“Leadership is a choice. It is not a rank.” Simon Sinek – Leadership
What makes a great leader?
Great leadership is about having influence. To get that influence, leaders use whatever tools they have. For some leaders, it’s the moral choices they make which have the most enduring impact on followers. For others, it’s their positional authority that commands people’srespect. Great leaders must find a creative way to use both of these tools to maximize their effectiveness.
Join Steve and Dan Fouts – founders of Teach Different and twin brothers with over 50 years of teaching experience – along with Daman Harris Ph.D., a co-director of the Building Our Network of Diversity (BOND) Project, for a compelling conversation about leadership, enriched by the Teach Different Method.
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Dan Fouts 00:01
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Good evening, everybody, we welcome you to the Teach Different podcast. We’re very happy to be here tonight with a great quote on leadership from Simon Sinek that I’m going to read in a moment. It’s very short, but sometimes the shortest quotes are filled with the most profound thinking. I think this quote qualifies as one of those quotes. We have Daman Harris with us tonight and he’ll introduce himself once he weighs in on the claim of the quote. To familiarize people with the protocol, we start with a quote, then we’ll interpret the quote. What is Simon Sinek saying about leadership? What’s the claim? We’ll add any personal stories to support the claim. We’re modeling what we do in the classroom with students. When you post these quotes in front of students, you want them to tell stories, to share how the claim is true for them and their own experiences. That’s what we do at the beginning, then we move into the counterclaim by pushing against the claim or what the author is saying. This is where our critical thinking kicks in. Any stories or experiences we have that substantiate the counterclaim are always welcome. This creates tension in the conversation. We try to create a situation where there is a little bit of confusion, in a good way. We have to resolve our thinking, take a position, and back it up with evidence. That’s what this protocol does. At the end, we’ll share any question that we have that arose organically through the conversation and say our goodbyes. We want everybody who listens to try this with their students. Bring it into your classroom; that’s the final step. First, we adults will model it.
So here we go. Simon Sinek on leadership. “Leadership is a choice. It is not a rank.” “Leadership is a choice. It is not a rank.” Daman, welcome to the Teach Different podcast. It’s great to see you. Please, introduce yourself, and share what you think.
Daman Harris 03:04 – Claim
Thank you, gentlemen. It’s great to be here. I appreciate you. I am the co-director of the Building Our Network of Diversity Project, also called the BOND Project. We’re a nonprofit organization that supports efforts to recruit, retain, develop, and empower male educators of color around the country. I’ve been a teacher, a principal, a district coach in public schools in Maryland, and I’m also an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland, College Park and McDaniel College in Maryland. I teach courses related to effective teaching methods and conducting research and anti-racist education. I’m excited to be here. This is a great topic, and a great quote, for me. I think I heard cynics say this during one of his TED Talks. My interpretation of the statement is that he’s saying there’s a difference between having authority, being in charge, being a positional leader, and actually being a leader who moves folks toward a vision. He’s saying that leadership is based on a series of choices we have in any organization. The one I remember him saying in that podcast is something about how leaders put the rest of the team first, the rest of the organization first, and particularly the people, instead of non people types of considerations. For example, he speaks to the “leaders eat last phenomenon.” In a TED talk, he chastised some corporate leaders for laying off workers in order to improve that bottom line. I think this is current right now with Robinhood, the online brokerage, announcing that they are going to lay off 23% of their workforce. In Sinek’s view, leaders don’t do that. They figure out a different way. In that same example, he talked about how one leader started having people take furloughs, rather than layoffs, because, as the CEO said, it’s better that all of us suffer a little, so that none of us has to suffer a lot. I think that’s the work that he’s been talking about.
Steve Fouts 05:24
It’s not a rank. I’m going to take the second part of the quote and build off what you said, Daman. “Leadership is a choice. It’s not a rank.” A rank is what you look like on paper, right? It’s what your official title or job description is, or where you sit in a larger system or structure. Where you’re someone’s “boss.” That’s not a leader. You just made the words come alive from this guy. When I look at this quote, I see the word choice. Leadership is a choice. What is he trying to say with a word like choice? What’s he getting at? I’m trying to understand that part of the quote.
