Education Opinion

Leadership: Present and Future

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — February 11, 2014 5 min read
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Larry Merlo, President and CEO of CVS Caremark announced a bold move to place their mission above short term profits. In a landmark move, he announced the company would not only stop selling cigarettes by October 2014, but would launch a smoking cessation program that would help those who wanted to stop smoking. The decision will cost CVS billions in revenue each year but, as CVS morphs into a more full health care provider, allows for integrity of purpose. We trust Merlo sees the bigger picture and leads a corporation willing to take a significant risk to position themselves for the future it wants. Yes, leaders do those things.

C. Everett Koop, our most outspoken Surgeon General, first introduced the notion that smoking was a national health challenge in 1982. “No federal official before or since U.S. Surgeon General Koop has waged a more determined campaign against smoking, the leading cause of preventable death and disability in the United States.” Since his presentation of the Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking and Health, there have been some major decisions made by companies and legislators regarding smoking. The most noticeable have been the ‘smoking may be hazardous to your health’ message on cigarette packages, an age requirement for the purchase of cigarettes, the gradual reduction of smoking permitted in restaurants and public places, government offices, trains, planes, and buses in the US. It is rare to find an ashtray these days. Nevertheless, cigarette smoking has survived and the tobacco industry with it.

The issue of cigarettes being a health hazard has never been a low-key issue. Its opponents argued their right to smoke and lost. Many feel marginalized, and even isolated by the public ordinances defining where they need to go to smoke. Yet, the harmful effects of smoking and of second hand smoke have been documented by lives lost. Smokers are now turning to e-cigaretts as an alternative. CVS’s decision was not an easy one, we are sure. It appears we are watching an ethical business leader at work. As we scan the environment for leadership, we pause to note and to celebrate it when it appears.

In education, we, too, have before us the moment in which hard decisions must be made. We talk a lot about vision. Scholars write about how it is essential for leadership. Recruitment literature for school leaders almost always indicates that boards seek leaders with vision. Standards for leadership preparation programs and state certification tests for leaders address the necessity of vision. But, it is often a word like “love”...used often but with widely varying meanings. How many of us, individually and as schools and districts, possess the kind of vision that Merlo models. Are we willing to give up a product that has been part of our ‘store’ for decades for the sake of what we see coming? Do we lead it or let ourselves get driven there by policy makers and regulatory agencies? What if we were free to have a vision unbounded by the current reality? Where would it take us?

The 21st century has brought rapid and deep change to education. There are among us leaders who have ‘the right stuff’. They see the big picture and have a vision of what can be ... and needs to be... for children. They connect with people, communicate well, and develop trust. They know how to nurture the culture of their organizations and monitor the climate. They simply know how to do it. But now, there is a plethora written about how to lead. A course or two, or a book read, in preparation for school leadership simply cannot fit the bill. Leadership is a personal issue. It is about who we are and how we work. It demands passion and purpose. Those cannot be taught; they arise from within. They can be developed and they can be extinguished. It is reignite time. What story do we tell when invited to the table of bold leaders? Let’s begin to share those stores so that our models come from education, not from business.

If Larry Merlo had been President and CEO of a large pharmacy chain in 1982 would he have made the same decision? Probably not. It is about the moment and the ethics; let’s remember that. Back then, the health care industry hadn’t come to its precipice of change. Now it has. The ground has shifted and therefore so will CVS. If he couldn’t have it all, the choice for highest ground was made. Well done.

What we do know is, whether in 1982 or in 2014, we need these leaders. We might consider from where they spring. How does it happen? Where might these leaders come from? All of them came through our classrooms! As we look for leaders now, we also are preparing the leaders of tomorrow. We want them to be passionate and purpose driven with the skills to carry us along, willingly. These are the very characteristics that we honor in those students who may be simply ‘born with them’, and we hope we can ignite it in others. We have bullying programs in place to help fight against the behaviors that are the opposite of those held by true leaders. While flipping classrooms and flipping professional development, why not think about shifting the emphasis of important bullying programs to be Leadership Development Programs? We must remember that while working to confront those bullying behaviors, focusing on developing character, compassion, and collaboration in our students in every action is essential. Whether weaving it into a lesson plan in which students must work together to solve a problem (a demand for a 21st century teacher to meet) or in the way we respond to a student’s behavior, or the way we help students develop perseverance by encouraging them to stick to a problem or challenge until they meet with success. We can refocus our work on developing leadership qualities in our students and ourselves.

Greeters, secretaries, custodians, bus drivers, teachers, special services personnel, administrators, all can pull together to design a school culture that not only honors these characteristics, but has an articulated plan about how to develop these behaviors in students. Who we are and how we work among ourselves and with diverse students present silent lessons to our students every minute of every day. They watch and learn. At this time in which so many in our schools are burdened with the crashing waves of demands for change, it could be refreshing to be talking about values and behaviors, ways to help each other and help our students. These are all things we can do. It doesn’t cost money nor does it take much time. Let’s think about flipping the tone and focus of our work toward the future. As our current leadership works to develop their own capacities, let’s work at developing leaders for the future. They are sitting in our classrooms right now.

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.