The Law of the Lid

John Norlin · September 11, 2019

I have always been hugely influenced by the work of John Maxwell. His leadership books, speeches, and example has been something that has challenged me and inspired me for many years. There are two pieces of John Maxwell’s work that I find myself quoting more than any other. The first is his quote, “Leadership is influence - nothing more, nothing less.” Everything we do influences. It is not a question of whether you are influencing, it is a question of whether it is positive or negative, effective or ineffective. Even when we don’t act, we are influencing! Have you ever wished someone would have stepped up and done something or said something but they didn’t? 

The second piece I talk about regularly while leading educator professional development sessions across the country is his “Law of the Lid” philosophy. The Law of the Lid states, “Leadership ability determines a person’s level of effectiveness.” One way to translate this into the classroom setting could be, “Don’t ever expect students to bring more to the classroom than you are bringing as the educator.”

“Don’t ever expect students to bring more to the classroom than you are bringing as the educator.”

I remember the first time that I brought this concept up to a school staff. I was leading a professional development session before the year began to help prepare staff to begin implementing our once-per-week CharacterStrong Social Emotional Learning & Character Development lessons in their school. We spent a good part of the morning talking about “The Why” of the work and now we were beginning to dig into the what and the how of actually teaching the lessons to their students. 

As I was about to role model a lesson two things hit me. The first was that the initial 30 seconds of rolling these lessons out was going to be critical to the success or struggle of these lessons being taught. The famous, “Ok class, go ahead and take a seat. Today we are going to be starting these CharacterStrong lessons that we have to do…” is not a great start. In reality, within 30 seconds we have already destroyed the chances of these lessons being successful because this is something that we “have to do”. 

The second thing that hit me was that there is always a reason for every behavior. There is a reason that we sometimes say something like this, especially if it has to do with being asked to teach something that I don’t normally teach. Really what I am saying is, “I did not write these lessons. I am not super familiar with these lessons. I may need to demonstrate humility and ask for help in figuring out a specific activity or lesson and I don’t know if I like that.” Even educators who believe in the work of social-emotional learning and character development will sometimes fall into this trap. So what we do in our trainings is empathize with educators and provide time to thoughtfully reconsider a different type start. 

“Pre-correction” is a proactive strategy designed to prevent or interrupt predictable problem behavior from occurring and increase the likelihood of expected behavior taking place.. An example of a pre-correction statement in this setting my go like this, “Ok class, go ahead and take a seat. Today we are starting some CharacterStrong lessons that focus on developing social-emotional learning and character development. Here’s the thing though: I did not write these lessons, in fact there may be times when I need to ask for your help to figure out how to do something within a lesson or specific activity. In fact, I am going to be learning right alongside you because these lessons are as much for me as they are for you. But I also want you to know why these lessons are so crucial to your future…(insert personal reason why)”. 

This is a much different start that pre-corrects for future stumbling or confusion and demonstrates honesty, humility, and vulnerability. It also is an opportunity to share one’s personal reasons for why learning social-emotional skills is so important (which naturally creates shared buy-in).

Photo by Milan Popovic

I have had the great privilege of speaking with passionate educators and leaders internationally about implementing this work into their classrooms and schools. The number one issue that we hear about is “staff buy-in” and my first response always is to bring up the “Law of the Lid.” Here are 3 ways to leverage the “Law of the Lid” in your school.

#1 - Passionately share the WHY of focusing on the whole child. If we don’t share why the work is so important, this is definitely going to be “one more thing on our plate.” There is great evidence to support why schools have a moral imperative to focus on more than just end-of-the-year test scores and academics. When an educator is in tune with their WHY, their WHAT gets way more powerful. 

#2 - The leaders of a school set the tone for the rest of the staff. What are the behaviors of the school leadership team when it comes to the work of supporting the whole child by teaching social-emotional learning and putting a focus on relationship building? Are they knowledgeable about the work? Is there a clear plan that has been articulated to the staff? Is the time being made for the work to happen and discussed? Remember we make time for that which is most important and attitude reflects leadership. 

One of our favorite techniques here includes having building leadership role model an activity from an upcoming lesson during a staff meeting so that 1) everyone gets hands-on experience before teaching it themselves and 2) the building leadership is demonstrating how to teach a lesson with fidelity and enthusiasm.

#3 - Find out who your key student and staff influencers are and leverage their leadership. Who do you need to get on board? How could you work through these key influencers to promote the prosocial behaviors that you would like to see from other students and staff? Recently, Odessa High School in Missouri had their students teach a CharacterStrong lesson to their teachers to build energy and “buy-in” to start the year. What a powerful way to influence!

As we start another year, remember that the “Law of the Lid” rings true in all that we do. Passionately pursue students with the content that you have the gift and responsibility to teach and remember that the number one way that we are going to teach social-emotional learning and character development is to role model it day in and day out. That means striving greatly, falling, getting back up and doing it again. Let students experience a lid that is always lifting higher and higher through your example and passion for students.


John Norlin

John Norlin is a Co-Founder of CharacterStrong, a Servant Leadership trainer, and motivational speaker. He was Washington Advisor of the Year, taught 5 leadership classes per semester for 10 years at Sumner High School, and was a Program Administrator for the Whole Child for five years.