Dan Fouts 06:44
I think that by using the word choice, he’s suggesting that leadership is about ethics, morality, and the decisions we make that reveal our character and our values. When we do that, when we make moral choices, they have consequences for people. You mentioned those examples about laying off workers. That’s a choice. You could think of it as an ethical choice. We might think of it as a bottom line or monetary choice, but it’s also an ethical choice. I think that’s what he’s getting at here.
Steve Fouts 07:34
Because the bottom line choice deals with people, right? You’re not thinking of the people. So what do you think, Daman? Are we getting there?
Daman Harris 07:46
Dan, I’m with you, with you both. I also think about how different people label different types of leadership. My cynic is saying that there’s a difference between positional leadership, positional authority, and actually moving people toward a vision. Some folks might also call that the difference between transactional leadership, where you say you do something because I told you to and I’m in charge, and transformational leadership, where you motivate and inspire people toward a collective vision. This is how we are moving together in a collaborative fashion. Earlier today, I was talking to a group of folks about teacher retention. They were from a couple of different school districts across Maryland, and one of them said, one of the reasons why our folks in our school district had lower attrition rates than everyone else in this climate is because when COVID hit, our superintendent said, I will not have you in unsafe buildings. I will not have you in unsafe conditions. That goes for staff, students and community members alike. I don’t care what the outside world is saying, our number one view is safety. That really resonated with folks about the type of culture our district has.
Steve Fouts 09:16
Good. Back to morality and choice. It’s not a position of authority or rank that makes you a leader, according to Simon. It’s a choice you make. You have to decide you want to have influence, and the right type of influence. I’m still focused on the word choice. I see it being circled when you put it on the board and ask the students to talk about being in a position of leadership. Is it something that you wanted? Did you choose it? If you chose it, why did you choose it? What did you want to do with it? Get them thinking that leadership doesn’t have to be a formal system, structure or rank. We can talk about that type of leadership in the playground, in the hall,…
Dan Fouts 10:22
…in the middle school, or high school, is probably where this would be most applicable. Ask, who has been a captain on a team? If you haven’t been a captain on a team, then maybe you’ve been on a team where there’s been a captain. You could have a rich discussion about leadership being the choices that are made by a captain on a team.
Daman Harris 10:50
I think the kids, especially those in upper elementary and secondary levels, can make connections to this with respect to music, sports, and stuff in the school building even. Ask some sports fans, who was the leader of the NBA Lakers? They might not say Jeanie Buss, the owner. They might not say Darby Ham, their new coach. They’d say it’s LeBron James, who doesn’t have positional leadership, but because of his actions. It’s similar to that other statement where people say love is a behavior, not just an emotion. It’s a series of choices that you make. That’s how you demonstrate love. It’s the same thing on this end. You could ask, who’s the leader of their favorite musical group? You know, BTS, or whoever that might be. I’m way old, so I’m not as connected as I need to be, but I bet kids would have opinions. Who was the leader of different football teams? Who are the leaders in our school building? Who are the student leaders? That might be the student government president.
Dan Fouts 12:04
Yeah, who are the leaders in the building who don’t carry a rank or a title, but who are listened to? There’s your class period.
Steve Fouts 12:18
Then ask. Oh, go ahead, Daman.
Daman Harris 12:20
I’m sorry. That goes for staff and students alike. Who are the student leaders? Who are the staff leaders? Some people will say the principal is the leader in that building.
Steve Fouts 12:27
No, you’re right. Then you can go deep and ask for people’s experiences with good leaders, and with bad leaders. How did they react in situations where they had someone with positional authority, whom they didn’t really respect as a leader? It’s probably a little bit safer to do that with the students than with the teachers in the building. You don’t have to call out someone, but just talk about how that changes your perception of your job, your role. How motivated or inspired are you when you don’t look up to your leader, and you don’t see them as a true leader, even though they have the position?
Daman Harris 13:24
Yeah, I heard Jawangu Kanjufu say that old saying, “Kids don’t care what you know, unless they know that you care.” I just heard Dr. Kanjufu make a similar statement earlier today that “no significant learning can take place without a significant relationship.” That’s something we’ve all heard too. That’s that piece, right? No significant growth toward the vision can happen unless the leader has relationships that move the followers.
