Leaders Lead from the Front, and …..

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by Erin Cermak, LL ‘21, Physical Education and Health Teacher, Chadwick School in Palos Verdes, CA

As someone who has been involved in sports for pretty much their whole life, I have heard every possible ploy and motivational phrase to emphasize what it means to be a leader on the field of battle. One that has had staying power over the years is “leaders lead from the front” or some iteration of that such as “lead, follow, or get out the way,” or “unless you’re the lead dog, the scenery never changes.” 

It’s not hard to notice that the idea of leadership often exhibited in the sports world is one of power, aggression, assertion, confidence, and volume. As an athlete or a coach, the power of suggestion really informs how you think of yourself as a leader and what your capability to lead is, with these regular reminders constantly swimming around you. On any given team, there are only so many coaches and so many captains, positions that by title alone exude an aura of authority and “in chargeness.” 

But what about everyone else? Who are we if we don’t fit into this mold? If I’m not one in one of those named roles, then am I not a leader?

As many times as players might be told that they can lead without an official title, the messaging contradicts this. This same concept can also be applied to a classroom: there’s only one teacher, one line leader, one person leading discussion for the day, so if I’m not one of those things, how am I considered a leader? Furthermore, most student-athletes don’t stay competitive athletes for their lives, so does the logic or perception of leading from the front exclusively have a sustainable model? The quick answer is, of course, no. 

As someone who went from “old rule” way of leading – I was a captain, record-setting scorer, prom queen, and award winner – as a senior in high school, to feeling like I was starting all over when I got to college – no titles, no cheerleaders, no established support, no sense of how I fit into the new system – I questioned whether I was still a leader at all. 

In her book Wolfpack: How to Come Together, Unleash Our Power, and Change the Game, Abby Wambach, two-time Olympic gold medalist, FIFA World Cup champion, and the highest all-time international goal scorer for male and female soccer players, unpacks this stereotypical idea of who, or what, a leader is. The book is a call to arms for leadership, for everyone and anyone willing to listen. Each chapter starts with an old rule, something that has been thought or practiced, and to counter, Wambach proposes a new rule, something that she challenges the reader to take up instead. In the chapter titled “Lead from the Bench,” Wambach describes the choice made mutually amongst the captains and coaches for her, one of the captains, to begin the games of the 2015 World Cup, on the bench. It’s not a place you often find captains of any team, but she argues that her role on the bench was just as important as her role as a starter. She had a responsibility to her teammates on the field to be supportive, to be mentally in the game, and to be ready if she were needed. 

The old rule for this particular chapter is “wait for permission to lead.” The new rule? “Lead now– from wherever you are.” We as human beings can all be leaders, each with responsibilities and jobs that force us to have understanding, improve relationships, get things done efficiently, and celebrate victories in all shapes and sizes. “Leadership is not a position to earn, but an inherent power to claim … It’s not the privilege of a few, but the right and responsibility of all.” 

If we wait for permission to lead, we undercut ourselves and the importance of our life experience. If we second guess whether we are a leader, we do a disservice to not only ourselves, but to our peers, colleagues, and teammates. If we assume that certain people are better leaders than we are, we become void of our responsibility to others, and the world misses out on our voice. 

“Leader is not a title the world gives you, it’s an offering you give to the world.” You have value, and your perspective is essential to your team becoming as successful as it possibly can be. 

Erin Cermak is in her first year of teaching Village School Physical Education and Middle & Upper School Health & Wellness at Chadwick School in Palos Verdes, California. Prior to Chadwick, Erin was a Physical Education, Health & Outdoor Education Teacher in the Middle School at University School of Milwaukee for five years, as well as an Ethical Leadership Liaison, Assistant Varsity Girls Basketball Coach, Assistant Varsity Girls Lacrosse Coach, and the Head Middle School Lacrosse Coach. In addition, over the years, Erin has coached volleyball, taught courses in art history & physical anthropology, and served as an educator at the Milwaukee Public Museum, in the Distance Learning Department.