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Lessons in Leadership Learned from the Coaching Launch

By Art Charles
Lessons in Leadership Learned from the Coaching Launch

It was my first race as a rowing coach with the freshman lightweight crew at Georgetown University. I was sitting in the observation launch with the coaches from the University of Pennsylvania (UPenn) and Rutgers. The official starter yelled “Ready… Ready all… Row!” and all three boats took off at about 40 strokes a minute. Ten strokes into the race my number five man came off his seat, stopped rowing, and our boat quickly fell into last place. After a few missed strokes, he managed to get back on his seat, my rowers pulled a “power ten,” and, by the end of the race, our boat managed to finish in second place. While I was sitting in the coaching launch watching my boat fall apart, the UPenn coach turned to me and, smiling, said, “Tough luck, coach!” If I had been uncertain about my abilities as a coach, I certainly felt at that moment like an impostor.  However, by the end of the race my rowers had made me proud and helped me realize that I was in the right place.

I coached rowing for another twenty years at college, high school, and club levels. Coaching taught me several lessons that helped me improve my craft as an educational leader:

Lesson #1: It’s why you have a launch

Later, as the head coach of rowing at George Washington University, I coached from a flimsy 16-foot aluminum boat, seated on a floatable cushion, working the motor’s throttle with my left hand and yelling instructions through the megaphone in my right hand. I couldn’t coach from the relative comfort of the boathouse or by standing on the shore. I had to be on the water, alongside my crews, in order to give advice to the individual oarsmen on how to improve their rowing technique. In cold or inclement weather, I suffered along with my rowers. However, the unspoken message to my team was “we’re in this together.”

For the past 14 years, as a consultant doing searches for senior administrators of independent and international schools, I always ask candidates about their leadership style. One of my favorite answers to the question came from a head who told me that she had given up her office because the school needed it for a classroom. As she proclaimed, “What do I need an office for? I have my phone and iPad, and my PA can always reach me if there’s an emergency.”  There’s a reason your laptop, phone, or iPad is called a mobile device. It frees you from the confines of your office.

I’m a big advocate of what I call the “closed door policy,” closing the door to your office to spend as much time as possible visiting teachers, staff, and students on their “turf,” showing interest in their work by visiting classes, hanging out on the playground, watching drama practice, eating in the cafeteria, watching a soccer game. Good leadership, like coaching, comes from face-to-face communication and building relationships, not via emails or memos. Being out and about also affords the head opportunities to listen to concerns and have conversations about issues that might otherwise fester over time. A rowing coach needs a launch; you can’t lead a school from your office or by sending inspirational emails.   

Lesson #2: It’s the people in the boat, rather than “on the bus”

As a rowing coach, my goal was, first of all, to fill all the seats in the boat. You can’t race an eight-oared shell with only six or seven oarsmen!  While I would have liked to choose from three dozen 6’4”, 210- pound rowers, my reality was a much smaller group of eager oarsmen of all shapes and sizes, and I had to admire their spirit and willingness to work hard on a freezing river at six in the morning. It was my task to teach them to become the skilled oarsmen they aspired to be.

My experience coaching crew in a second-level university program was similar to the experience of a new head of school who inherits a faculty. If changes need to be made, they will not happen for quite some time. Rather than Jim Collins’ exhortation to “get the right people on the bus,” I would suggest that the school leader focus on getting the maximum from those who are already “in the boat,” i.e., at the school.

No one oarsman is more important than any other in the boat. In rowing, teamwork is quintessential. There must be respect for the contribution of every member of the team. It is up to the school leader to discover and nourish each staff member’s motivation. The school leader who recognizes and encourages the talents of all members of the faculty and staff, gives them credit for their good work, and makes suggestions for improvement based on a thorough knowledge of what is going on in their classrooms, stands a better chance of achieving a greater degree of teamwork that will move the school to a higher level of excellence.

Lesson #3: It’s why they call you “coach”

Rowing is a true team sport. It’s also the only one in which athletes compete with their backs to the finish line. As a result, a lot of trust is required, trust that the other rowers are pulling as hard as you and trust that by doing what the coach told you to refine your rowing technique the boat will move faster.

A great coach can shape a great team. We are more as a team than we are as individuals. However, building a great team begins with getting to know rowers or teachers as individuals, acknowledging their strengths and dedication, and building a sense of trust that then allows the head or coach to help that person perform better in the boat or classroom. 

As coach of a motivated team, the school leader respects and values the contributions of every member of the school community and believes in their potential to do even better. The school leader’s goal must be to earn the staff’s trust in knowing they are helping them achieve their goal of making a good school better. Like a good coach, the school leader must inspire their staff to work for the good of something greater than their individual selves. 

In the mid-1990s, I served as head of the American College of Sofia (ACS), the oldest American educational institution outside the US. ACS attracted about 500 students from all over the country. Our budget was meager, our facilities needed renovation, and we shared the campus with the state police who treated us as intruders. When I hired teachers I would say, “We are a poor school. The bad news is that we can’t afford textbooks. The good news is that we can’t afford textbooks.” However, our students were hungry and a joy to teach! The result was great morale. I would argue that a great school is not based on the facilities but rather the spirit of community and teamwork with the school, the respect between and among students, teachers, and administrators. It is as much the challenges we overcome as a community as the opportunities we are given that bring us together as a team. The coach/leader focuses on the positive, celebrates accomplishments, and applauds great effort.

“Thanks, coach!” were two of the most rewarding words I’ve ever heard, an expression of gratitude and a recognition that I had taught the oarsmen not only about the skills of the sport but also something about themselves. May you, as an educational leader, hear a similar sentiment frequently from your colleagues, students, parents, and board members.

Currently a senior consultant for Carney Sandoe & Associates, Art Charles served as a head/senior administrator for five international schools in India, Switzerland, Ecuador, Bulgaria, and Lebanon. Along the way, he also coached rowing for 20 years.

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