Leading Your Student Tribe: Excellence v. Greatness

In a recent Tribal Leadership Coaching Challenge course, participants were asked to distinguish between excellence and greatness. I began to think about that in light of the educational experience.

One of the things that emerged among the twitter conversation on the subject (#tlcc) was that excellence is a competitive, individual aspiration while greatness is something that groups of people achieve as they work together toward a common, noble goal.

In the classroom, I have seen see this happen. Some days some of my students, perhaps even many of them depending on the day, perform excellently. They aspire to do so. Those with that aspiration engage the topic, answer questions, etc. I like it when students do that. What I’ve become sensitive to, though, is that it is a very dyadic interaction, me (the prof) and one student, then another student, then another student in the presence of a class full of students. At the end of those days, I sometimes believe that I did a competent job, but I am tired from working hard managing the class, which includes trying to engage the disengaged and be encouraging, but controlling the over-engaged.

I also know that there are days when I have walked out of a class saying, “Man, that was a great class today.” I feel on top of the world and so do the students. Reflecting on those in light of Tribal Leadership perspectives has led me to realize that those were days when I disappeared from the class, that is my role as classroom manager disappeared. On those days, We engaged learning together, triadic conversations developed. On those days, the synergy left me and my students energized, not drained.

I’ve seen it happen and now I see my task is to develop strategies to shift the classroom culture from stage 3 to stage 4 quickly so that we can experience great days together, not merely witness excellent individual performances.

I can see now why John King, one of the co-authors of Tribal Leadership is so excited and hopeful when he talks to members of orchestral and dance groups. In those settings, individual performances may be excellent, but unless everyone is working together toward a great overall performance, it’s hard to listen to or watch them. The same is true, though less obvious in the classroom.


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