Lessons in Leadership with Doug Lemov

This blog post is part of an ongoing series highlighting the accomplished members of the refreshed BES executive board


So you want to found a school? Here are some things school founder, Uncommon Schools leader, Teach Like a Champion author, and BES board member Doug Lemov wants you to know. Doug’s prolific body of work is thoughtful, dedicated, and accessible, like the man himself. He’s a fixture at trainings, in school hallways, and at the back of classrooms. He’s there studying teachers and leaders, and what makes an excellent school excellent.


Here are three tips on school founding, from Doug Lemov:


Strong schools are built by the combined efforts of strong teams.


“Who is the person who can lead a great school that changes the equation of opportunity for kids in communities of need? The answer is that the job is so complex and multi-faceted there probably isn’t one person who can do it. The person who succeeds is the person who assembles a great team that works together with candor and humility and mutual respect and solves problems together.”


Doug is frank about just how daunting it is to found a school. He is honest about the hours spent puzzling through issues, wondering how best to support the team and the school.


“I remember facing what seemed like these intractable problems and challenges. We’d get together with four or five of us around a table and we’d start problem solving and by the end we’d have a lot of really good ideas. It was this sense of hopefulness: ‘Yes we can solve these problems when we work together’.”


Feeling caught up? Not sure of the next step? Truly stumped with the issue your administrator handed you hours before? Work with your team and build the solution together.


Build an orderly school.


Schools must have carefully-crafted and meticulously-maintained systems that maximize learning time and ensure safety, allowing students to reach their full potential. This can be achieved in a joyful way.


“There are a lot of visions for orderliness. They can be loving. They can give kids a lot of freedom. They can, and must be, respectful and preserve students’ dignity. Orderliness, to me, means that everything has a place, everything serves a purpose, and that purpose is students getting the most out of themselves and achieving everything they need to in their lives. That part you must have. There has to be a ‘right way to do things around here’ and you have to stick to it with tenacity. Where a lot of smart and well-intentioned people fail is in not achieving positive productive orderliness. It’s not a bad word. It’s a promise to students that their opportunity to learn will be prized and protected.”


A strong, orderly system provides almost-invisible support for achievement; a subtle stage where learning and culture can thrive.


Find balance in your work, for the sustainability of your team.  


“That was one of my biggest lessons – as a leader I had to set limits to make the work sustainable in the long haul.”


Though it is obvious how important rigor and a strong culture are to a school, one thing that may not be obvious is balance.


When discussing his own school founding experience, Doug says, “I always felt this humility as a leader that I didn’t know the answers to all of the questions. The one thing I could promise was to work at least as hard as the hardest-working person in this building. So, I would be at work from six in the morning until 9:00 at night. And I think what I was blind to was that other people in the building were doing the same thing. We would all be there at 8:00 or 9:00 at night and that was something that was bad, though I didn’t understand it at the time.”


Leaders are responsible for setting the pace. There are occasions when this pace will be breakneck, the hours endless, but unchecked, long hours can erode the team. It burns people out – good people, smart people, committed people, people who have the best intentions and the strongest work ethic. For some, this just means finding a replacement, but for others this means losing out on a great future leader.


Similar to the orderly school framework for students, leaders should set a sustainable pace for a positive staff culture. After all, says Doug, “The first obligation of an organization is to help its people be successful.”


And finally, thank you.


“This isn’t really advice, it’s just thank you. I really think that BES and BES schools are world-changing organizations and institutions, and I’m so grateful. I can’t tell you what it feels like to walk through a Freedom Preparatory or Nashville Classical or any of a dozen other great BES founded schools and see students’ lives changing. It’s about the best feeling in the world.”