Executive Perspective

The Gladiator in All of Us

by PAUL D. HOUSTON


Ilove movies. They take us away from where we are to lands and times far, far away. They are a great escape. They also bring us the truth that only can be found in fiction by focusing our attention on the stories and metaphors that reveal the deeper truths that undergird the fantasy.

One of my favorite recent movies is Gladiator. It depicts a fictionalized account of Maximus, a Roman general who, because of his integrity and loyalty to the Emperor Marcus Aurelius who is murdered and succeeded by his son, is thrown into slavery by the emperor’s son and then becomes one of Rome’s greatest gladiators.

There is much in this movie for a school administrator to ponder. First is the metaphor of the gladiator as school leader. Gladiators are warriors. They take their place in the center of the coliseum where they are pitted against all sorts of dangers and challenges. They are forced to fight it out in public--in fact for the entertainment of the public. When the fight is ended, the audience gives them the thumbs up or the thumbs down. Live or die. Any superintendent can relate to that moment. How many times do we face that awful moment of truth? After we have given our all to the fray, the public then judges us, sometimes in a circus-like atmosphere. If we entertained them acceptably, we live. If not, the sword falls.

Likewise, we are immersed in an era where the educational landscape is dotted with the tendency toward thumbs-up and thumbs-down decisions concerning our children. Zero-tolerance policies, high-stakes testing and high standards supported with inadequate resources are all thumbs-down rulings that can kill our children’s dreams.

A related feeling comes early in the movie when Maximus, who is commanding the Roman legions in the war in Germania, tells his officers to "at my command, unleash hell." Maximus, at that moment, was aware of his awesome power to destroy. Maximus would have made a great school leader. Not because he had the capacity to unleash hell, but because he had the self-awareness to know that he was doing so. I’m afraid that the reason some of us face the moment when we receive the thumbs down is because we don’t have the self-knowledge of how we are affecting those around us.

Uplifting Actions
Those of us in leadership positions, because of our influence over others, have the capacity to create a living hell for those in our organizations. We can, by bullying and by manipulating, create an atmosphere where spirits are stifled and destroyed. Our jobs require a sense of toughness. We must make hard decisions. But we shouldn’t become hard in the process. Otherwise, we unleash hell on our own troops and our own children.

One of the gentler ironies in the movie is that throughout, even though death and destruction (a living hell) surround Maximus, his thoughts and dreams are on Elysium, the Roman version of heaven. Without getting overly theological, the reality is that there is both heaven and hell here on earth and we are the ones who create it. Leadership is about uplifting and affirming those around us. It is about planting the fields of Elysium for those in our charge.

One scene that was particularly instructive involved Maximus who, along with a band of other gladiators, is sent to the center of the coliseum. They are there to be sacrificed in a spectacle where the favored gladiators would ride out in chariots and decimate the hapless slaves. Maximus tells the other sacrificial warriors the only way they can survive is to stand together. They do stand together and they destroy the larger and better equipped opponents, thereby upsetting the expectations of the crowd.

The work we do often is lonely work, and we feel isolated in the center of the arena. However, nothing that we do can be accomplished successfully without working with others. We have to teach our staff and our community to work together to overcome the odds and to upset the expectations. By helping them stand back to back and shoulder to shoulder, we can overcome even the most daunting dangers. Going alone assures our own destruction and the failure of the organization.

Caretaker Role
The most powerful moment in the movie for me, and the most important for a school leader to think about, came when one character asks another, "What is Rome?" The answer was clear and concise: "Rome is an idea."

We could ask ourselves that same question today, "What is America?" And the answer is the same: "America is an idea." And we, as the caretakers of the last vestige of common civic purpose in this democracy, which was founded on the ancient principles that the people share a common bond, are the keepers of that idea.

For America to survive as a place of freedom requires that the people stand together. The common schools of this country are the one place that we can still experience the sense of common purpose with those who are different from ourselves. And for America to survive, we must give our children a chance at their Elysium by nurturing their dreams. That is a very powerful role for us to play. And that is truly a thumbs-up mission for each of us.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director. E-mail: phouston@aasa.org