Education Opinion

Learn From Mistakes and Lead Forward

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — November 24, 2013 4 min read
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Leaders do need to be held to a high standard of behavior. Simultaneously, our current culture seems to those seek those worthy of admiration and take delight in revelations of their flaws and weaknesses. Yet, there is no possible way for any human being to be perfect. And so, to even use the phrase ‘flawed’ is curious. Who among us isn’t flawed? So, where, truly, is the bar set and by whom?

In a recent New York Times article Adam Clymer reflected on the changing views of JFK, “In general, the picture has evolved from a charismatic young president who inspired youths around the world to a deeply flawed one whose oratory outstripped his accomplishments.” Along with the 50th anniversary of the tragic assassination of JFK, the analyses of his life and ongoing curiosity about his death are all over the media. For now, his charisma and inspiration are being diminished as people opine about whether his accomplishments are worthy of celebration. Why can’t both be true? And why is it important to think of it in this dual, either/or way?

We do want to hold our leaders to a higher standard. Leaders have power over us and have a responsibility to use it in a moral and reasonable way. That is our ideal. Thus unfolds our expectation of a higher level of behavior. But this elevation and diminishment is not held only for our political leaders, it is done with school leaders at all levels. So what is our difficulty and from where might it stem?

‘If I knew then what I know now’ is a phrase most of us likely have used at one time or another. It reveals our ability to learn something new and reflect on past action. We are learning from our experiences all the time. Some come to this process naturally and walk the path of leadership without mistake... or at least visible ones. Others stumble and fall, awkwardly sometimes. And among them are those who learn to make changes in their practice until they can make the path clear. Others do not learn. We have all served leaders who at one time or another failed to meet the standard we set for them. They disappointed us. But, it may be those who have fallen from whom we can learn the most.

Think of the drama in Washington these days. Resistance toward any movement forward by the POTUS abounds. But it must also be acknowledged that there are things happening under his leadership that reveal problems within his administration. In this case, because the two dynamics have come together in a storm of polarization, the leadership of the nation is being deeply hampered. Can he not know about spying by NSA and health care system problems? Would we be allowed not to know on such big issues in our schools or districts? The Senate eliminates the filibuster and the press is further limited in terms of its access to Presidential activities. For leaders, power and popularity count. They give us latitude. And, while all this is happening we should remember that Obama...

...was the first president to crack 51 percent two elections in a row since Dwight Eisenhower more than a half-century ago....So no matter how you slice or dice the election results, this was not a close race. It wasn’t a landslide, but it wasn’t a coin flip. The voters selected Obama and his vision over Romney and his, and they did it decisively. (Schlesinger, 2013)

What do these examples have to do with leadership in education? It struck us as curious that the thought arising about JFK is that he was "...deeply flawed... whose oratory outstripped his accomplishments.” The hope that his speeches inspired is the same hope some felt from Obama’s earlier speeches. This is a key. We follow hope. It is uplifting and we look for the capacity in our leaders to arouse hope. But, then something happens. Hope is hard to sustain.

Francis Hesselbein writes, “The leader for today and the future will be focused on how to be - how to develop quality, character, mind-set, values, principles, and courage” (p.8). Perhaps herein lies the answer. We yearn for our leaders to have these qualities and we strive to develop them in ourselves. But as we go along the human journey of development, one in which we continue to grow, those we follow do the same and they reveal their humanness.

JFK was brave enough to ask us to make him our leader. He gave the nation hope and set us up for the successful civil rights legislation. He was also a flawed human being who made mistakes, both personally, and in judgments he made as leader. Do we diminish the good one does by over weighting the mistakes one makes? Or do we honor the successes and learn from their and our mistakes? The choice is an important one.

Hesselbein reflects, “When we listen to the spirit within, when we are called to lead - as all effective leaders are- we are leaders of change, not the protectors and perpetuators of a cherished, honored past” (p.49). Most certainly these are times of change in our schools and in the world. How we choose to be, how we choose to lead is the essential core of our potential success. Again, Hesselbein...

...I believe even more passionately in the whys: the values, the principles, the beliefs that define who we are, what we believe, what we do, and how we work with others, our fellow travelers on a shared journey to leadership in an uncertain world (p.5).

It is easy to get lost and focus on the perceived failure of our leaders. It is hard to forgive ourselves when we are those leaders who have made the mistake or fallen to the ground in humility. But it can and does happen to most of us at some point. The goal is to learn and get back up with generosity of spirit and lead on.

Hesselbein, Francis (2002). Hesselbein on Leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass

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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.