(the following is an excerpt from a forthcoming issue of The School Administrator. See AASA.org)
It was Monday morning and the middle school had flooded over the weekend. Told it would take two weeks to reopen, the superintendent quickly moved this crisis to the top of his growing list that already included keeping lights on, making payroll, building teachers’ capacity to deliver engaging and rigorous instruction, and meeting state requirements for school improvement in a school district that ranked last in the state.
Yet Marcus Newsome, the new superintendent of the Petersburg, Va., City Public Schools, was smiling this morning during the city partnership meeting that convened top leaders from the state, city and school district. Toward the end of the meeting, Newsome shared, “I’m happy to report that the predicted two-week closing of our middle school didn’t happen. It opened on time this Monday morning! I’d shared with everyone at the school that we needed ‘all hands on deck,’ and they made it happen.” Newsome publicly acknowledged the school’s janitor and other staff members who had taken the lead in ensuring the school opened on time. He also sent each a personal thank-you.
In the past, Petersburg staff would have responded differently to a crisis. This time there was a significant change. It began with a courageous leader — a leader who runs toward, not away from challenges.
A Time for Courage
Throughout history, leaders as diverse as Aristotle, Winston Churchill and Martin Luther King Jr. have pointed to courage — a word derived from the French root word “le Coeur” or “heart” — as the most important of all virtues. This brand of leadership is not based on self-promotion or ego, but on sacrificing for the greater good, which in public education includes promoting inclusiveness, and equity for all children.
Effective leaders use the five principles of courageous leadership to “face the facts and their fears” and address challenges head-on. When these principles guide the work, the efforts build trust and are more likely sustainable district wide.
No. 1: Get to Your Core.
Friedrich Nietzche said, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” With school board politics, resistance to meeting diverse students’ needs, and punitive financial and accountability measures serving as distractors from educating our children, we must be rooted in a personal connection to why we are advocating for children each day. The more personal the connection, the more steadfast will be our effort.
Every successful superintendent has a way to stay connected to this core. Aaron Spence, superintendent of the 67,000-student Virginia Beach City School system, reminds himself daily of his personal connection to helping all children and make sure they get the best education possible. He watches prospective principals walk through the building to see if they talk with students and teachers. Did they notice what was happening in the school? Did they connect directly with the students? He makes expectations clear, like the importance of knowing the names of the children who are struggling.
Amy Sichel, superintendent of the 8,000-student Abington School District in Philadelphia’s northern suburbs, celebrates schools’ successes with the students “to stay focused on the small wins vs. the big downs” that poor policy delivers. Sichel is personally energized by her ability to have influence beyond Abington by mentoring incoming professionals to leave a legacy and “keep public education alive.”
The daily routine of Dallas Dance, superintendent of Baltimore County Schools, includes praying, working out and staying connected to his own children and to his colleagues and the district’s 112,000 students. Letting go of the negative interactions and starting each day with a blank slate helps sustain positive energy. As Dance explains, “Most parent complaints are about the role I’m playing — not about me personally.”
When leaders have a core connection to the work, they are optimistic about meeting “insurmountable” challenges. Maintaining this attitude is essential to courageous leadership. As Newsome states, “Each one of us has the ability to set the temperature for the room. It’s important to come in daily with the brightest of views in the toughest of times: We are leaders; others feed off us, and if we aren’t optimistic, they don’t stand a chance.”
For the outline of all five courageous leadership principles and the complete article, see AASA.org
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