Thursday, March 8, 2012

Leadership as Life and Death

                Gradually since the tragedy at Columbine High School, we’ve become a bit more numbed to school shootings. For example, I don’t think I heard anyone mention the recent one near Cleveland. Of course, as a head of school, they register quite loudly with me. The safety and well-being of everyone here is my primary concern. Safety and security is a standing item on our administrative meeting agendas; we’ve been re-evaluating all our emergency procedures; and I’m sure employees are tired of my reminders to carry their walkie-talkies. Even so, my reaction is no longer shock and outrage. Instead, it’s simply sadness at another one.
                But another recent shooting at a school has sent me reeling. On Tuesday, March 6, tragedy struck Episcopal High School in Jacksonville, FL.  A man came onto campus with a guitar case and went to see Dale Regan, the Head of School. He opened the guitar case, removed an assault rifle, killed Dale, and then committed suicide. Earlier that day Dale had fired the man, who had been a Spanish teacher at the school.
                I assume the reasons this craziness has rocked me are obvious. I didn’t know Dale, but independent school heads form a rather tight community. When we first meet each other, there is an almost instant connection. I guess because it’s a very unique type of job: part CEO, part teacher, part pastor, part parent, part inspirational leader, part manager, part data cruncher, part visionary, part shaman. Besides, there really aren’t that many of us. We have varying personalities and styles and philosophies and approaches. But we all share one quality: we care deeply about education and the people in our school communities.
                So I know that about Dale Regan. If you think I’m just speculating, this was a woman who served Episcopal for 35 years, the last seven as its head. I also believe I know something else about Dale and the act that led to her death. I am quite sure that she terminated that employee only after careful consideration and because she had deemed it best for the school community. Separating someone from a school—be it an employee, a student, a family—is one of the worst parts of the job. That’s true even if the cause is egregious. After all, having to do this goes against certain principles which brought many of us into education in the first place. Most of us, while no longer idealistic, remain essentially hopeful. Also, we like to believe that with the right guidance anyone can improve steadily and even come to excel.
                Terminating someone is also a brave act of leadership, even beyond the confrontation in which the person is informed. It sends numerous signals to the community about what the leader values, what is acceptable and what is not, how the leader treats people. And a head of school has to make such decisions based on often conflicting data points and myriad intangibles. For example, I have heard a complaint about a teacher literally while I was receiving an e-mail praising that same teacher. Neither was right or wrong. It just points to how complicated evaluation and subsequent decisions can be. A parent often has one data point—his or her child. The head has dozens. In weighing them and deciding on any action, the head essentially takes a stand. At the same time, one tries to do so in a ways that preserves the dignity of all involved.
                So this tragedy has really prompted deep thinking about leadership. For years I have studied leadership. I’ve observed and analyzed leaders (good and bad), considered historical figures, read plenty of theory, and participated in various programs. I reflect on the subject quite regularly. In fact, one of the aspects of my job I most enjoy is that it forces me to step out of my comfort zone and exercise leadership in new ways. Now, I keep coming back to a question that I’ve encountered a few times throughout my study: What do you believe in so strongly that you would be willing to die for it? It’s led to some fascinating discussions.  Usually we were speaking metaphorically, in the sense that you would take a stand even if it meant being fired. Now the question takes on a frighteningly literal meaning.
                This brings to mind one of the conclusions I’ve reached about leadership. Too much of what’s been written as the secret to leadership involves technique. I believe leadership depends on integrity. I mean that in both the usual ethical sense and in the sense of unity, of oneness. Everything about the leader must center around a core ethos, with all actions radiating from it. I think this idea is captured beautifully by the Quaker aphorism “Let your life speak.”
                More and more schools are emphasizing leadership, and towards this end add special programs and mandatory electives. Surely those can’t hurt. But I believe that all of education should be teaching leadership. Classroom protocols, interactions between adults, disciplinary practices, and so on—schools have myriad ways that can help young people discover who they are and how they want their lives to speak.
                I’m not going to insult anyone by even beginning to speculate what raced through Dale Regan’s mind in her final moments. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that Dale died in the service of the school she had served so lovingly. I pray that the Episcopal High School community can find some peace in how her memory will continue to lead them.  Dale’s life will not only speak; it will echo loudly.

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