Everything I Know about Leadership I Learned from Being a High School Cheerleader

Tips and advice on being a good leader are everywhere. Over the last few months I have been in many meetings about it and have read multiple articles outlining effective leadership frameworks and exploring the virtuous traits of a strong yet fair leader. Articles such as this one from Inc. Magazine on the seven things your team needs from you as a leader or this one from LifeHacker that claims if you want to be a better leader, think like Swiss Cheese. Most recently I was introduced to the Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership that are part of the Leadership Practices Inventory presented by James Kouzes and Barry Posner. (You can read more about their work on their website – leadershipchallenge.com)

From articles and books to toolboxes and TEDtalks, there is no shortage of information about growing yourself as a leader. I have to admit, that although this information has been helpful and insightful, there was very little that struck me as groundbreaking or new to me. Most of the time as I read or watched these leadership experts, I would think to myself, “Yes. You are right. But I already knew that.” Reflecting on my own leadership style and skills (admittingly not perfect by any means) I had to wonder why all this leadership talk wasn’t new but instead confirmed what I already know- even if I am not putting it into practice. Where did all of my leadership knowledge come from? Was I just born with this magical understanding. No, that’s not it. So, where did all this knowledge come from…After much reflection on the subject (and a couple glasses of wine) it dawned on me. Everything I know about leadership I learned as a high school cheerleader.  

OK, stay with me here. Don’t slam your laptop in disgust or delete me from your feed. Let me explain.

For those of you who know me personally, it might not surprise you that I was a

Friday Night Cheer

cheerleader. No, not the stereotypical cheer-mean girl we see portrayed today in popular media. But the loud, overly enthusiastic, big-haired cheerleader of the 1980s. Yep. That was me. All through middle school and high school me and my fellow Rah Rahs cheered faithfully for the Genoa-Kingston Cogs. Yes, we were the Cogs and we were proud. During my time donning the orange and blue I learned a lot about what it means to lead and inspire, even though I didn’t realize it at the time. Here are the five things I learned as a cheerleader that help me be a better leader today.


  1. Rally everyone behind a shared mission. When your mission is clear, it is easy to inspire your team. “Who’s gonna win? We’re gonna win!” During a football game, the mission was clear and everyone understood the goal. Don’t get me wrong, this does not mean that winning is always the goal, it is just an example of a clear shared mission. We all knew we wanted to win. The team playing knew it. The fans knew it. Everyone knew it. We cheerleaders helped keep that goal front and center and rallied everyone behind that mission. A good leader does the same. If the goal isn’t clear people don’t know what they are working towards.
  2. Celebrate success. This one should be self explanatory. A good leader celebrates the success of the team and the individuals responsible. Celebrate it loudly and often.
  3. Stay positive. Your goal might be to win, but that doesn’t mean you always do. Sometimes you are not successful. A good leader keeps a positive perspective on failure and helps the team learn, recover, and stay focused on the goal. This was a lesson hard learned while cheering for our 8th grade boys basketball team. (Former members of the team – don’t hate me. I still love you all. Let others learn from your pain.) They were….not good. The hardest game was an 80 to 0 loss. As expected, as the opponents score got higher, our team’s morale get lower. The guys started to slump and the fans started to leave. We cheerleaders did not. We stood at the sidelines and cheered for our team. We encouraged them to keep going and do their best. We did the “Aw, Shucks!” cheer over and over and over. As the buzzer sounded on that fateful game, we cheered for our team with all our heart. And we were there at the next game ready to cheer for them again. We didn’t give up on them so they didn’t give up on themselves. Sometimes, teams fail. A leader helps a team stay positive through failure, learn from mistakes, and move on to be better next time or to try something different (our guys were much better at football). In sports, as in life, sometimes things go well and sometime things don’t. Leaders (whether they are the cheer or otherwise) must inspire and support their team to help them stay motivated and work together through the good and the bad.
    Bases Rock
    Me and my flyer. Feats of trust!
  4. Support your flyers. On a cheer squad, there are bases and there are flyers. A base supports the flyers in pyramids and launches the flyers during stunts. The flyers, well, they fly. They are the ones who get tossed up in the air or who stand at the top of the pyramids. I was a base. I was at the bottom of the nine person pyramid holding things up. For most of my six years, I worked with the same flyer. She and I worked together every practice and became a solid team and were able to do stunts that others couldn’t do. That is because we trusted each other. She could not fly if she did not trust me to be there to support her and provide a good foundation. She knew I would do my best to not drop her or let her fall and I knew that she would do her best not to elbow me in the face. We had trust. The same is true for leadership. If you want your team to perform and be stars, give them the support they need to fly. A flyer can’t fly if they do not trust their base or have the support they need to get airborne.
  5. Sometimes you gotta dance. Back in the 80s cheerleaders didn’t usually dance. That was left for the Pom Pom squad. And the Pom Poms didn’t usually work with the cheerleaders. But, we Cogs were rule breakers. Innovators. We challenged the status quo. Great things happened when we partnered with the Pom poms and danced. Our two squads had fun, learned from each other, and became better teams because of it. It helped that we had a shared goal and mission. As a leader, pursue innovative partnerships that help your team think creatively and grow in new directions. Embrace change and challenge the norm. Then bust a move.

There are many things I learned from my time on the cheer squad. Some relevant to my adult life and some not. I didn’t realize how many of the lessons I learned then have helped shape me into the professional I am today.

Please, before you take to the comments section with cries of “Leadership is more than that!” “What about the coach?” “Leadership is more complicated than quipy comments about your childhood!” let me say that I 100% agree. Leadership is complicated. For most of us it takes a lifetime of learning and reflection to get even close to being a great leader. So, by all means, read the gurus (I like Tim Ferris,  James Altucher, or John C. Maxwell), find a mentor, study all the great texts on leadership. Just don’t minimize the importance of your past experiences and what they can teacher you. For me, the above represent my personal leadership journey. You need to find yours.

So, whether you were a cheerleader or the athlete (“Cheerleaders are athletes! Leaders. Believers!” – That is another story for another time.) embrace those lessons and think about how they are relevant today. You may be surprised by what you know.  “GO TEAM!”

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