School Climate & Safety Opinion

The Power of Transcending Differences

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — January 31, 2016 4 min read
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The success of leaders depends, maybe more now than ever, upon the ability to know one’s self, be one’s self, and stay true to the purpose that guides one’s life. If that ability can be paired with the ability to extend open minded and open hearted welcome to others, then break through moments can happen. For a few, these seem to be naturally occurring co-creative, innate gifts. They inspire us but we cannot depend on those with natural gifts, only.

Therefore, we have a responsibility to develop those gifts, in ourselves and others. We will have succeeded when we find responses to the demands for change in this century met with passionate and energetic leaders whose call to service and deep authenticity of word and action resonate within the hearts and minds of those who are following. A path toward action opens.

Otherwise, change will continue to occur as a response to demands with external genesis. They are set in motion without creativity and lack essential inclusiveness. They might yield compliance but seldom ignite passion. If we are to bring creativity, collaboration, communication and creative thinking into our classrooms, it must also be modeled and lived by the adults who lead the system. A vision shared by leaders and teachers, collective work to reach the horizon, and commitment to everyone getting there breeds excitement that then arises within classrooms. How does that happen?

Lessons from Presidents
Our country seems to be poised between extremes over these past seven years. Our field has been flailing about amidst a wide range of policies and opinions about how to force schools into the 21st century for all students.

On a national scale, we have wondered often over these years, why our president, who was able to evoke such excitement and galvanizing support as he ran for office, was unable to bring the players together to get the work of the country done once in office. In part, there are those who may believe that part of the opposition he encountered was deeply held prejudice. Others see it as an unwillingness to compromise. But, in the State of the Union, he, himself, noted his shortcoming in this way.

It’s one of the few regrets of my presidency -- that the rancor and suspicion between the parties has gotten worse instead of better. I have no doubt a president with the gifts of Lincoln or Roosevelt might have better bridged the divide, and I guarantee I’ll keep trying to be better so long as I hold this office (whitehouse.gov).

What was it that Lincoln and Roosevelt had in their character that served them and the times in which they led? In his seminal book Leadership, James MacGregor Burns wrote:

Few American presidents have aroused and inflamed popular attitudes as divisively as Franklin D. Roosevelt with his assaults on conservatives in both parties, his New Deal innovations, and his efforts to pack the Supreme Court and purge the Democratic party, yet few American presidents have devoted so many addresses to sermonlike calls for transcending differences and behaving as one nation and one people (p. 37).

Perhaps it was his ability to follow his higher calling, his resolved vision for the greater good of the country that helped him stand (ironically) in the tension between his liberal thinking and his ability to communicate in ways that created common ground. Not unlike Roosevelt, Lincoln worked with two warring sides of one nation, brother against brother, and faced the reality that if he was to preserve the United Sates he had to unify both sides. We cannot know what was in the minds and hearts of Roosevelt or Lincoln, but we can take note from MacGregor’s work. He calls for us to clarify...

... within ourselves our own personal goal. If that goal is only to secure a livelihood or advance a career, our tactic need only be calculatedly self-serving and manipulative--at least until our career or prominence is assured. Alternatively, we may link our career with a cause that rises above considerations of personal successes and may provide some social good (p. 460).

It appears that a notable attribute of a successful leader is the cause that calls us to rise beyond the motivation for our livelihood or career. But where is the place for open mind and open hearts? Using the Lincoln example, after the Union won the war, his focus was to have the generals meet preserving dignity as it was in the moment of victory and defeat. He could not rest without rebuilding the nation. It can be argued that there were practical and economic reasons for this, but what remains true is it took courage to ask opposing sides who had spent years at war to now treat each other as brothers and sisters of the same nation. And it took courage from those being asked to follow. These are high callings, the ability to give welcome to those with whom we were in such opposition ideologically enough to raise arms against each other.

In the End
Leaders must be able to unify their communities. But, too often leaders mobilize supporters and leave the opponents behind. Seeds of rebellion lie dormant a long time but can spout in unexpected ways. Our POTUS has just expressed this acknowledgement. Leading and unifying may be a gift for some, but the rest of us need to learn it.

We close with a nod to one of our own who demonstrated this past week how complete the call to serve can be for those who lead education. Susan Jordan, Principal of the Amy Beverland Elementary School in Lawrence Township in Indiana, was killed at the end of the school day as she rushed to save students in the path of an out of control bus. Our thoughts and prayers are with her family and community.

Burns, J.McG. (1978). Leadership. New York: Harper Perennial

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Photo courtesy of Pixabay

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.