By Leah Shafer, AmeriCorps member serving on the State Street Foundation team with Higginson/Lewis K-8 School
On my very first day with City Year, our corps did an activity to acquaint ourselves with the organization’s values. We explored a room with the ten key values placed on the wall, walking toward the value we identified with the most, then the value we identified with the least, and, finally, the value we wanted to learn the most about. “Service to a Cause Greater than Self,” I read as I paced the room, looking for a value I wanted to learn about: Empathy, Social justice for All, Ubuntu…and then something struck my eye: Level Five Leadership?
“Level Five Leadership,” I learned, is a term coined in Jim Collins’ book Good to Great. The phrase describes a type of leadership that combines a seemingly paradoxical mix of qualities to create a leader who is approachable, strong, and effective. Level Five leaders are humble; they learn from and listen to others, they share the credit for successes, and they are the first to take responsibility when things go wrong. Simultaneously, they are relentlessly determined; they are unafraid to take ambitious action, they set high goals, and they persevere against setbacks.
I was struck by the idea. Level Five Leadership is an inspiring model, and I was so excited to be working for an organization that strives to hold itself to such an admirable standard. Now, seven months my service year, I see Level Five Leadership exemplified not just by City Year staff members, but by my peers, AmeriCorps members serving in school every day.
Watching my teammates at the Higginson/Lewis K-8 School assist our students in the extended day program shows me that tutoring requires great modesty and patience. Several weeks ago, I watched as Maya, a 3rd-grade team member, listened for several minutes while her student Thomas* explained his thinking on a tough reading worksheet. Slowly, she began to offer him suggestions on how he could better understand the questions. When he finally finished the sheet, she cheered and gave him a high-five. Later, she bragged to our team not about her contribution, but about his perseverance. “He got it!” she exclaimed. “That was all him!”
At the same time, I see my team embodying ambition and perseverance. One day when she was supporting a substitute teacher, my teammate Julia, who serves in the 4th-grade, hosted five students for a group a three-hour group tutoring session. Through scaffolding her students’ assignments to better fit each of their individual needs, and leading word games as breaks between activities, Julia challenged her students to make the most of the day and continue learning even when their teacher was out.
My teammate Sara demonstrated how to bring together these disparate qualities of modesty and ambition when she planned our middle school student council elections. Sara took the initiative to organize the structure of the student council, encourage students to make speeches and run for seats, plan and facilitate the assembly, and count up results. Now, she runs student council meetings every week. At the same time, Sara takes no credit for student council’s success. She has given her students full credit for their achievement in creating a student council at Higginson/Lewis K-8 School.
I know that Level Five Leadership is a value that I can always strive to learn more about in order to continue employing the qualities of humility, will, boldness, courage, and perseverance. But, in the meantime, I only have to look at my team to begin that process of growth.