The Sailor and the Sailboat: Leadership and Evidence

My one extravagance is that I live on the Chesapeake Bay and have a small sailboat. I love to sail, even if I’m not especially good at it, but sailing small boats teaches you a lot of important life lessons.

One of these lessons is that leadership is crucial, but leadership can only make a difference if leaders have the tools to translate leadership into outcomes.

Here’s what I mean from a sailing perspective. A sailboat is just a hull, sails, lines, a mast, a rudder, and a centerboard. When these are all in good working order, it still takes a good sailor to manage a small sailboat in heavy weather. However, when any one component is lacking, all hell breaks loose. For example, on my 11-foot sailboat, sometimes the rudder falls off in rough water. Without a rudder, it doesn’t matter how good a sailor you are. You aren’t going anywhere. Similarly, we once lost a mast in a heavy wind. Yikes!

Principals and superintendents in Title I schools are a lot like small-boat sailors in heavy weather, every single day. If all the structures and supports are in place, and if they have a great crew, capable school or district leaders can do wonders for their children.

Proven programs do not manage schools on their own. What they do is help provide the sails, mast, rudder, and lines known to work effectively with a good captain and crew.

Sometimes I hear educational leaders dismiss the importance of proven programs, saying that the only thing that matters is good leadership. But this is only half right. Great leadership is essential to make proven programs work, but proven, replicable programs and other infrastructure are equally essential to enable great leaders to have great results with kids.

So yes, recruit the best captains you can, and mentor them as much as possible. But give them, or enable them to acquire, sailboats known to work. Too many potentially great captains are given sailboats lacking a rudder or mast. When this happens, they’re sunk from the beginning.


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