Thursday, September 8, 2016

On Guardian Angels, Friends, and Enemies

       In 1993 at the Westtown Seminar led by the late David Mallery--I'm so specific because "Westtown" and "David Mallery" will make certain readers feel a warm glow--I heard The Rev. Paula Wehmiller speak.She challenged us to rethink the concept of a guardian angel. Instead of being a force/person who looks out for and protects you, she suggested one's guardian angel may be the person who most drove them crazy. She asked us to consider that the person annoyed us so much because they were forcing us to face things about ourself that we would rather not.
       During some recent conversations with other school leaders, we were talking about how deep relationships can become. Most often they are very rewarding, very positive. Just last night I saw one of my former trustees whom I hadn't seen since he rolled off the board and we warmly embraced right away. While the working relationship remains paramount, it really does become friendship in unique ways. But leadership inevitably means making some enemies. Of course, we're not talking about mortal feuds; but sometimes relationships break in ugly fashion, animosity lingering longer than it should. That's especially true when one has to make big, thorny decisions...though it can happen even with small ones. It goes back to the adage that you can't please everyone, and sometimes people on either or both sides of an issue refuse to move on. Problems can become particularly fractious when people feel their children are being wronged somehow. Wounded egos heal slowly.
       I found myself recalling how Paula flipped the guardian angel concept, and I wondered if there is a similar way to consider one's enemies. A bit of the guardian angel concept applies in that we should consider their points, our decision and delivery, et cetera. After all, we should be able to learn from any situation. We can strive to separate the rational and the emotional while acknowledging the validity of each. Ultimately, we can struggle to truly forgive. Maybe we can even do it. But I wonder if any but the absolute best among us can ever fully trust the person again or see the person without a tinge of "enemy."
       That being the case, another question emerges: How does one keep the enemy from winning? The best leaders reflect regularly, often focused on that which has gone wrong. They can become fixated on an enemy and perseverate in unhealthy, unproductive ways. There exist many time-honored ways. Focusing on the positive. Celebrating victories. Mindfulness. Expressing gratitude. My personal trick is that before I leave my office, I think of three things that went well during the day.
       Reflecting on all this, I've thought of another way to think of a leader's enemies. It comes with the caveat that the leader has acted virtuously. If so, perhaps the enemies become badges of honor--living, breathing signs that the leader has done the right thing. Perhaps it meant taking a stand on an ethical issue. Defending an employee. Protecting a student. Adopting a new curriculum. In a school, who knows what the divisive issue could be?
       This reminds us that perhaps one quality is most vital to leadership: integrity. I mean that in two senses. The first is the common ethical meaning of the word. The second has to do with how everything thing is a leader must be integrated in the whole of that person. In other words, the leader must stand for something. Then, rather than toss and turn, he or she can enjoy the sleep of the just.

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