Bestowing worship on something, or someone, identifying the sacred and creating ritual around it in community is an ancient and culturally universal human phenomenon. Groups and institutions have formed around this. We, as human beings, have a tendency to connect with the transcendent or to elevate certain ones among us as the linchpin between us and a bigger power. It is an age-old societal reality.
Heroes are part of human history. We find them in the earliest stories. They rise when we need them. Like fire and light, we gather around them. Myths take shape and are passed through generations. They strengthen, inspire, or warn.
Do We Anoint Heroes?
What does this have to do with school leadership? Well, we think a lot. Schools may not be reflecting the needs of the economy and society in regard to some things like how teaching and learning take place, how technology is used, how subjects are organized, standards are applied, or assessments are developed, but they do reflect society’s hunger for heroes. Just like the world outside of schools, where athletes, movie stars, authors, and rock stars have fans and followers, educators choose their own rock stars to revere.
For the general public and for educators, there is joy and danger in reverence. It means placing someone else above us. They may seem more talented or more knowledgeable but the societal habit of placing someone who may have certain knowledge or talent above us creates an unintended consequence. The skills and talents of the rest of the population lingers behind along the sidelines. We know how detrimental it is to lose the capacity within every person. Leaders are not mythological heroes. In fact they become heroic for doing exactly the opposite of a superhero. They are models for empowering learners, learning from one another, sharing leadership, and listening to all voices and, yes, protecting children. The advantage of this type of leadership is the capacity it builds. But it runs counter to an age-old human habit of hero worship.
In his book Myths to Live By, Joseph Campbell wrote about Nietzche’s naming the Age of Comparisons. In the early 1970’s when Campbell’s book was published, he described the dissolution of horizons and collisions of peoples and their mythologies.
...we are experiencing a new birth...a totally new condition of mankind to which no one anywhere alive today can say that he has the key, the answer, the prophecy, to its dawn. Nor is there anyone to condemn here (p.263).
As a society we have not been able to settle into this new reality. We still believe there are those who hold the key, the answer. We still elevate those who we perceive are the holders of the answer. And, as in society, should those keyholders stumble, or should we change our view of them, they can be diminished, disrespected and pushed aside. Because, simultaneously, we preserve the desire to find the one we can condemn...don’t we?
Is it Impossible?
In a society that elevates human beings into a revered status and gathers around them as followers, and then, if disappointed, condemns them, how can leaders manage to change the way answers are found, and their messengers are treated? If the one with the answer comes from outside of the organization, often the revered messenger is welcomed by reputation and relationships have no chance for developing. They enjoy an elevated status that leaves those elevating him or her in a diminished status. If it is those who feel diminished are those who are asked to consider letting go of past practice and take risks moving forward, the diminished status is not fuel, it is drag.
Schools and the educators who work in them are striving to anticipate the world in which students will live in the future. The creative tension between what we are doing now and what we need to do if students are well prepared offers hope. If we can hold that tension it will cause us to change. But, there is no room in this work for those who aspire to be heroes or rock stars. System change cannot be dependent upon one person, no matter how great that person may seem. It is the work of all. It is the sharing of the dream and of the work that builds the community of change, not the passive wait for someone to rescue us. Change is sustained only if all have an investment.
Our society may choose to hold to heroism and follow those who promise much. But, beware if we buy into that role, it is certain there will be those on the sidelines waiting to take away the crown when the hero slips, or doesn’t make the mark. Sure, some communities may have found a hero they could elevate for decades. Buildings are named after them. But, for most of us, we won’t be heroes in a mythical sense. What we can do is give it our all, act with integrity and stand up when necessary. We can be simple good human beings who are called to lead and do so with conviction and compassion. We can share what we are given and ask for help to achieve what is needed. We can be truthful and trustworthy. We can learn and grow with others. And we can use any small element of superhero attribute we have remembering those we serve.
As schools are led through change, we cannot afford to leave anyone behind. There are good ideas, concerns, worries, and visions that live within each school and within faculty, staff, student and community. “Experts” brought in to share new ideas can be recognized as messengers. In an environment that has been cultivated to allow for listening to all voices, where risks are encouraged, and opinions are shared respectfully, pedestals have no place. Without pedestals, one cannot fall but all can be raised up.
Campbell, J. (1972). Myths to Live By. New York: Bantam Books
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