Leading With a Small Rudder

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First published on Medium

In seventh grade, I began a brief career as a coxswain for our school crew team. I had hardly been on the water in my youth, and yet the spectacle of an endurance sport on a river appealed to me. I was encouraged to coxswain, as I was not particularly endowed with size or musculature. It was an amazing experience. I learned to count strokes, call for surges, and most importantly, steer the boat.

Steering the boat was relatively simple at first. Beginners used the thickest boats, with heavy, wooden hulls and a big rudder. Pull the cord, and the boat would instantly swerve in the desired direction. It was an easy way to get started. I just had to keep the boat on the right side of the river and steer clear of collisions and clashes of oars with the other boats. Occasionally, the boat would run aground due to shallow water, but the team would quickly push oars into the mud and free the boat without much fuss.

The next year, in addition to coxswaining eighth grade boats, we began to sub for the junior varsity when needed. Leading the older boys felt a great honor and responsibility. And the shell! It weighed much less, shone brilliantly in the sunlight, and cut sleekly through the water. However, I gulped when I realized that the rudder was similarly sleek … and small.

The first time I saw a curve coming, I pulled lightly on the rudder as usual. Nothing seemed to happen. I pulled harder, and the boat started to turn, but too gently. Desperate not to hit the bank, I called for a hard left-hand pull from the rowers. When we ran aground, the older boys voices their displeasure, and I was embarrassed. This scene repeated itself over the course of the week, as I struggled to master the tiny rudder. I steered the boat through a series of emergency maneuvers, constantly interrupting the rowers’ efforts to pull us through the water.

Over time, I began to pay more attention to the shape of the river, anticipate upcoming curves, and plot gentle turns for our shell. I learned that the sleek boat went faster when guided in this more gentle manner. Our rowers’ energy propelled the boat forward efficiently, instead of fighting the lateral resistance of water against a turning hull. I learned to steer with a small rudder, to thoughtfully exert tiny pulls that added up to grand, sweeping curves and a fast boat.


According to legend, strong leaders steer with a large rudder, moving their schools in whatever directions they see fit. The myth of the heroic school leader persists, despite all evidence to the contrary [paid link, also see this]. Authoritative school leaders may hold a big presence in the school community, chairing decision-making meetings, writing for publications, and speaking at events. Authoritative leaders may find success with non-instructional projects, such building and fundraising. However, they rarely improve the student experience in meaningful ways.

Every school has a strong culture, whether intentionally or not. Teachers and student support staff do all of the work that moves the boat forward. Effective school leaders understand that their actions only cause small shifts to school culture as it is felt by students from day to day. They realize that they only have a tiny rudder at their disposal. And yet, they also learn that the consistent application of small shifts can fine-tune a school and lead to a more powerful learning community over time.

What are the signs of a well-tuned school? Teachers express that they feel supported and can realize their full potential as teachers. Students say that they can clearly see a path toward mastery and success. In a high functioning school, teacher support systems and classroom norms are intentionally designed to support progress toward learning. Teachers and students find reinforcement, rather than obstacles, as they strive forward in their work. This is not to say that challenges no longer exist, only that those challenges are naturally part of the learning process rather than artificially caused by poor learning environment design.

From the coxswain’s seat, a school leader may read the race and the river, set timing and tempo, anticipate turns, and pull on the tiny rudder when needed. School leaders play a vital role in successively shaping many small aspects of a school to consistently support a vision for teaching and learning.

Photo credit: “Oncoming Eight” by EightBitTony

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