School & District Management Opinion

Leaders, Listen to the Opposition

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — May 21, 2017 4 min read
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The country is reeling from the daily release of information about the potential actions and decisions of those in the Trump campaign. That is inflamed by the choices the President himself is making around those issues. The media has provided a continuous flow of fact, opinion and speculation on a 24-hour basis. It is exhausting and essential all at once. At times, it seems best just to turn it all off. But, then one thinks, ‘what will I be missing in the unfolding story?’.

On Thursday morning, May 18, 2017, a rare thing happened. Amidst the swirling energy, a familiar voice took an unfamiliar positon. It was Mike Barnicle, an American print and broadcast journalist, a social and political commentator and senior contributor on MSNBC’s Morning Joe. He said that we need to be thinking and caring about the feelings of the 40% of our nation’s population who support President Trump. The wisdom contained in his remark for leaders didn’t grab anyone’s attention on the set. But, it got ours. Though his thoughts and words were skipped over by others on the show at that moment, for us, it was a most important leadership insight.

Perhaps this failure has a longer history than the last campaign cycle. During the past 8 years as the country forged ahead with a more liberal agenda, we wonder if the inattention began then. While many were enthralled with the actions supporting women’s rights, gay rights, civil rights, education, and health care, there were others who were feeling increasingly overlooked. Ferment simmered. Ignoring those who were not happy about these left leaning changes gave rise to a hostility that galvanized a group of anti-establishment voters. It is understandable. When the country is not going in the direction in which you believe it should, and you believe it is because of ‘the establishment’, the next action is to tackle the establishment, itself. So, here we are, living a scenario of daily disruptions, reversals, and drama, wondering who is being served and who is benefiting.

School Leadership: Listen to All

In a national poll approximately 40% of voters still support President Trump. Yes, his motives and decisions are being questioned and investigated and special counsel has been appointed. Yet, loyalty and, we concede, hope among his followers persists. These are those who think the issues of government leaks is more significant than Russia’s meddling in the election. But, there it is again. That center stage dynamic of framing things as either/or or right and left. The truth as we see it is that both are important.

Leaders who see the big picture are forced into the difficult place of not choosing sides. Their roles often demand they hold two truths that others perceive to be competing and find a way to move both forward. The key here is not to lose 40% of the nation or 40% of those in a school building, district, or community. 40% is not insignificant. By forging ahead with 51% for a positive budget vote, or a capital project or change curriculum, or schedules, or bus routes, while it may be legal and necessary, leaves 49% behind. Any public leader who survives and serves the school or district will struggle to stay connected to the minority while moving an agenda forward. Isn’t it intriguing how the feeling of disconnection and disregard develops like a geometrical progression as growing numbers become disenchanted and alienated? Ah, it is the greatest skill of the leader that matters ....the ability and willingness to listen to all.

Build Organizational Capacity

While observing the damage this type of behavior has had on the citizens of our nation, it is a good time to think about how it plays out at home. How are people addressed and included when decisions are being made? How many decisions are made that leave dissenters behind? Think it takes too much time and energy to pay attention to those who are not supportive of you or your decisions? How much time does it take to deal with the aftermath when their dissatisfaction translates into behaviors? In a faculty when a change is made and not everyone was on board, doesn’t it take time and energy to address the opposition of the unhappy ones? In a community when a decision to change bus routes is made, doesn’t it take time and energy to deal with the unhappy ones? Rather than acting in response to negativity after the fact, why not invest in the people being affected by the decision ahead of time? Why not build capacity by investing in people before they feel unheard and marginalized?

Faculty and staff, parents and community members all affect the emotional environment in which students spend their days. Those unhappy with the school, the leader, the decisions contribute to a culture that does little to encourage children to engage in learning. When the adults are not engaged in contributing to the school community, the children pay a price.

So the awakening lesson from Mike Barnicle is an important one. Watch the voices of the hurt and angry ones who were ignored and who have risen as anti-establishment voices and remember it is only an exaggeration of the reality that can take place in school districts. Decide where time and energy is best spent. Forward motion requires continuity. It can’t happen if the politics of the land or of the district or school become a pendulum, swinging back and forth between the shifting majorities. When the negativity and opposition rises, leaders need to become listeners. It is the only way forward without losing ground.

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Connect with Ann and Jill on Twitter or Email.

Photo by gajus courtesy of 123rf

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.