Full Text: Open Debate

Do leaders teach? Do teachers lead? Bill George and Teach for America’s Wendy Kopp take to the blackboard.

Bill George

Professor at Harvard Business School; former CEO, Medtronic Inc.; author of True North (Jossey-Bass, April)


Wendy Kopp

President, Teach for America; featured in George’s True North

Resolved (from True North): The hardest person you will ever have to lead is yourself.

George: In my studies of leaders who have failed, these leaders fell prey to the pressures and seductions they faced. It wasn’t that they lacked leadership skills, style or power, but that the extrinsic rewards of leadership (money, fame, glory and power) went to their heads. Their egos, their greed, their craving for public adulation, and their fear of loss of power overwhelmed their responsibility to build their institutions. In contrast, authentic leaders understand that leading is not about advancing themselves and their personal interests, but serving others and bringing them together around a common cause. In the end they create great organizations because people are inspired to step up and lead.

Kopp: It’s probably never easy, but perhaps leaders are more likely to stay on course when they’re pursuing their passions — causes greater than themselves but that are extremely important to them, causes that lead them to set goals so ambitious that there’s little time or temptation to focus on anything but ensuring that the goals are met and the cause is served.

George: I have seen many leaders who started out in humble circumstances and were very modest about their accomplishments. But as they achieved success and got more and more awards and kudos and media attention, it eventually went to their heads. Although they would not admit it, many of them started thinking, “I am the institution.” Some even refused to develop successors because they believed no one could properly replace them. Wendy, as the founder of Teach For America, you have received a tremendous amount of recognition lately, including being named one of “America’s Best Leaders.” Given that, how do you keep it from going to your head, and feeling like “you are Teach For America”?

Kopp: Well, Teach For America really is about thousands of individual and collective acts of social entrepreneurship on the part of our teachers, our alumni, and our staff members. It is hard to take the public credit for what we do when I know it should really be so much more widely distributed given the nature of our work. And I’m so deeply immersed in the challenging, rewarding effort to grow Teach For America’s impact — that’s really where I get my energy from and what I want to do most, so sometimes the public recognitions seem like a distraction. Hopefully this doesn’t come off the wrong way — they’re certainly also greatly appreciated and they’re wonderful ways to get out the message about our work.

At Teach For America we know that teaching successfully is an act of leadership, and I often hear our corps members and alumni describe the moment they broke through as a teacher as the moment they realized that this work is not about them, but rather about their students. And similarly, our best organizational leaders are relentlessly focused on achieving their goals, rather than on ‘looking good.’ As a result, they ask for more help and more feedback and in fact attain better results and become stronger leaders over time. I believe that the best leaders keep themselves focused on the outcomes they’re trying to achieve, resisting the very human temptation to get distracted by issues of ego and insecurity.


George: : I am intrigued by your assertion that “teaching successfully is an act of leadership,” especially since teachers have no direct reports to lead, but they certainly have challenging students to lead. What does Teach For America do to help your teachers prepare for leadership in the classroom? Or are they self-trained through their teaching experiences?

I also believe that all great leaders are also excellent teachers, although perhaps not in the Teach For America context. Would you agree with that statement? Would thinking of themselves as teachers help leaders become more effective in their leadership roles?

Your teachers must face constant pressures and disciplinary challenges in their jobs. What do they do to stay grounded and not get discouraged? What resources does Teach For America provide them to get through the difficult times? What can the rest of us learn about our own leadership from their experiences?

Kopp: The most successful teachers in urban and rural areas set a vision for where their students will be academically at the end of the year which many think to be unreasonable. They motivate others — their students and the students’ parents — to work harder than they’ve ever worked before to realize that vision. They are purposeful and effective in planning and executing toward that vision, work relentlessly to tackle the immense challenges that inevitably arise, and reflect constantly on their students’ performance and their own practice in pursuit of continuous improvement. In other words, they do what the most effective leaders do in any context.

