As season two of Abbott Elementary comes to an end, I'm inspired by the great leadership lessons the show has to offer.
Abbott Elementary hits particularly close to home for me because I am a former K-12 teacher myself. I resonate with the tight community of teachers supporting each other through ups and downs, finding humor even in difficult situations, and bringing out the best in their students and each other (not to mention the creative hacks needed for shortages of school supplies). And the show is timely. With strikes happening among teachers and school workers from LA, to Ohio, to the UK, it's a good time to shine a spotlight on the critical work that schools do to uplift our communities and prepare future generations of leaders.
What I love about this show is how it features the unique personalities of each of the characters and highlights how many different leadership styles can be effective. While there are some key behaviors that most strong leaders share, like the ones we help people learn and practice at Rising Team, it's also true that great leaders can have unique strengths and talents that help them shine as individuals.
Here are six examples of different leadership personas from the main characters at Abbott:
1. The Persistent Optimist—If you believe in something and work for it, you can make it happen.
Janine Teagues, the star of the show, played by award-winning show creator, writer, and producer, Quinta Brunson, is an optimist. The thing that makes Janine a great leader, though, is not her optimism, it's her optimism paired with the determination to not give up and to try different avenues when things go wrong. The best leaders are those who keep moving forward, inspiring their team to join them, even when obstacles occur.
And Janine faces innumerable obstacles that she overcomes in creative ways. When she's given books that are too old, she updates them herself. As she says, "There have been three presidents since this one. It's an old book, so here's where I taped the others."
Sometimes her first attempts at creative problem solving go awry, like when fixing the lights causes a power outage, or trying to solve a conflict between two younger students results in the escalation of a fight between their older sisters. But, no matter what happens, Janine is going to see it through to a productive resolution and she'll learn something along the way.
As Melissa Schemmenti says, "You know at the end of times it's just going to be cockroaches and Janine holding up a sign that says 'Turn that frown upside down.'"
2. The Coach—With experience comes wisdom that you can help others find in themselves
Sheryl Lee Ralph won an Emmy for her role as Barbara Howard, the wise, experienced Kindergarten teacher on the show, that all the other teachers turn to for guidance. What's inspiring about Barbara's leadership is that even with all her experience, she doesn't tell people what to do. Like all great coaches, she helps people find the answers on their own.
As an example, when Gregory is having trouble telling a parent that it's problematic that she drops her son off late to school every day, he goes to Barbara for advice. Instead of giving him the answer, she tells him to meet her on her lunch break at the nail salon (ok, this part seems quite unlikely as a former teacher myself, but I'll suspend disbelief ;). When Gregory gets there, he realizes the parent he needs to talk to is there too, and Barbara's gentle nudging encourages him to have an open conversation with the parent, leading to a positive outcome.
Although Barbara may sometimes seem to have a defeatist attitude, as she says, you need to "work with what you've got so you don't get let down," more often than not, she fights to make things better. She is what Chip Conley would refer to as a "modern elder," someone who "is as curious as they are wise." As Conley describes, "Rather than seeking the spotlight of being the “sage on the stage,” they gently share the wisdom they have gleaned through decades of experience in life and work."
3. The Networker—If you invest in your relationships, it will pay dividends
Melissa Schemmenti, the street smart second grade teacher, is played by Lisa Ann Walter. She is the epitome of a leader who is successful because they've been a strong relationship-builder over many years. Great leaders cannot be successful on their own; they need people around them to help on the journey, and it's easier to put together a team, even an "extended" team, when you've got a strong network. Melissa's catchphrase is, "I got a guy...."
When Janine needs to get a new classroom rug after a classroom "accident," but can't afford it, Melissa jumps in. She says, "I got a guy for everything. Cash registers, rebar... I'm way ahead of you," and as she walks away, she mumbles "I'm gonna have to bake a ziti."
Although she comes off tough and strong, we sometimes get to see Melissa's more vulnerable side, like when she shares her own childhood reading challenges with a student that is struggling with reading in her class. Melissa is a great example of a leader who balances strength with vulnerability, which is probably also why she's been able to build such a strong and loyal network.
4. The Learner—Openness to growth and feedback makes us better leaders
First grade teacher, Gregory Eddie, played by Tyler James Williams, starts as a substitute, with little experience, and becomes a great teacher over time thanks to his passion for learning and openness to receiving feedback.
Gregory has many of the characteristics of what leadership expert, Jim Collins, would describe as a Level 5 leader, the type of leader that can make an organization truly great. (It's also why Gregory would probably make a strong principal. which was his original intention.) In Collins' bestselling book, Good to Great, one of the key characteristics he talks about is that Level 5 leaders aren't afraid to ask for help, and in fact, they display a commitment to continuous learning. This is what Gregory does every day, being willing to step outside his comfort zone to learn from others. He recognizes it too, and refers to himself as the "Most Improved Player" and "Rookie of the Year." As he says in the Educator of the Year Ceremony, "It's not about being the best; it's about doing your best."
One of these moments is when Gregory learns from Janine why it's so important to decorate his classroom to show his students he cares about creating a good learning environment for them. He goes from nothing, to staid motivational posters, and finally to decorating the room with drawings the students made themselves.
In fact, my favorite scene from the show so far is when Gregory puts up the student drawings on the wall. He learns that they care about him and the importance of showing that care in return, but hasn't yet learned how to interpret 1st grade drawings, so Janine helps him with that:
5. The Self-Deprecator—Taking one for the team can lead to increased respect
Jacob Hill, the History teacher played by Chris Perfetti, is lovingly dubbed "Mr. C" by his students because he's so corny. He's an example of a classic "self-deprecator," a leader who is willing to poke fun at themselves or do silly things to help others feel more comfortable and to help them learn. (Ok sometimes Jacob also does this unknowingly, but it often has the same effect.)
As a former crew coxswain, I used to call this "taking one for the team," because any time a team wins a race, they get to throw the coxswain in the water. Great leaders often take one for the team in a variety of ways, from tattoos with the company logo, to dressing up in costumes voted on by the team, going in a dunk tank (like Jacob does at the AVA festival), and more. It's the combination of making it clear to the team that you believe in them *and* that you are willing to go to extreme lengths to show them, that makes this leadership style work.
A great example from the show is when Jacob's former traveling storytelling group, the “Story Samurai,” come to visit the school. Although he goes back and forth on whether he should join them, he ultimately does after some encouragement from the students, and then he really leans into it. Here's a great scene of how embracing his corny-ness can create value for those around him.
6. The Natural Salesperson—A compelling vision and story can bring people along
Although Principle Ava Coleman, played by Janelle James, is not always a leader to admire—she often misuses funds, isn't always honest, etc.—she has some of the talents of a great leader. Most notably, Ava is an absolute natural sales person. She can sell nearly anything, from eye masks to vintage clothing, and especially if she has TikTok at her disposal.
While her tactics are sometimes sketchy, her ultimate goals are often good, like teaching students to take care of themselves or helping the school stave off a takeover attempt by a charter school consortium. Ava's strengths in imagining big new ideas and her natural persuasiveness are great qualities to have in a leader.
Across the full cast of characters at Abbott there's a wide range of leadership styles, each person leveraging their own natural talents, and working well together to create a great environment for the students they support. And they're not perfect. We see their good moments, and their challenging ones, which is true for all of us. We could all benefit from creating teams with complementary leadership strengths and a common mission like they have at Abbott.
Photo credits: ABC
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