Education Opinion

The Price Leaders Pay

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — September 15, 2016 5 min read
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Leaders are extraordinary people. To be clear, we are talking about persons who choose to take the responsibility of leading and do so with integrity and with courage and with purpose, not those who have simply attained positions of power and authority. The difference is often revealed in moments. In schools, sometimes leaders can be found within those who step into that role when a crisis arises or who speak up when a wrong is being done or who become a champion for those who are without one.

The recent release of the movie, Sully presents a powerful example of the role of leader and what it takes (Note: we will not include any spoilers here). We all think we know the story of Chesley Sullenberger who flew commercial airplanes for 29 years before that fateful day in January 2009 when he took his US Airlines plane into the Hudson River. Then, in seconds, everything changed with a bird strike and failed technology. Experience and judgment were essential but his decisions were made based upon his commitment to save the 155 “souls” on board.

A Personal Price
As educators, aside from honing the skills needed to successfully complete the job, the potential for successful leadership rests in the commitments. What is it that drives our hearts and souls? Decisions that have to be made each and every day are made with skill and with concern for the students in their care. And when a crisis arises, be it big or small, it is the heart and soul of the leader that shines through, and in the best of circumstances, like happened for Sully, the leader is recognized and appreciated but not always right away.

One constant is the price paid by the leader. No matter the crisis, no matter how successfully people are led out of it, the leader pays a price. Sometimes, it is the price paid for holding and carrying the stress of the situation. Sometimes, it is the price paid physically when that stress builds. Sometimes, it is the scrutiny of others who second guess or the public who question the alternatives or what more could have been done or how much sooner an action taken would have lessened the crisis. But always the leader pays a price, one that, after the risks and acts of courage, pull at the heart and the soul. No true leader escapes a career untouched by these moments. They are an inescapable price paid by leaders.

The circumstances are uncountable. A bus accident, an armed intruder in the building, a suicide, a change that sparks vocal opposition from the faculty and staff, lead in the pipes at a school building, a hostile board meeting, the need to terminate a popular teacher, some are things that happen often and others, hopefully, never happen, but leading through crisis does happen. The leader, unlike others in the organization, often stands alone.

Like with Sully, there are others on the support team, but the decisions and the actions are those of the leader alone. It is the heart of the leader that aches and our thoughts wake us in the night. There is no escaping that. When complimented on his success, Sully said it wasn’t his success, it belonged to all of them, his co-pilot, the flight attendants, the passengers, and the responders. It is true. The success is one they all contributed to. Yet, they wouldn’t have had the opportunity without the leader making a never-been-done-before water landing. The crew and passengers had their own stress for sure but it was the leader who was last off the plane. The leader will think and act through the stress always remembering those for whom they have taken responsibility.

Not All Are Extreme But...
Of course, not all crises become this public or are a matter of life and death. But some degree of stress is part of the daily job for school leaders. No leader takes lightly the responsibility of keeping children safe while learning.The destination of achievement is important but so is the safety of the journey. The commitment to children is above all. How that truth informs the leader’s actions is as individual as how the stress plays out in their hearts, minds and bodies.The price will be paid.

Yes, it was the movie that called us to reflect on this silent reality of leadership. It is little is known or discussed outside of leadership circles. It is part of the invisible nature of a leader’s life. To talk about it implies we are not strong enough. Some moments do take us to our knees, in weakness or humility or exhaustion or gratitude. From those moments, we rise up stronger, knowing more about who we are and what we must do.

We wonder how much time leaders spend thinking about each decision. We know every...and any... action holds the potential for erupting on the public’s stage. In that moment, is it everything that came before that matters. How much time had been spent forging ahead with the community served, to bring minds and hearts together, in a coalition of trust? Sully’s team stood by him with trust as he maneuvered into the unknown action. They knew their roles and made the contribution of dong them well even as the crisis unfolded.

The ‘landing on the Hudson’ showed what people can do when their lives are in danger. The image of passengers standing on the wings waiting for rescue is a forever one. In schools, most of us will never lead through such an emergency landings. When it happens, as it did in Sandy Hook, the country is shaken to its core. For other places, like in Detroit, it is slow deterioration. In most places, it is the awful dilemma of the hard choice or the need to do the unpopular thing. Confidentiality prevents us so often from explaining our decisions and so we stand without offering defense. It is a hard stand to endure.

There are always examinations after the fact, accusations and questions thrown our way. Sometimes these cause the deepest wounds and leave the unhealed scars. Questions about intention, manner in which actions were taken, disappointments, fears, and plain opposition are voiced and answers are demanded. Not all things are done well and most things are examined after the fact. The leader’s work life is 24/7, always only a call away from a crisis.

In the End
There is no formula, no 5 steps to avoiding the affect of stress, no simple answer. Stress is part of leadership. Two things are true. One is that it is the responsibility of the leader to know him or herself well enough to mediate and act upon the incoming data before the crisis comes. The person who leads must stay ready. For some, this comes from talking to a confidential colleague, for others it is regular trips to the gym, for yet others, it is daily practice of a faith. The second truth is accepting that nothing complex can be done alone. Especially leading schools, the building of coalitions, good communication, and inclusiveness are all necessary. This is a century of change and leading change is part of the work. However, do not be fooled. Stress will be present and does seek to make a home within you. So knowing oneself and managing ones own wellbeing is the only way to remain a healthy leader upon whom others can rely.

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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.