What we find is that teachers who approach their work in this way get their kids working with them rather than against them. The steps of establishing a goal that is meaningful to the kids and their families, and convincing kids that they can reach the goal through hard work and that reaching it will make a difference in their lives, are absolutely critical in this. Of course, it’s then very important for the teacher to be able to meet the kids where they are and move them ahead as promised through excellent planning and execution. And, no matter what, there’s no way around the challenges inherent in this work, which is why relentlessness — or ‘internal locus of control’ as we call it — is so critical. Some people encounter challenges and their tendency is to blame others, in this case kids, families, school administrators; the most successful of our corps members figure out what they can control, own those challenges, and persevere in the face of them.

We have developed a programmatic continuum that begins with a rigorous selection process, through which we look for individuals with the personal characteristics we’ve found through research to differentiate our top performers — past demonstrated achievement, perseverance, the ability to influence and motivate others, problem-solving ability, organization skills, and a desire to work relentlessly towards this particular mission. We’ve also developed an intensive two-year program of pre-service and ongoing professional development, involving readings and seminars to help our corps members learn new skills and knowledge, practice, feedback, and structured reflection, to help corps members move towards proficiency and ultimately advanced proficiency against a rubric that details this ‘teaching as leadership’ approach.


Most of our organizational leaders are successful Teach For America corps members, so yes — we do find that leading a classroom to success is wonderful training for leading teams and organizations to success. Do the characteristics and strategies I describe as fundamental to successful teaching resonate with you as fundamental to success in other enterprises? I’m curious too what you think about how much of this sort of leadership is inherent in people and how much can be trained and developed over time. We’re still sorting out the answer to that question.

George: : Your approach to first line leadership in teaching applies very well to business. The characteristics you describe for a successful teacher are equally resonant for a successful business leader. But these characteristics are “necessary but not sufficient” conditions for a successful leader.

As to whether these are inherent or can be developed over time, my answer is “both.” You are born with a set of characteristics that reside deep inside you: drive, ability to influence and motivate others, perseverance, etc. But you also have to develop those qualities through actual leadership experiences that include success, failure, and honest feedback that enable you to improve. Absent those experiences–and the ability to process them objectively–your natural gifts will remain dormant. A key quality you have not mentioned here is adaptability–facing unexpected obstacles, falling far short of your goals, reading the context and adapting your leadership approach. Absent that, leaders will continue to repeat their mistakes and will not grow and develop.

That leads me to the essence of the question, “Why is it so hard to lead yourself“? The answer, in my experience, lies in differences between your idealized self–how you see yourself, and how you want to be seen– and your real self–how others actually experience you. The key to being able to develop yourself as a leader is to narrow that gap between your idealized self and your real self by developing a deep self-awareness that only comes from straight feedback and honest exploration of yourself, followed by a concerted effort to make changes.

This is much more difficult than it sounds. Many people try to maintain an image of who they are and are unwilling to be vulnerable enough to accept honest feedback and to acknowledge their shortcomings and deficiencies. For this reason I believe the essence of leadership development is not skills training. Rather, it requires internal examination and reflection, with support and feedback from others. All the skills and attempts at behavior modification cannot overcome internal blocks that keep people from being real. When people can openly acknowledge who they really are, and actively work to develop themselves, there is no limit to what they can achieve through their leadership.

Is this consistent with your experience, Wendy?


Kopp: This resonates deeply with me and is absolutely consistent with everything I’ve seen in myself and others at Teach For America. And it takes me back to where we started — because I find that when people are acutely aware that their mission is not about maintaining an image of themselves, but rather about achieving ambitious ends in an important pursuit, it becomes critical to seek help and feedback and to evolve in whatever way necessary to serve the larger cause. It’s very natural as human beings to get caught up inside our heads — to think more about how people are perceiving us than about what we need to do to realize our goals — and when that happens it’s really critical to step back and re-center ourselves in what really matters. This is easy to do when your pursuit is one for which you have real passion, and when it is so ambitious that there’s little room for wasted time and energy.