School & District Management Opinion

Moral Leadership: What Would Your 5 Minute Speech Be?

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — October 03, 2017 2 min read
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His title is superintendent. He assumed that role in August. His academic community is the Air Force Academy. Racist slurs were written on bulletin boards outside the dorm rooms of five black cadets at the prep school. He convened the faculty and staff with cadets from the prep school and the academy. All stood to hear his five minute message. It was clear and direct. “Treat each other with dignity and respect or get out”. Meet Lt. Gen. Jay Silveria.

Back in the 1990’s, New York State had a Commissioner of Education who thought we should model educational leadership programs after the military. Educators, of course, pushed back. Today, we think of him and admit that at least this one military leader has it right. We have known that the racial issues fermenting around the nation would seep into our schools and we have written about getting ready for that. Then, the first example comes and it is at the Air Force Academy. One might think we wouldn’t even hear of it but, instead, the video went viral and hit the news. Rather than try to keep it quiet, Silveria asked the cadets to record it so they wouldn’t forget. The value based message wasn’t tentative nor half-hearted. He told the gathering that they should be “outraged”. He reminded them that small ideas and horrific thinking needs to be replaced by a better idea. Every person in the room knew where their new leader stands. Now, that’s leadership.

Today, prdaily took his message a step farther. Author Brad Phillips analyzed it as a speech and found it compelling on that front as well. He describes five characteristics that make it a stand out. They are

  • The message was unambiguous.
  • He closed strong with his tone and body language matching his message.
  • He used the collective power of the group by convening everyone and identifying the other leaders and faculty and coaches. He purposefully claimed the power of the diversity of the 5,500 people in the room. And, he called out the power of “moral courage together”.
  • He demanded action and made the cadets participants. “Take out your cell phones” so you don’t forget.
  • He avoided political landmines even though he mentioned Charlottesville and the NFL.
  • His physical delivery emphasized his connection with the audience. Using notes, he used the “see, stop, say” technique making eye contact when he was speaking.

We are confident that everyone in that room left with certainty about the man and his values. Everyone was reminded that those were the values he expected to see from them as well. That served the cadets well and the faculty, too. All this in just five minutes. The moment came and he seized it. Our guess is that it was a moment when he knew what he had to do, all advice and political caution aside. Then, he did it.

We suggest that you take five minutes and watch it. And, at the end of the day, we ask you to consider what your five minute speech would be. What incident will call it forth? Who will you gather to hear the message? Where will you stand?

Ann Myers and Jill Berkowicz are the authors of The STEM Shift (2015, Corwin) a book about leading the shift into 21st century schools. Ann and Jill welcome connecting through Twitter & Email.

Photo:U.S. Air Force (Lieutenant General Jay B. Silveria) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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.