10 Principles of Leading Great Teams 10 Principles of Leading Great Teams

10 Principles of Leading Great Teams

by Casey Thompson
Casey Thompson Casey Thompson Web & Digital Media Manager
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Great teams lead themselves (with a little help). 

Okay, maybe that’s an oversimplification. The best leaders admit they don’t have all the answers. I certainly don’t claim to, but I have observed a few principles of good leadership, and I’m curious to know if you might find value in them, too. Let’s dive in and visualize the abstract concepts of leading a strong, productive team. 

1. Create safety 

While basic school safety has never been more important, great leaders also create a psychologically safe place for their team to work through challenges and solve problems. 

Problem solving is one of the hardest activities to complete in one shot. Failure is part of solving big problems, and challenges pop up constantly when teaching and learning. If your team doesn’t feel comfortable, a lack of vulnerability is going to make small problems bigger, and big problems impossible.  

Here’s how to create a place where struggle, productive failure, vulnerability, and disagreeing are okay.  
  • Be vulnerable yourself. 
  • Admit when you’re stumped and invite others to step in. 
  • When someone makes a mistake, commend their honesty first. 
  • Be open at every opportunity for others to speak their minds before you. 
  • Listen to the team’s ideas and implement them—if not, explain why.  

Why does safety matter? 

Without psychological safety, your team will underperform. “Yes folks” aren’t going to move students confidently in the direction of their dreams. Psychological safety matters because the truth matters. Without strong trust, discovering the truth can be painful—and sometimes impossible. 


2. Be curious 

Curiosity goes hand-in-hand with vulnerability. Curiosity says, “tell me more.” Curiosity admits you might not have all the answers. Does that mean curiosity is at odds with confidence? Absolutely not. Curiosity is the ultimate trait of a self-respecting, team-oriented leader.  

Curiosity motivates you to learn more, and your team to share more.  Extend the invitation by asking open-ended questions rather than yes/no or emotionally loaded ones.  
  • How’s life? 
  • What’s on your mind? 
  • What’s the biggest roadblock I can help remove? 

Why does curiosity matter? 

Problems are rarely what they seem. Building relationships over time with small questions will help the big ones flow better. The true root of problems lurks under the surface of what people are willing to share openly. By continuing to look deeper, you can fix problems once and for all. It’s the difference between setting a broken bone or continuing to apply ice packs—fixing a symptom won’t cure it in the long run.


3. Show compassion 

Noticing a pattern with these first few? Leaders must see their team as people first, and workers second. Compassion is the key to this shift. Truly understanding what makes people tick, where they experience pain or struggle, and what motivates them to move past it, separates task managers from true leaders.  

Compassion is also vulnerability. We may not be prepared to fully witness—let alone comprehend—our teammate’s struggles. That is okay. There is a way to honor and acknowledge without slipping into it yourself. 
  • Turn your concerns into wishing them well. 
  • Be ready to provide accommodations for success. 
  • Worry less about staying rigid, and instead look for ways to offer flexibility and grace. 

Why does compassion matter? 

In education especially, goals are often long-term and abstract. Compassion and accommodation help move a struggling individual closer to the collective vision of success of all.  


4. Prepare 

Yes, this one is just about you (on the surface at least). Always be the most prepared in the group. Your team looks to you for guidance, if not answers, so anticipate their questions. You can prepare by doing some or all of the following: 
  • Collect data and make it shareable. 
  • Create a consensus among the team. 
  • Anticipate and welcome constructive disagreement. 
  • Prepare a counter-argument. 
Try not to equate preparation with a correct answer. Despite best-laid plans and time spent, you may find a different path once the team weighs in. 

Why does preparation matter? 

Ultimately, the buck stops here. Preparing allows you to gather intelligence and peer into the distance to anticipate where problem-solving will lead you. It helps you see places planning may be thrown off course (and will it ever…!) and then determine how to steer back to productive waters when it does. 


