The call to lead requires those who are willing to sail into uncharted waters. This particular moment calls for exquisite leaders, those who know the depth and breadth of the need, who have been gifted (or cursed) with a vision of what might be and who are inspired enough for others to follow by choice.
As a nation, Americans are a hopeful people. It comes from our roots and explains why immigrants still come here. We are the land of opportunity. Our schools are critically linked to this national identity. Schools create hopeful futures. Yes, our success is measured now by performance on tests but our work is the future. Policy makers fear that we have or will fail. This fear has defined our current reality. They call upon us to restore the competitive edge for the nation. It may not be fair but it is fact.
Rick Hess, in his new book Cage-Busting Leadership, describes present leadership as being like Sisyphus, rolling a boulder up a mountain for eternity. “You take a leadership job full of hope and big-picture vision, and then are suddenly swamped wooing community players, stamping out fires, answering e-mails, dealing with irate parents, or running from meeting to meeting. Before you know it, you’re working long days, every day, just to keep things from blowing up. The result is a loss of focus, a tendency to fall back on “more, better” strategies, and a lack of time or energy for precise, creative, empathetic problem-solving” (p. 209). This is not leadership. This may not even allow for excellent management. It certainly will not lead to systemic change. And it is rarely ever connected to the heart of the leader.
So, let’s consider the relationship between heart and leaders and leadership. Let’s go to the source. The root of the word courage from both its French and Latin origins is the word that means heart. There are seldom courses or meetings in which leaders discuss the growth of the heart or evidence of leading by heart.
We propose another source. Ask a child what is in their heart and you will likely hear a combination of facts, feelings and fantasy. Ask an adult and you will likely hear what they know or think. Let us restore ourselves by learning from the children. And let’s not be complicate in leading educational systems where children lose heart. Let’s instead lead systems where the hearts of the children, their clarity and confidence and simple goodness lead us. Then we will always remember who and what we serve.
Heart is the place where we integrate intellect with emotion, imagination and intuition. It is where we discover the passion and power of wholeheartedness and the pain and suffering of being broken hearted. In the difference, we find the source for action or for despair. We see many of our colleagues despairing and we understand it. But leaders cannot wallow there for long. We have little time for despair, if we truly want to be leaders. We must become wholehearted leaders who acknowledge that others are broken hearted and are suffering from loss and fatigue.
Yet, leadership requires that we bring them along. Like Pi on the island, that which has sustained us and given us life, will in darkness kill our hearts if we stay too long. We must keep moving on, tiger and all. Knowledge alone, even paired with skill and power, will not build followership. If only policy makers understood this. Those will get us compliance at the lowest and loyalty at the highest. No ingenuity is offered, no creative genius appears, no risk taking happens.
Those only are offered when the leader’s heart is visible. For then, true followership will emerge. Leadership is an empty word without followership. It is in that relationship where insight is revealed, wisdom grows and courage is abundant. Hope holds light against despair. Each leader lives now in the tension between loss and possibility, between what is and what might be, between the terrain we know and the unknown. While we hold that tension in truth and with honesty, we ask others to follow us, to trust us, to let go of the island.
Your vocabulary needs to expand as your heart takes center stage. Heartfelt leaders will inspire everyone else to endure this year and the next, and will cause them to be courageous as they take risks and do things newly. The fearful, the cynical and the merely compliant ought not to be in leadership roles. They need to step aside. The moment is too critical and the stakes are too high.
There is a shore across the sea if we believe it. The vision that we can serve all children well cannot be lost. We cannot let their hearts despair. Pi did make it to Mexico and the tiger got there too. Consider this poem by William Ayot.
A word from the led
And in the end we follow them -
not because we are paid,
not because we might see some advantage,
not because of the things they have accomplished,
not even because of the dreams they dream
but simply because of who they are:
the man, the woman, the leader, the boss,
standing up there when the wave hits the rock,
passing out faith and confidence like life jackets,
knowing the currents, holding the doubts,
imagining the delights and terrors of every landfall;
captain, pirate, and parent by turns,
the bearer of our countless hopes and expectations.
We give them our trust. We give them our effort.
What we ask in return is that they stay true.
Hess, Fredrick M. (2013). Cage-Busting Leadership. Cambridge: Harvard Education Press.
Martel, Yann. (2001). Life of Pi.Random House of Canada
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