Steve Fouts 13:58
Those are choices. That doesn’t come with your job description. You have to act on that stuff.
Daman Harris 14:07
Yeah, and I would say that it’s probably a choice on the other end as well. Maybe this is what Simon Sinek was getting at, that followers have a choice too. They choose to follow a leader. There’s a sense of choice involved there too.
Steve Fouts 14:27
The consensus. The most powerful leader has followers that want to be led. Dan, what were you going to say?
Dan Fouts 14:38
By choice? I was just building on what Daman was saying. That’s an interesting way of looking at it because following is a choice. It’s a moral choice as much as leading is a moral choice. The great leaders are the ones, as you suggest Steve, where they are able to marshall this group of followers who have been bought into their vision, and the leader is acting in ways that are ethically good. That’s a good marriage when you have followers following an ethically good leader. That’s the ideal.
Steve Fouts 15:19
Well, the question is, where do we want to go with the counterclaim? Let’s make a turn here, and come at this from a different angle. You know, Daman, we say, disagree with Simon Sinek, just as a quick way to do it when we’re talking to kids, to get them to understand the purpose of the counterclaim. Now, when you say the counterclaim, you want to believe it. It’s not just disagreeing. You have to come up with something you believe, that shows another way of looking at leadership that maybe calls into question the claim. Daman, if you have something in your mind, we’ll let you kick it off. I have something I’m working on. Dan, you hop in as well.
Daman Harris 16:14 – Counterclaim
My first thought, when I thought about the counterclaim, had cultural undercurrents. Some families come from cultures that require people to respect positional authority at all costs. I have some staff members, and some families in my school community, that will never call me by my first name. They don’t want to be involved in decision making. They just want to make sure that they are being respected and supported and that their kids, their children, are being loved. For some of them, these types of bureaucracies work more efficiently. When someone says, this is our vision, and this is how we’re getting here. We don’t have the time to build consensus, get on the bus or get off, because this is where we’re going. Sometimes that can seem pretty efficient.
Dan Fouts 17:18
I like that. Yeah. No, keep going, Daman.
Daman Harris 17:21
I was just thinking about that cultural piece. Sometimes I think about being an outsider in the group. Everywhere I go, no matter my race, color, background, when I’m coming to a new school, or a new situation where I may need to lead, I’m an outsider. I think from an outsider, that’s how those things can seem cut and dry. There’s a principle. He’s in the lead. That’s stable and we’re safe. There are other ways we can look at that across our society, but I think sometimes there’s safety, security, and stability in saying, that’s our leader, and we’re following.
Dan Fouts 18:00
Safety, security and stability. I think that some people’s mentality is exactly that. That’s what you have to provide sometimes for people. The example that popped into my head for the counterclaim is with a teacher. Is a teacher owed some level of respect just by being the teacher, having that rank as an adult, older than the kids in the room? Does that give them anything? I think you could make a good argument that there is a baseline respect that you should have for someone who’s trying to run a class, who’s trying to prevent misbehavior and is contributing to a learning environment. That’s dignity and respect to confer upon someone because they are that teacher in the room. On day one, that teacher hasn’t made any choices, yet, but maybe should be afforded some authority and respect. If I used this quote in class, that’s the example I would focus on. I’d ask the kids, do you think that I’m owed any respect just by virtue of the fact that I’m a teacher in this room? See what they say about that. Some will be very quiet. That’s where I would go with the counterclaim.
Daman Harris 19:38
Yeah, I definitely think kids would be able to relate to that, and some of them might push back and say, well, you deserve respect because you’re a human being. You deserve the time to speak because you are a human being and we respect all human beings; therefore, you should afford the same respect to us. We respect the people with the knowledge who are helping us to move forward in this space. I definitely think that could be a great counterclaim to push some thinking forward.
