Leadership, Leverage, and Lou Holtz: Lessons from ASU+GSV

Scott Morgan ASU+GSV lessons

Note: This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.

At the ASU+GSV Summit 2015 last week, GSV co-founder and chief investment officer Michael Moe shared a powerful lesson about coaching trees with a roomful of educators and edtech leaders.

Just a few months ago, the New England Patriots and Seattle Seahawks battled in Super Bowl XLIX a few miles from where we sat. Few realized that the teams’ head coaches, Bill Belichick and Pete Carroll, both apprenticed under the legendary Lou Holtz.

Moe’s point was that great leaders don’t just rack up wins and championships for their own teams. They develop other leaders who generate wins and who, in turn, develop other winning leaders. Leaders create leverage. The impact of great leadership is exponential.

In fact, effective leadership is one of the most powerful tools we have to transform our nation’s education system for all students – and especially for low-income students and students of color. Whether you’re cultivating the next winning football coach or a top-notch director of special education, leadership matters. In education, building leadership legacies can change the trajectories of students, families, and communities for generations to come.

How do we leverage leaders in education who are changing the world? Here are some lessons I’m learning:

1. Think Bigger. Moe referenced Jim Collins’ idea of the BHAG: big, hairy, audacious goals. Great leaders aren’t timid; instead, they envision and cast bold goals that seem almost unreachable in their audacity. They also don’t stop at imagining, but build strong teams that push through relentlessly to realize these goals.

At Education Pioneers, our BHAG is to have 10,000 diverse, exceptional EP leaders working to accelerate systemic change in education by our 20th anniversary in 2023. With 1,400 leaders in our network currently in full-time roles in education after 11 years of operation, we need to significantly ramp up the rate at which we attract, prepare, and advance leaders to more than 7X our current leadership network in eight short years.

Today, I don’t know the exact path we’ll take to get there, since it will involve both growing our existing programs and launching new innovations to bring new leaders into education. But I do know that our investment in 10,000 leaders for our country’s education sector will enable us to change outcomes for tens of millions of students.

Right now, EP leaders hold leadership roles or drive key initiatives at school districts and charter school organizations across the country that are responsible for educating over 3.5 million students each year, the majority of whom are low-income students and students of color (and that doesn’t include EP alumni now working in state or federal departments of education or other education organizations).

We already have a tremendous amount of leverage with our currently alumni working in education (like Ashley Richardson at Chicago Public Schools, Gabrielle Ramos at Newark Public Schools, Mark Cheng at Democracy Prep Public Schools, and Shawn McCormack at KIPP San Antonio). When we get to 10,000 leaders in the sector, the possibilities and impact will increase exponentially.

2. Think “Who.” Like Moe, I’m also a big fan of Jim Collins and his work. Another one of Collins’ points that has stuck with me is that, “The most important decisions that [leaders] make are not ‘what’ decisions, but ‘who’ decisions.” It doesn’t matter what sector or industry you work in: if you don’t recruit, develop, and retain incredible, diverse talent on your team, you’ll never make it to the playoffs (or your industry’s equivalent).

Great leaders are fiercely talent driven. They know that their job is about getting, supporting, and keeping talented people on their teams. (And know when to get out of their way to let them do what they do best.) As McKinsey & Co. famously noted in “The War for Talent,” “leaders with a talent mindset roll up their sleeves and make talent their job.”

How to win that war? Practices like creating high-performing work environments, making learning happen, and distributing leadership and decision making have shown success across industries. We need to ensure they’re in every education leader’s playbook.

3. Think Broader. To succeed as leaders, we must transcend exclusive, short-term thinking. Changing the world is a team sport, requiring us to learn from the leaders who have come before us, to demand excellence from ourselves and those around us, and to invest in the next generation of leaders. Success requires courage, wisdom, and a deep commitment to a cause larger than oneself.

Take Abraham Lincoln. In his cabinet, he deliberately created a “team of rivals” (as coined by Doris Kearns Goodwin). Lincoln brought on leaders who were the best people for those jobs and for the good of the country – even when that meant they disagreed with him, insulted him (like secretary of war Edwin M. Stanton did during the McCormick-Manny case of 1855) or were after his job (like treasury secretary Salmon Chase). Lincoln’s inclusive approach put the long-term interest of the nation ahead of his own ego.

In education, we can learn from Lincoln’s moral leadership by taking an inclusive, long-term approach that stays focused on equity and excellence in education. We’ve got too much important work to do educating our nation’s nearly 55 million students to waste precious time and energy on egos and short-term thinking.   

Back in Arizona, Moe also pointed out that “Talent is equally distributed by zip code, opportunity is not.”

Unequal opportunity is why we must work with purpose and urgency to leverage leadership in the education sector – to change this tragic reality that keeps our nation from living its core values and achieving its full potential, and to unleash the great potential in all of our nation’s students.

Scott Morgan Scott Morgan is the Founder & CEO of Education Pioneers. He leads the organization to realize its vision to identify, train, connect, and inspire 10,000 diverse leaders and managers to accelerate systemic change across the education sector by 2023, EP’s 20th anniversary. An educator, attorney, and social entrepreneur, Scott believes that talented, diverse leaders can transform education for all students.


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