to others.

The Rivers School

Rivers challenges students to attain their highest levels of excellence in academics, arts, and athletics. We set high standards and expect students to participate actively in their learning. We cultivate a caring, respectful, and collaborative environment that encourages student performance, including demonstration of logical thought, informed and articulate voice, creative vision, and integrity. Rivers is dedicated to preparing its students for leadership in a world that needs their talents, imagination, intellect, and compassion.

St. Mark’s School

St. Mark’s School educates young people for lives of leadership and service. Founded in 1865 as an intentionally small residential community, the School challenges its students to develop their particular analytic and creative capabilities by both inspiring their academic and spiritual curiosity and kindling their passion for discovery. We value cooperation over self-interest, and we encourage each person to explore his or her place in the larger world beyond our campus.

As a high school history and journalism teacher, I work tirelessly to help my students reach their potential. Few would argue that this isn’t a worthwhile, earnest goal—and even fewer would argue that Noble and Greenough, Rivers and St. Marks aren’t among the best academic institutions in the nation. Any student would be enormously fortunate to attend.

But I can’t help but feel that these fabulous places of learning are missing a piece of the puzzle, at least on paper. By emphasizing leadership, do schools cause collateral damage on the delicate psyche of students who prefer to remain followers—or have no choice in the matter?

I’m aware of one gaping hole in my criticism. I’m sure that each school has a distinct, equally valid understanding of what “leadership” means. I also doubt that many schools (at least good ones) correlate leadership with pumping out CFOs, company presidents, board chairmen and world-class philanthropists.

But regardless of what types of leaders students become, as educators, we need to help them make wise decisions about whom and how to follow.

As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.

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