Steve Fouts 20:13
I don’t know where this idea is going, and I’m afraid to start it. I’m thinking of peer groups. Daman, I told you that I’m a former teacher from Chicago. For all my career, I’ve been dealing with students, many of whom were involved in gangs. That means so many different things. It doesn’t have to mean what you’d see in a movie or a documentary. It just means they’re affiliated with certain neighborhoods, people, or groups. It’s a way to understand where you fit and how you can keep yourself safe. It’s just part of the culture of where they come from. What I’ve noticed from talking with some of the leaders of these groups, and it never ceases to amaze me, is that it seems like they didn’t want the leadership position. They talk about having things being determined, or chosen, for them. When I saw the word choice in this quote, I immediately went there. I thought of the young leaders that I’ve come into contact with, who really did have a following, and you could see their influence with their peers. They didn’t strike me as making choices for that leadership position, but they had a rank. They were looked up to. They were a little reluctant to be there, but it gave them a lot of authority and a lot of respect from people. So this is what I meant by I didn’t know where this was going. We were talking about choices a leader makes, and I’m really talking about the choice to be a leader, and to have everyone look up to you. I’m just amazed at how many young people I talked with who have all this respect among their peers, but they’re looking at me thinking, I don’t know why I’m here. I don’t know where that went. I’ll just stop talking now. I don’t know how that fits into this, but it was interesting to me.
Daman Harris 23:39
I’m with you, man. That makes me think about something I read a couple of years ago about the alpha wolf and the underdog. I can’t remember what book that was in, but the author talked about how people think the alpha wolf, or alpha male, is the strongest, the most aggressive, and that’s the person that everybody follows. The study was on wolves in captivity. When they looked at wolves in the wild, the alpha was the best wolf to keep the group safe, fed, and that would move the group in the right direction. It wasn’t necessarily the wolf that was going around beating everyone up. That’s what resonated with me as you were talking about the young men people look up to, because they are making decisions within the context of the choices that they have. They are making decisions for the betterment of the group. Earlier, Dan was talking about that moral line, which is a relative sort of measure, because one person’s morally right thing is someone else’s incredibly disrespectful thing to do. These kids might be doing the same thing, following somebody within the context of their choices. Who’s the best person to emulate in order to keep moving forward in that social hierarchy?
Steve Fouts 25:22
Keep them safe. That’s really interesting. Dan, do you have anything to add to that? Does that make any sense?
Dan Fouts 25:34
I think it made sense. As I understand it, sometimes it’s not people making conscious choices, it’s people having leadership qualities and finding themselves in positions of having influence over other people. It becomes a rank through evolution. They are the head dog, and it’s not through their sequence of moral choices, but by virtue of their natural personalities. I think that’s how I am understanding what you guys are saying.
Steve Fouts 26:11
You actually said it better than I did. That rarely happens.
Dan Fouts 26:14
Daman Harris 26:18
Earlier I was talking about the cultural piece. Sometimes we’re cultural outsiders looking at things that might be different than if we were insiders. I think about families, and how people might say that we live in a patriarchal society and that dad is the leader of the family. That might not be the case. There may be a co-leadership model with the parents, and it may be fluid, depending on the circumstances. When we are inside the culture it might look very different from someone who’s outside looking in. Think about law enforcement. They have clear ranks in the military or in law enforcement, but those folks might not be the people who are the leaders in those groups. There may be some people who are more veteran in particular departments or fields who exhibit those leadership characteristics or knowledge that others want to attain, who people tend to follow.
Steve Fouts 27:22
That’s a great point. It’s a different perception of who the leader is from the outside. You go into a family and everyone’s looking at grandma who is sitting there quietly. There’s no question who the real leader is, but just see people acting and doing their thing. It’s deeper than you think. Questions?
Dan Fouts 27:54
Yeah. I have a question.
Steve Fouts 27:54
Do you have one? Give me a moment. Daman, anything coming up for you?
Daman Harris 28:02 – Essential Question
The one that I shared a little bit earlier, Is leadership also a choice of the followers? That one was there. The other piece that I was thinking about as we were talking is, Can leadership be considered both a choice and a rank? Or combination?
Dan Fouts 28:23
Great? Is leadership most effective as a choice and a rank, or can it be considered either? Yeah, that’s good. Combine them. I’m still thinking here.
Steve Fouts 28:44
I want the question to bring in this notion of rank, the positional authority. Those are good. Mine is, Is leadership a choice? I left off the rank thing. I like trying to get the whole quote in there, Daman. I want to have a question that anybody can answer after this conversation. I’ll stop talking so Dan can come up with his. I’m still thinking.
