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Lessons on School Leadership: You Win with People

Tuesday, March 01, 2016 by Kole Knueppel

School Leadership You Win with People

As a school leader, you live your life for others. Winning is less about numbers and more about producing students who show up for their families, classmates, and community.

What lessons about school leadership might we glean from this coach, who led with character and consistency, beyond charisma?

One of my favorite movies—“When the Game Stands Tall”—is a dramatic telling of the story of the De La Salle High School football program. Bob Ladouceur, played by Jim Caviezel, is a high school football coach and theology teacher at the Catholic high school in Concord, California. Coach Lad took over a program that never had a winning season and led them to an unprecedented 399–25–3 record, including an amazing 151 game winning streak – a streak which spanned 12 seasons.

Caviezel’s portrayal of Coach Lad is non-emotional, almost monotone in delivery. Coach Lad doesn’t give rousing half-time speeches. Notions we may have had of transformational movements being built around charismatic, emotive, motivational speeches are shattered in the wake of Coach Lad’s unwavering focus on excellence built through consistency, character, and work ethic.

Watching the movie again led me to dive deep into Coach Lad and his approach. What lessons about school leadership might we glean from this coach, who led with character and consistency, beyond charisma? Infused with the principles of Christian character, Coach Lad relentlessly focused on two things:

You win with people.

Coach Lad spends an inordinate amount of time focused on players building relationships and committing to one another. Coach Lad’s contention is that a team won’t truly function at a high level unless the individual players are living and working for each other. During weekly team meetings, players enjoy a meal together, spend time away from the field, verbally commit their workout and performance goals in one another’s presence.

Minimize the unimportant.

What might it look like if we spent the bulk of our time investing in our people and striving to help our teachers execute instruction at an exceptional level?

I emerged from this study of Coach Lad reflecting on how hard it is for us as leaders to simplify our focus in how we spend our time each day. I believe more than ever that great leadership is about people and exceptional execution. And yet, so often we get sidetracked in our daily routines. As Catholic school leaders, we can get caught up in a sense of survival and school preservation. We end up being the leaders we swore we would never become – far too often working at our computer or in our office instead of in our teachers’ classrooms.

What might it look like if we were relentless about our time – striving to keep our logistical and operational leadership within limited time frames? What might it look like if we spent the bulk of our time investing in our people and striving to help our teachers execute instruction at an exceptional level? This focus may not yield a 151-game winning streak, but it will yield schools with swelling enrollments, communities buzzing over the strong faculty you’ve built, people who are delivering engaging instruction every day under the overarching principle of a life lived for others.

About the Author

Kole Knueppel

Kole Knueppel

Kole Knueppel serves as the Director of the Center for Transformative Educational Leadership , and on the faculty of the Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program. 

Prior to joining ACE, Kole was Co-Founder of Schools That Can Milwaukee, a non-profit aimed at dramatically increasing the number of high-quality urban Milwaukee schools through onsite executive leadership coaching, professional development, and cross-sector peer-to-peer sharing of best practices. Kole helped drive the growth of STCM from three founding schools to a network serving over 30 schools and nearly 15,000 students.

From 2008-2010, Kole was the Director for Wisconsin Lutheran’s Center for Urban Teaching, training future teachers and school leaders to be successful in Milwaukee’s urban schools.

Before joining the Center for Urban Teaching in July 2008, Kole served as superintendent from 2004 to 2008 at HOPE Christian Schools, where he led the expansion of HOPE from one campus with 50 students in 2004 to three campuses and more than 500 students in 2008. From 2001 to 2004 Kole led the revitalization of St. Marcus School from a low-performing urban school into a high-performing nationally-recognized model for faith-based urban education. 

Kole has a B.S. in English with a Secondary Education Certificate from Wisconsin Lutheran, a M.S. in Educational Administration from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and is completing his Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.