Building Emergent Leaders
Written by Idea File Staff
Two advisers and lifelong friends devised a leadership training retreat so they could concentrate on advising and empower the editors to lead the staff while learning useful life skills.
The final decision about the yearbook cover design rests with the editor-in-chief at Lee’s Summit West High School in Lee’s Summit, Mo. For the 2009 editor, Nicole Cooke, decision-making did not come easy when she first began in that position. But training and experience changed that.
“I’ve learned a lot about being a leader for later in life,” Cooke said at the end of her tenure. “I have had to step up because I’m in charge. I learned to make decisions.”
That included picking the fi nal cover design that would sit on students’ bookshelves for eternity over the objections of two other editors, and learning to live with that decision. What enabled Cooke to develop into a leader was the spring Editorial Leadership Retreat that her adviser, Julie Lewis, created with Stefani Russ, yearbook adviser at Raymore-Peculiar High School in Peculiar, Mo. Lewis and Russ came up with the idea because they believe the yearbook should be student-led, and they did not want to use valuable class time teaching editors how to assume their roles.
The spring retreat is just for next year’s editors, occurring in March or April on a Friday evening, from about 3-10 p.m. The editors from both schools get together for joint sessions and individual meetings at Lee’s Summit West. Each adviser also schedules separate retreats in the fall for their editors and for their entire staffs.
The first retreat occurred in the spring of 2008 for the 2009 editors. Once school started, the plan was for Lewis and Russ to each teach for the first few weeks, then gradually hand over the duties to their editors-in-chief. But there was nothing gradual about the shift. In September 2008, Lewis, who was pregnant, was out two weeks with pneumonia, while Russ was out most of that month with an extremely ill baby who required surgery.
With the initial leadership training, the editors were able to keep the staff on task and yearbook production moving.
“I learned how to teach. Everyone says I should be a teacher – it’s a staff consensus,” said Cooke, who planned to major in public relations and minor in journalism in college.
“Every one of them stepped up,” Russ said of her editors at Ray-Pec.
Lily Ellebracht, photo editor at Ray-Pec, said the editors initially panicked, and editor-in-chief Jennifer Elliott wondered if she could get staff cooperation.
“I’m going to have to speak to these people – will they listen to me?” Elliott said she thought. But she said she thinks the staff likes it better when direction comes from the editors. “It means more when it comes from a peer.”
So what did they do to prepare their editors? For the spring retreat, Russ and Lewis led their editors through a hefty agenda: to have the editors develop leadership skills, understand their jobs, develop an ad sales plan and a business plan, learn about design trends, organize the staff manual, make policy decisions, plan the full-staff retreat and set goals for the yearbook for the year. Dinner falls in the middle.
The Walsworth yearbook sales representative, John Kelley, also did a session on yearbook trends and got to know the staff, so the editors would feel comfortable working with him and calling him.
While the goals for the retreats sound lofty, they are achieved because of the bonds and trust that develops among the members of the new editorial staff, which enables them to work as a cohesive unit.
Elliott said the retreat was a good place to learn about staff management and how to work with people, like during the times of drama in the classroom.
For Cooke, the spring retreat helped her get to know her editors, and the serious bonding occurred at the fall retreat, which was held at Lewis’ parents’ condominium at the Lake of the Ozarks in central Missouri. There, the editors addressed staff personality issues and got to know each other better with meals, boating and shopping.
“After that I really felt like we were friends,” Cooke said. “We really got to know each other, which helped in the lab” when they were working on the yearbook.
The bonding also molded the editors into a unit when working with the staff. “It made yearbook easier because we were all on the same side,” Cooke said.
With the retreats and the experience of the year, Cooke was ready when Lewis left in May on maternity leave.
The editors from both schools said they liked meeting each other at the spring retreat, seeing how each staff worked and bouncing ideas about staff and organization off each other. In fact, Andrew Miller, a 2010 co-editor-in-chief for Ray-Pec, said they now use Lee’s Summit West’s idea of posting the deadlines on the wall.
Ellebracht said what she appreciated was that the retreats were a time for her and what she needed to be learning, enabling her to be free to be an editor during class time.
Other lessons the Ray-Pec editors said they learned were to delegate at the beginning of the year, because you can always take tasks back if you have to, and to teach staff members so editors do not have to do the work, and staff will know how when you leave.
Elliott said she learned about delegation, motivation and positive reinforcement – lessons that permeate everything she does. “That’s what leadership is all about – making others want to be better.”