Education Opinion

What Can We Learn From Captain Ron Johnson?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — August 26, 2014 3 min read
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What does Captain Ron Johnson have that makes a difference each time we see him? Amidst the chaos in Ferguson, he is poised, warm, and sincere. He speaks with confidence. He is part of the community and talks as “one of us.” One can conclude, simply by watching him, that his actions are heartfelt and genuine. From our television screens, he has invited our confidence in him and generated trust for him.

Compassion, Empathy, and Courage
Often during these past days, he has stepped forward to offer compassion and empathy to a community that is brewing with despair. Then, others are sent to the front and it seems he has stepped back. But, when he reappears, he makes no comment about why leadership was passed to another. He simply returns with his reassuring and empathetic listening and speaking. Who has more courage? Those who decide to act with guns and armored vehicles or those who walk among the angry crowd? Atticus Finch knew the answer. Here he tells Scout:

First of all, if you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view...until you climb into his skin and walk around (p.39).

The Crisis in Ferguson Holds Similarities To Ours
Watching the events unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri, the people, the actions and reactions, we find a metaphor for our current educational landscape. We do not know Captain Ron Johnson except for his appearance on our television screens. But we do know he offers important lessons in leadership for us all.

We are still reading about the “Common Core Wars” and the “Standardized Testing Wars.” While they continue to bubble, leaders in the schools are charged with implementing both. So the question becomes who is our best model - Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson or Captain Ron Johnson? The answer is clear but, in a rush to comply, some have become more like Chief Jackson - not because they or he are heartless, but perhaps because they are simply fearful of not getting it done. True, there are deadlines to meet, but “on the ground” in our schools, simply shoving things into place can have long-term deleterious effects. We will have met the deadline and lost some of the most important aspects of our schools. Our environment will turn to one of compliance and fear. Neither are good for innovation and risk taking and progress. Both can become lasting legacies we want no part of.

The Blurred Line
If we consider a hasty implementation one of simply following protocol, we might consider an example. Were the police following protocol when they arrested Hedy Epstein, a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor for taking part in a sit-in in Ferguson? If so, was it really necessary to place her in handcuffs behind her back? Fine lines exist everywhere and if it is protocol and those officers failed to follow it, and common sense trumped protocol, then what? Does that begin a slippery slope of personal judgment and the rules negotiated at every turn? When attempting to do what is required by mandate or law, with compassion and empathy, sometimes lines are blurry. At that blurred line, much is at stake.

Leadership Questions and Leadership Defined
In order to lead well in these times, certain leadership attributes and behaviors may be more essential than ever. Captain Ron Johnson’s model is one that informs. It is a quick study, albeit an important one. His successful behaviors offer us a set of questions to ask ourselves in the tumult that has become our educational frontier are:

  • Are we poised, warm, and sincere?
  • Do we listen carefully?
  • Do we speak with confidence?
  • Are we viewed as “one of us?”
  • Are we compassionate and empathetic and are we viewed as so?
  • Do we blame others or take responsibility?
  • Are we found walking among our people?

In 2002, Tom Sobol, former Commissioner of Education in the State of New York, gave a speech at the Future School Administrators Academy in New York. In that speech he defined leadership as:

  • a function, not a trait
  • contextual
  • takes many forms
  • connects people with a shared vision
  • understands and respects the work
  • cares about the followers as well as the cause
  • moral
  • about ideas
  • begins with ourselves
  • creates a lasting culture (pp. 205-211)

Commissioner Tom Sobol’s words offer wisdom and Captain Ron Johnson’s actions provide a model to study for leadership in crisis. And we know that, though our crises may not be the same, we can surely use wisdom and models nevertheless.

Lee, Harper (1960). To Kill a Mockingbird. New York: Hachette Book Group
Sobol, Tom (2013). My Life in School. New York: Public Schools of Tomorrow
Principal. (March/April 2008) NAESP School Culture, School Climate: They Are Not The Same Thing (pp.56-59).

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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.