5. Look in the mirror 

Self-awareness goes a long way, but it’s a nebulous concept for leaders. Ego drives a lot of achievement, and because leaders are usually high achievers, it can be easy to forget (or rather, avoid) the reflection necessary to improve yourself. 

Self-awareness begins when we explore these ideas: 
  • You are responsible for everything in your world. 
  • When something goes wrong, look in the mirror first. 

For some that sounds uncomfortable. Sit with that discomfort knowing there are no bad teams, only bad leaders. When things fail, it’s due to the systems you set up, the direction you failed to give, the motivation you neglected to instill, ad nauseam. Only now, extend the safe place to fail to yourself, accept failure, and move on to fix things in the future. (Hint: the mirror is only the starting point. What we choose to fix creates a great leader.) 

Why does self-reflection matter? 

Failure is a heavy burden, and it falls squarely on a leader’s shoulders. This can keep you up at night, but it can also drive your excellence. We pick up and try again.  


6. Design your system 

Developing a crack team is a huge task, but once you’ve picked your crew, it’s time to design the systems and processes conducive to a high-performing culture. A well-designed set of guidelines for feedback, collaboration, and task management builds a strong foundation on which talented folks excel.  

Start by clarifying your team’s values. What’s your ultimate purpose? Each team is as unique as the people who take part, and everyone should take part in this defining moment.  

Why does a team’s system matter? 

Values and purpose drive team actions. They’re the structure behind the leader: when you’re not around to query, motivate, direct, or instruct, your team can act with confidence.  


7. Have courage 

Any leader encounters challenges, and interpersonal challenges with team members can be tough to face and easy to want to sweep under the rug. A leader’s first job isn’t to be nice, it’s to achieve goals. Take the hard road early and often—schedule the tough talk, stay calm, and reroute to find a shared vision. Take a chance to improve things immediately, and your team will be empowered to do the same. 

Why have courage? 

The road only grows harder as you avoid it. At the end of the road, defaulting to niceness in the face of conflict is selfish and only serves your ego.  


8. Follow your team 

A leader’s most cherished goal is to create more leaders. Learn to spot budding leadership on your team. When someone shows passion, relinquish control and let them take the lead. If someone makes it clear they don’t want to lead, explore that one-on-one.  

Why does following the team matter? 

Your team’s top accomplishments probably won’t be task-oriented and assigned. As people develop leadership skills, folks will realize leading isn’t as easy as you make it look. You’ll provide a safe place for talented people to gain experience, invest in their own skills, and create amazing outcomes. Plus, delegating leadership to others frees up your time to direct long-term vision and complete your own tasks. 


9. Be the coach 

In a coaching culture, growth mindset prevails. When teams are open to feedback and opportunities to improve, talent develops naturally. While mentoring systems help spread the wealth of knowledge around, ultimately, you’re responsible to develop your team’s talent. 

Two action items: 
  • Set up monthly one-on-one meetings to discuss goals and monitor progress 
  • Identify and match team members with professional development opportunities 

Why does coaching matter? 

Investing in your team’s knowledge pays dividends, so plan for long-term improvement. Coaching is a top priority of effective leaders: without guidance, talent stagnates, and people grow restless and unfocused. Your investment sharpens the team, shows you care, and builds mutual respect over time.  

10. Take care 

Nothing is more important than caring for your team, and by extension caring for yourself. Anyone who has led another person, whether a toddler or a team of professionals, knows it is hard work.  

Balance out your effort with time off and strong boundaries. This might look like a dependable hour blocked off for lunch midday, or a hard stop in time to make it to a family event.  

Why does taking care of yourself matter? 

Consistent reinforcement and respect of boundaries helps everyone on the team. It’s true you can’t give if your glass is empty, and by modeling respectful, appropriate boundaries you empower others to rest and recharge, too.  

Leadership is no task for the faint of heart. If you’ve made it through these 10 principles without reconsidering a career, congratulations. You were made to lead a great team, and they’ll make you proud.  


Casey Thompson Casey Thompson Web & Digital Media Manager
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