Trade in Your Cowboy Hat for a Pit Crew Helmet

It isn’t difficult to find work cultures that prioritize independence. In those environments, the cowboysthose daring, courageous, self-sufficient leaders who single-handedly solve problemsare the picture of a good leader.

But in his TED Talk “How Do We Heal Medicine,” Atul Gawande argues that a cowboy mindset is no longer effective in today’s workplace. While independence and courage are fantastic traits for any employee, the nature of work today requires collaboration and interdependence to solve problems, he says.

Knowledge has expanded, access has increased, and information that was once possible for one leader to retain and act upon unilaterally has become more complex. Individuals who solve problems in isolation often don’t arrive at the preferred solution. Depending on the nature of the problem being solved, missing the mark can have grave consequences for the well-being and even the lives of others.

In order to optimize success, we don’t need lone rangers. We need teams of people. We need pit crews, not cowboys.

Gawande’s TED Talk focuses on the medical field, but the pit crew metaphor has relevance for education, too. The cowboy or superhero leadership paradigm persists in many schools or districts. But the cowboy paradigm fosters dependency on the leader. What suffers as a result? Productivity is hindered. Creativity is stifled. The opportunity to coach, develop and build more effective teams is squandered. And, perhaps most importantly for students, the longevity of success is threatened. Forward progress only lasts as long as the leader is in the saddle.

As Gawande says, “as individualistic as we want to be, complexity requires group success.” We need pit crews to tackle complex challenges in today’s education landscape. If systems operate from a pit crew paradigm, team members understand their role in tackling challenges and do so as a unit. There is a shared vision about direction. Ideas are shared, feedback is actionable, and accountability is present. Within this paradigm, even simple problems that can be tackled by an individual leader often have processes built around them to enable leaders to spend less time addressing the simple and to devote more time and attention on the complex. 

Our work at Base Camp and Leadership Summit (BCLS) is designed to develop teams toward becoming more like pit crews. BCLS offers teams multiple opportunities to practice, process, and reflect on where they sit on the cowboy to pit crew continuum. Teachers are critical crew members and encouraged participants at BCLS–their classroom perspective is one that often reframes the problem that needs solving, challenges leader assumptions, and ensures identified solutions are inclusive of teacher voice. 

What are some design innovations that directly support teams in building a pit crew mindset? 

First, we focus on developing the social-emotional competencies of leaders who attend. Being an effective pit crew leaders requires particular skills to be present, such as actionable self-reflection, thinking systemically, developing an equity consciousness, nurturing generative relationships, facilitating meaningful conversations, and cultivating trustworthiness.  

Professional development can be accelerator for leaders to grow in these areas, and we design BCLS to be the accelerant. Because social-emotional development is daily work, we also offer a toolkit for leaders to support individuals in their journey toward becoming more effective leaders of teams.

Second, we are inviting teams to consider the spaces and places where complexity is present, but cowboy paradigms persist.  When we transition from cowboys to pit crews, we identify and eliminate barriers that prevent the full participation of some groups, which means we can also disrupt the predictability and variability of the student groups who occupy the highest and lowest achievement categories. We can also collectively confront and alter institutional biases of marginalization, deficit-based schooling, and low expectations associated with race, class, culture and language, gender and sexual orientation, and disability or special status. Working as a pit crew means we are more likely to value personal relationships, instructional practices, and supports that recognize each person’s gifts, circumstances, and needs.  

Equity exists when each person–regardless of race, geography, or family income–receives what he or she needs at the point of his or her need to be able to achieve success. BCLS invites teams to reflect on the opportunities for increasing equity and excellence in their school systems.

By the end of this school year, we will have completed our 60th cohort of Base Camp and Leadership Summit. As I transition into the role of BCLS Lead, I am continuously humbled and reminded of the wonderful work GLISI staff have done to ensure BCLS is a transformative experience for the teams who attend. I cannot fill the shoes of the leaders that came before me, but I will stand on their shoulders as we support leaders in trading their cowboy hats for pit crew helmets.

About the Author
Letishia Seabrook Jones, Ph.D
Senior Program Director at GLISI

1. Gawande, Atul. “How do we heal medicine?” 2012.
2. Gawande, Atul. The Checklist Manifesto. 2009.