School & District Management Opinion

Leading From Courage or Fear

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — April 22, 2013 3 min read
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When a Crisis Happens Do You Run Toward It or Away From It?
The two most recent acts of violence in New England...one at Newtown and one in Boston...frame an important question for us. When the crisis happens, do you run toward it or away from it? Is your innate reaction to enter and help or run to safety? The latter is perhaps the most understandable reaction. The former is a choice that has been modeled for us in New England.

When the shooter entered Sandy Hook Elementary School, he was confronted by the principal, Dawn Hochsprung, and psychologist, Mary Sherlach, who ran toward him to stop his progress into the building. They were the first killed at the school. Their reaction was instinctual, to protect the children. Their actions were reported to have alerted the school and saved staff and children but the cost was extremely high.

Last Monday, at the Boston Marathon, the bombs had no more than exploded before stories of those who ran into the melee were being recorded. Carlos Arredondo, the man with the cowboy hat, holding an artery as an injured man in a wheelchair was rushed to care, is one image. Another is the woman who ran, without knowing how she could help, into the mass of injured and ended up holding the head of Jane Richard whose leg was shattered, while medical personnel attended her bleeding. The child turned out to be the sister of Martin Richard, the 8-year-old boy who was killed. Jane Richard has lost her leg. There were many other examples over the last week.

First responders and military personnel are trained to do this but what about the civilians and the educators? We are so fortunate that there are those among us for whom this is a natural inclination. The actions at Newtown were acts of courage and commitment. The actions in Boston were acts of courage and of compassion. We wonder what we would do. It is a question about how our brains and hearts ...and yes, even our physical bodies... perform in crisis. It is also about who we are at our core. Clearly, in certain circumstances, there are some of us in whom shock, panic and fear recede in a nanosecond so that movement into the fray can happen.

We are grateful for them in our midst, just as we are grateful for those who chose to be first responders. As educational leaders, we hope that more of those special ones are in our schools and in our lives. We commit to helping them grow and hope they become our leaders. But do we do that? We are in the extraordinary position of being able to make a difference in how our students may grow into courageous leaders. They watch and learn from how we demonstrate our compassion during a crisis, our courage, our decisions to act or not, during these unprecedented times of increasingly dangerous events. Our actions, our choices to run toward or away from handling a crisis, whether it means helping our schools understand and maneuver through a crisis happening somewhere else, or how we handle a crisis happening right in our own schools, how we respond informs our students. If we don’t act with courageous compassion, we are missing an opportunity to provide our students with models and we are limiting their chances to grow into those leaders we hope they can be.

Last week was also marked by a significant vote on gun control in the US Senate. The argument was made that background checks unduly limit our second amendment rights. It was true that Senators were under extreme pressure from the NRA lobby to vote down the bill. It is also true that the President of the United States and Newtown parents urged its passage. But the parents have little money to offer for 2014, the next time Senators will be up for reelection. This is not true for the NRA. The majority of Americans favored the bill but lobbyists are powerful and this is one more time where that was evident. Some acted with courage, commitment and compassion and were ready to step into the crisis about guns in America but the majority of the Senate ran away from the moment.

Each of us can act with courage or act from fear. That choice takes us in different directions. Each of us can be motivated by self-interest or selflessness. In a real crisis, all will be able to tell the difference between our fundamental motives. Last week provided us with models of both.

Ann and Jill welcome your Tweets

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.