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Lone Wolf or Pack Leader?

Howling Wolves


The past years have seen a change from the “lone wolf leader” who is identified by their multi-tasking, micro-managing, and one-sided discussions to the “pack leader” who is identified by their commitment to their group; maintaining leadership because of their ability to meet the needs of their “pack” and providing their pack with what they need to be successful.  The result is a stronger emphasis on team building and on using team effectively.

Food for Thought

Susan A. Wheelan and Jan Kesselring in their paper “Link between Faculty Group Development and Elementary Student Performance on Standardized Tests” (The Journal of Educational Research July/August 2005) shared this conclusion from their research:

“Our results suggest that one strategy that could be used to improve student learning and performance is to facilitate the development of high functioning faculty groups…On the basis of our results and the findings from other industries, as these faculty groups and teams increase their effectiveness, productivity also will increase.”

Our findings suggest that although staff size, rural or urban location, and district poverty level do influence student outcomes, the manner in which faculty members work together as a group also is influential, particularly in high poverty schools. Professional educators have minimal or no control over school or district demographics.  However, teachers and administrators have significant control over the way the work as a group. The results of this study suggest that if faculty members work to become more trusting, cooperative and work oriented as a group, student performance will improve.”

As with a lot of research or good ideas, we read it and say, “Well, of course.”  Success is found in the implementation of the idea, not the idea itself.

Play nice together

As with so many simple concepts, they are easy to identify, but not always easy to implement.  Consider Mr. Gerard, a principal of an elementary school that was hovering between students performing at the basic level and under-performing.  His staff is comprised of seasoned teachers and new teachers. More than the difference in years, the difference in how they perceived their roles and how they approached those roles were different.  The more seasoned educators were steeped in years of teaching (with many experiencing success), while the newer teachers were closer to being digital natives and exploring their own methods.  The more seasoned were used to operating as single units that met with peers, but the purpose of the meetings was to collect new information and hear about policies and processes. The younger members used texting and emails to communicate. 

The challenge was how to bring them together in a common forum.  Mr. Gerard’s answer was creating teams. He searched for the most effective way to do just that.

People before things

Effective Leaders put people first. Mr. Gerard learned this over the past five years.  When he first came to the school he had presented his vision and ideas and although they were met with polite agreement in meetings, that polite agreement did not transform into action.  He learned he needed to take the time to listen to his people, to hear their concerns (problems) and their ideas (solutions) and to create a continuous cycle of monitoring and feedback. He needed to put people before things.

He learned people follow people, not processes, rules, procedures or grand plans.  As he built relationships and people accepted him as leader, they accepted his vision.  They began to buy in, because the trusted him. 

The lesson learned? If you are not developing people, you are not building teams!

How and who to pick

Remember when you were in school or you were hanging out with friends getting ready to play a game. Two captains were picked and they alternated turns choosing their team.  How did they decide? They KNEW their friends-who was good at what sport and who was not and what positions they played the best.  This lesson from the playground still holds true.  Leaders need to know their people—their strengths and weaknesses. 

One of the first things Mr. Gerard realized was that he had to build on his existing relationships.  He explored those and identified which of his relationships were strong.  Here are the criteria he used:

  • Ongoing two-way communication
  • Honest exchange of ideas in which there was room for healthy disagreement
  • An openness to learning new things
  • The courage to be the first in trying something new
  • Staff that had a proven track record of expertise in the focus of the team being formed (backed by data)
  • Teacher leaders that helped others and shared information
  • A healthy mix of people that represented multiple sides of an issue

5 Steps to Develop Teams

Mr. Gerard next thought how he could develop his team, both as a group and as individuals.  Here are five steps he used:

  • Teach and model leadership behaviors and skills you want your team to practice. Teaching also means explaining why these skills are important and how and when they can and should be used. 
  • Create opportunities for your team to use these skills-embed these opportunities into their day
  • Check in and see how they are doing—don’t wait until they need help or are floundering. Waiting until they need help is not helping—it is rescuing.
  • Checking in can be via a text, email, and most effectively a personal visit (they don’t have to be long).  Ask questions. Listen to what they have to say, AND THEN provide input and guidance.  Follow up with a written note recapping the discussion and next steps. Ask them to verify that it is accurate. These notes can be used as guidance for future visits—“Last time we spoke about….”
  • Be consistent. Be honest. Be kind

Remember to Celebrate

The leader of pack of wolves begins howling and other pack members feel the call to approach and join in.  One wolf expert, Lois Crisler says, “Like a community sing, a howl is a happy occasion. Wolves love to howl. When it is started, they instantly seek contact with one another, troop together, fur to fur. Some wolves will run from any distance, panting and bright-eyed, to join in, uttering, as they near, fervent little wows, jaws wide, hardly able to wait to sing.”

Mr. Gerard knew he needed to bring his team(s) together regularly and allow them to celebrate and to revel in the positive working relationships that bind them together.  He established a system of recognition for the work of the team members.


The days of the lone wolf are behind us. Leaders who seek success need to create a sense of unity.  Creating teams provides people with opportunities to use their talents, contribute to the well-being of the larger group, experience both feeling valued and valuing other and to joyously celebrate.  


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