Dan Fouts 29:33
We’re modeling this right now on our podcast, Daman, the importance of silence during a conversation. We teachers don’t do this enough with students, because when you’re silent, kids think. I really believe that. I need to stop talking and keep thinking.
Daman Harris 29:56
I’ll just add one thing before I go silent, too. That’s born out in the research. This is called wait time. There are a couple of different ways to have wait time and all of them indicate to the students that you have higher expectations of them, that you’re expecting them to think more deeply about their responses.
Steve Fouts 30:20
We got two though, Daman. You stepped up.
Dan Fouts 30:28
Is leadership most effective through our choices, or through our rank and authority? Where is it most effective?
Daman Harris 30:46
And I’d add to that, or a combination of both?
Steve Fouts 30:52
Daman Harris 30:54
Dan Fouts 30:55
This is good.
Daman Harris 30:56
When you think about the students, they may make the connection with the schools that they’re in. If that principal is also a great leader through choice, by the choices that person makes, then that whole school moves, versus if a student is a great leader by choice.
Dan Fouts 31:19
Yeah. Well, we gave some good… You have something, Steve?
Steve Fouts 31:26
I do. I just kind of stepped outside of the quote a little bit. I think this would reveal a lot from a student. What makes someone a great leader to you? Isn’t that going to reveal whether or not they have to believe in the leader? I think kids would have a lot to say about that.
Dan Fouts 32:03
Yeah, that would bring in more than just choice and rank, it would bring in a lot of other factors. Maybe that is the overarching essential question here that Simon Sinek is trying to put his spin on. That’s the bigger question, what does it mean to be a good leader, or a great leader?
Steve Fouts 32:23
What makes someone a great leader?
Daman Harris 32:25
Yep. I like that idea of having kids think deeply about the characteristics that inspire them, as well as the things they do to inspire and support other folks.
Steve Fouts 32:34
Dan Fouts 32:35
Yeah. Well, great. There we go. We spent some good time thinking. I really believe that during those silent moments is where we become smarter, more thoughtful. We don’t have to rush into answers all the time, you know. Getting that good question is an intellectually vigorous and rigorous activity. It’s important to help the kids refine, I guess.
Daman Harris 33:05
One more quick addition to that is for students who are English learners. The students who are listening to us in English translate it in the back of their head to their home language. They see their response in their home language, translate it back into English, and then give it to us. That takes longer than three or five seconds. They need some time.
Steve Fouts 33:28
I forgot to tell you that, Dan. The diversity of Daman’s student population amazed me. I’m glad you brought in the language piece. We like talking about the importance of choosing quotes that are between seven and 18 words. A big reason is because of that language barrier. Whether it’s an English language learner or someone who struggles academically, when you focus on simple sentences, a couple of them that are deep, you give them time to process, and then everybody’s in. Everybody’s able to access it. Thank you for reminding me.
Dan Fouts 34:21
Fantastic, we came to some good questions at the end here. Daman, you were a fantastic guest. I think we picked a really good quote for you in your position. You’re doing such great work, helping with the retention of teachers and increasing the diversity of the teaching population. That’s such important work. You are a great leader.
Daman Harris 34:47
Thanks, sir. I’ll try to keep making the right choices.
Dan Fouts 34:51
This quote is going to make us even better as leaders. It’s important for us to always be thinking about these big ideas and to question what we’re doing. You become better through reflection. Daman, thank you so much. We appreciate your wisdom. Thanks for coming on the Teach Different podcast.
Daman Harris 35:11
Thank you brothers. I appreciate the time. I also want to remind folks that the Bond Project also has a podcast called the Bondcast, where you can find out more about it on all your social platforms.
Steve Fouts 35:26
We’ll make sure we put that in our description too, Daman, if you could put it in the chat right now. Do that. And again, thank you so much.
Dan Fouts 35:38
Thanks, everybody. We hope you’re walking away feeling energized by some great ideas, and have a sense of confidence that you too can master the art and science of conversations to make a lasting impact. We at Teach Different are dedicated to supporting you along that journey. Please visit teachdifferent.com to join the community of educators for additional resources and engaging discussion among fellow teachers and administrators, FREE for 30 days. We’ll see you there, and next time, at the Teach Different podcast. Take care.