School & District Management Opinion

Bringing Humanity to Active Leadership

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — February 09, 2016 4 min read
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In our research and our life experiences we have met, known, and read about remarkable leaders. One such leader, a college president, reported that his roots informed him of who he was and how he led. His values and expectations were connected to the way he was raised in a poor, religious family. They were his ethical and moral “bones.” His understanding of himself and his ability to be reflective and empathetic served him well, even in failure.

When asked about a time when, upon reflection, he might have handled a situation differently, he sat quietly. A few second passed before he looked up and said, “The way I tried to lead the implementation of technology into the college.” It was a classic mismatch between what he saw as he looked forward and where his organization stood in the present. He saw technology as imperative, maybe even defining, for the future and of immense value to his community. But, the members of his community were not there yet. So, he confronted strong resistance and he had to step back. He understood the reason for the resistance and, being true to himself and his values, was empathetic in formulating his response. He regrouped. The move forward was slower than he had hoped for. But, his capacity to recognize his own failure allowed that movement to go on. He had unintentionally miscalculated the human element... the readiness of his people. He took responsibility for not getting it off the ground in round one, but did not give up. He carefully created a clearer understanding of where his organization stood, and then could determine more successfully how he needed to help them to see what he saw as the future. It worked on the second attempt. He had learned a leader’s lesson.

To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” These words spring from the 16th and 17th centuries that William Shakespeare’s life spanned. His words are as true today as they were then; although we prefer adding “or woman” to the quote. What does it mean to “not be false to any man by being true to one’s self?” And how to do it while juggling all of these roles?

Take change as an example. Educational leaders are attempting to see beyond the demands of the moment and anticipate a largely undefined future work environment as they prepare students to be college and career ready. This is not simply a matter of asking for or demanding professional changes... from paper to digital, from e-mail and phone calls to Tweets and Facebook, from lecture to project-based learning, from separate subjects to inter- or trans-disciplinary teaching and learning, from isolation to collaboration and everything being public.

Our college president colleague encountered the emotional toll change provokes. Change, even when welcomed, is preceded or accompanied by letting go. Two risks surface. One is letting go of what has become a comfortable and successful practice. The other is taking the leap into territory unexplored and unproven. Asking others to change without acknowledging and preparing for the toll it takes separates the leaders who can only enforce and seek compliance with those who can encourage and enlist those who are willing to follow.

It is the leader who understands, on a deep personal level, what change asks of a person and who can operate off of that personal understanding who can engender trust. That was the difference between our friend’s failed attempt and the slower but more successful second attempt. He overcame resistance and resentment by becoming a sense maker as he invited the organization to accompany him on the change journey.

The Power of Being Human
In an interview with Krista Tippett, Martin Sheen reflected on his role as President Bartlett on the television show, the West Wing. He said,

The most important thing was to project the humanity of that office. Whoever occupied it had a responsibility to be more human than anyone else around him...and to trust the instinct to of your humanness, to embrace all of the brokenness and the insecurities and the fear and anxiety and to trust in something higher...That as long as you were doing your best to be honest and forthright that you would come out on even ground.

Those are powerful words. The courage to “trust the instinct of your humanness” and to “trust in something higher.” These are not abilities gained in professional development sessions. These abilities are developed on a deeply personal lifelong journey. Each one of us on our own path. Our “something higher” is remembering our work is for children and making their 13 years with us a contribution to their personhood. We are truly ‘in loco parentis’. Our work, our calling, is to raise a generation of children into a literate adulthood, with the values we shared and modeled. That is important work and calls for us to lead with all of our humanity.

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Illustration courtesy of Pixabay

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.