School Climate & Safety Opinion

Leadership Lessons From University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — November 15, 2015 4 min read
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It appears, that former University of Missouri System President Tim Wolfe ignored reports of an unsafe and unfair racist environment growing within his community. Was it a failure to listen to the members of his community or the failure to give the message the importance it demanded? Whichever error he made, it cost him his job. We do not know what was in his heart, but we do know that he failed to appreciate the cost others were paying for his lack of active response. How many times have you, as leaders or teachers, heard from a person or a group that they were upset about one thing or another? And how many times have you dismissed it? In the hurried worlds of leading and teaching, it is an easy to make a mistake in judgment. But what you do when the high stakes are revealed is also important. Did he have a moment when he could have changed course and chose not to do so? If so, that decision came with a high cost.

In Reframing Organizations, Bolman and Deal refer to four important moral principles: mutuality, generality, openness and caring.

Mutuality...all parties to a relationship operating under the same understanding about the rules of the game...

Generality...a specific action follows a principle of moral conduct applicable to comparable situations...

Openness...a willingness to make our thinking and decisions public and confrontable...

Caring...this action show concern for the legitimate interests and feelings of others (pp. 226-227).

If Tim Wolfe had stepped into the deep pool of these four principles, it would have helped his community. There are high stakes associated with missing the opportunity to listen carefully to what you don’t want to hear, especially if the message is coming from someone you consider unimportant or wrong. In his op-ed piece in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof wrote:

The protesters at Mizzou and Yale and elsewhere make a legitimate point: Universities should work harder to make all students feel they are safe and belong. Members of minorities -- whether black or transgender or (on many campuses) evangelical conservatives -- should be able to feel a part of campus, not feel mocked in their own community.

Accountability and responsibility are high on the awareness meters of people these days. Teachers and students called for Tim Wolfe’s resignation. In his too little, too late speech, the Atlantic.com reported he said,

The frustration and anger that I see is clear, real, and I don’t doubt it for a second,” Wolfe said at a press conference announcing his resignation. “I take full responsibility for this frustration and for the inaction that has occurred ... My resignation comes out of love, not hate.

This was a leadership moment for Mizzou and we can all learn from it. The person entering the immediate leadership vacuum, and the one ultimately chosen to lead the organization in the future, must be different. The culture of the now disrupted school requires a new kind of leader who will ensure an environment in which all students feel safe and respected ... professors as well.

How Does This Translate To K-12 Leaders?
We are experiencing a surge of public interest in education. It is the result of the attention to the common-core, to the impact of standardized testing, and to conduct and discipline. The more people in the conversation, the more perspectives present. Many may be in agreement with us and others may not. The key to Tim Wolfe’s failure and the failure of some school leaders is in not listening well and in not discerning well about the truth being spoken. It is the moral principles and moral courage that prepare a leader for this kind of listening and action.

The Mizzou story can be a reminder to all leaders that the care of any organization, whether a business, the k-12 system, or a higher education institution, ultimately rests on the moral principles of those in charge. Serving the school community is central to the work of educational leaders, certainly. James Macgregor Burns, author of the seminal book entitled Leadership refers to,

The search for wholeness--that is, for this kind of full, sharing, feeling relationship -between “teachers” and “students,” between leaders and followers, must be more than merely a personal or self-regarding quest. Fully sharing leaders perceive their roles as shaping the future to the advantage of group with which they identify, an advantage they define in terms of the broadest possible goals and the highest possible levels of morality (Burns. p.448).

If we step back for a moment this weekend, and ask ourselves the questions

  • Is my relationship with the community I serve a full, sharing, feeling one?
  • Am I missing something by listening carefully to those with loud voices at the table and not to those with smaller voices on the fringe?
  • Are there issues festering or simmering here, while my attention is elsewhere?
  • Are my moral principles driving my actions and leading my community?

The Mizzou community is hurting as a result of Tim Wolfe’s inaction. So, let’s learn the lesson. Rushworth Kidder writes

Leaders must have the candor to speak and hear the truth, the purpose to pursue lofty goals, the will to inspire hope and spirit, the rigor to invent new optimism and the risk to be able to empower, commit and invest in relationships (Kidder, p. 236).

He suggests that honesty, responsibility, respect, fairness and compassion are required. So, when we sense percolation of an issue in our community, let’s pause while we have the time and examine our inner compass. Otherwise, it might be too late for us and for our communites.

Bolman, L.G. & Deal, T.E. (2008). Reframing Organizations. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass
Burns, J. M. (1978) Leadership. New York: Harper Collins Publishers
Kidder, Rushworth M. (2006) Moral Courage. New York: Harper Collins Publishers.
Lax, D.A., and Sebenius, J.K. (1986) The Manager as Negotiator. New York: Free Press

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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.