Education Opinion

We Need ‘A Little Bit of Mandela’ in Every Leader

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — December 08, 2013 6 min read
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The world is in mourning at the loss of Nelson Mandela. From presidents to poets to musicians, along with those who still seek the freedom for which he fought, everyone is expressing respect for the man who walked the path from prison to president.

We cannot help but add our small voice to this outpouring. His extraordinary ability to retain humility and humanity allowed him to become a world moral leader. His capacity to forgive led to the reconciliation of a divided nation. His unfailing hope, even in days dark and isolated, helped him overcome his own fears and inspired others to become hopeful and the world changed.

Most of us will never be so great but all of us can be ‘a little bit Mandela.’ Those of us who choose to lead in education know the calling to make a difference in the world. We have followed it and made it our own. Most of us will not be asked to sacrifice as he did nor will the differences we make be as large. The passion for freedom defined his life and his purpose to end apartheid became the path. We, too, know about passion and purpose, even though some days we get distracted by the small and ever-present details of the business.

Maya Angelou’s tribute:

As we look at the photos and tributes that fill the media this week, we find ourselves touched by Mandela’s compelling smile. And we paused for a moment. We thought of passion and purpose and a smile of that sort and our minds drifted to a principal Ann knew well. The inner light of Mandela’s smile was in hers, too. She was the leader of a small elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut when she entered the Educational Leadership Doctoral Program at the Esteves School of Education at the Sage Colleges and Ann met her. When she entered your life, you could not help but know you were in the presence of someone special. You were soon witness to her abundant energy, her open heart, and her clarity of purpose. Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung was an educator at her core. She spoke about her school with excitement and commitment. She meant for its excellence to be apparent in every child. Dawn was joyful and brought that joy into her school. She found in those with whom she worked, especially the little ones, worthy companions on her journey to make the journey abundant. She shared family stories and asked the tough questions. She believed that kindness matters.

Little did we know then that her life would end so soon and so tragically. It also ended courageously as she tried to protect that school community and those children she lead and loved and served. Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung had a Mandela smile...her own ‘little bit of Mandela.’

This week is the first anniversary of the Sandy Hook school shootings. As we watch this week of mourning for Mandela unfold, so, too, will we be remembering the tragedy that unfolded in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012. And with the families and loved ones of those whose lives were lost that day, we pause and commit to never forgetting. In a highly evolved nation, we want our schools to be safe places and, above all, we aspire to an integrated, inclusive, embracing nation where children can grow safely into adulthood, held and loved and valued for the unique gift each one brings.

When shots were heard that early December morning, Dawn was in her office participating in a meeting. It was an ordinary day and she was living her life as any one of us might be on any day. But, those sounds changed it all. Dawn and a trusted colleague ran into the hallway. They saw the gunman. And, in seconds, made a decision that we hope no school leader ever has to make again. In life moments when there is no time for anything but reaction, our inner most places direct us. Who we are is wholly transparent, no filtering thoughts of consequences have time or space to influence the choice. Dawn rushed forward to protect those in her school. Those of us who knew her are not surprised.

Her passion and her purpose lived in that school, a threat to it had to be prevented. While she loved no one more than she did her family, this was her work. She was here for a reason known deeply to her. That day, as she tried to protect others, she lost her life, the first victim within the Sandy Hook school community. But, the button had been pushed and the emergency responders were on the way. The tragedy, and all of its horror, continued to play out over the next few minutes. As the shots and sirens became silent, the tears and silence came. That community, one year later, has chosen to build a new school on the Sandy Hook site and a proud football team held the victorious spirit alive. Life goes on and hope endures.

A BBC NEWS Africa article quotes Mandela as saying:

I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

On that cold December day, we learned Dawn had more than ‘a little bit of Mandala.’ As school leaders, we have not often thought about those ideals for which we would die. Dawn’s life brought her face to face with that question. Her answer is now her legacy. Kindness and violence are incompatible. This principal was somehow prepared for the ultimate sacrifice. She did not succeed in saving all the others and our hearts broke as the names and faces of the children and teachers entered homes across the country. What a sadness in our nation...

We think back to a 1910 Teddy Roosevelt speech, “Citizenship in a Republic.” In it he said

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself a worthy cause; who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly...

Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung was a woman in the arena. All who knew her attest to her valiant striving, abundant enthusiasm and great devotion to her calling. She, like so many other school leaders we know, experienced hard days. And each of us, every day, is called to dare greatly. It is the leader’s place we have chosen. To be courageous requires great heart and it calls us to withhold power from the hands of fear. There is so much fear around us now; we must be more courageous. Risk and courage coexist in the hearts and actions of the greatest among us. And whether leading a nation or a school, we are called to dare greatly, some days more than others.

For those like Nelson Mandela and Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung who set extraordinary examples for us, we are grateful. They spent themselves on worthy causes. Their smiles endure and inspire us still. If each of us could live and lead with our own ‘little bit of Mandala,’ how much could we change the world?

Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

NB: Ann Myers is the Founding Director of The Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung Center for the Promotion of Mental Health and School Safety.

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.