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Desiderata: An Ageless Message on Exemplary Leadership

The author finds inspiration and guidance in a century-old poem on living a fulfilling life by Karen Dyer

Few people go into educational administration striving to be anything less than competent. And while the main ingredients of exemplary leadership are similar — desire, skill and experience — these ingredients must be augmented by the belief that leadership is an evolving process, just like life itself. We always can do something a little bit better in order to achieve our goals, whether that’s exemplary leadership, better health or a happier life.

Max Ehrmann’s prose-poem “Desiderata,” composed in 1927, is considered an inspirational commentary on leading a happy life. Education leaders also can be guided by Ehrmann’s words as they go through the process of developing exemplary leadership skills.

• Go placidly amid the noise and haste and remember what peace there may be in silence.
Any system undergoing change generally sees a fair amount of chaos before order is established. Change theorist William Bridges, in his book Managing Transitions, refers to this time of disorder as “the wilderness.” Effective leaders on the road to becoming exemplary leaders recognize how critical it is to be a calming influence during “the wilderness” times and to avoid defensiveness, overreaction and anger in the face of disorder or confusion.

 

A teacher in northern California’s Fairfield-Suisun Unified School District shared the significance of an unruffled leader when she faced a crisis. A student in her charge died while on a school outing. Scared, angry, grieving and feeling guilty even though she was not responsible in any way for the tragedy, the teacher telephoned the principal in the midst of the turmoil, not knowing what to expect but feeling anxious nonetheless.

“What I found was comfort and strength in the tone of his voice and in his choice of words,” she said. “The first person he asked about was me. He kept assuring me that everything would be all right. Next he inquired about the other students, and then we began working on next steps. All around me there seemed to be noise and clamor. Yet during that phone call I found the assurance and support that I needed.”

•As far as possible without surrender, be on good terms with all persons.
Great leaders understand that lasting results are impossible amidst adversarial relationships. They have learned through observation, coaching, mentoring or trial and error the importance of using diplomacy and tact in working with disparate groups. Effective leaders are able to help constituents who hold different values, beliefs and opinions identify common ground, confront generalized assumptions and create shared purpose.

For example, another California superintendent is regarded as a highly successful school leader. He makes a concerted effort to establish supportive relationships with school board members, direct reports, peers and others within and outside his district.

Revered for his interpersonal skills, he also is respected for his leadership skills. People consider him tough and willing to confront issues head-on, yet able to rally support for the direction he believes the district must go. A member of his staff describes him as having his “head in the clouds but his feet on the ground.” A union leader added, “I’ve dealt with several superintendents and what makes him stand out far above the others is how you feel after a day of negotiations. He may not have agreed with you and he may not have even yielded, but all the while you felt respected.”

Extraordinary leaders acknowledge how critical it is that people support their decisions not because they reflect the will of the leader or because they need to please the leader or because they fear the leader, but because the decisions are made based on what’s best, especially for students.

Speak your truth quietly and clearly and listen to others, even the dull and ignorant; they too have their story.
Most of us know the basics of good listening — eye contact, attentiveness, empathy, silence. Yet sometimes it is hard to listen to people you do not like or to those who are disorganized in their thinking, long-winded or chronic complainers. It also is difficult to listen when we are being criticized or attacked personally.

Exemplary leaders practice active listening, not selective listening, even with those whom they may consider “time wasters.” When they are criticized or personally attacked, self-assured leaders let the other party vent without interruption, even if what is being said is untrue. By nodding, asking clarifying questions and controlling their defensiveness, leaders better understand the message the other person is trying to convey and are in a more advantageous position to take the appropriate action.

In their book For Your Improvement: A Development and Coaching Guide, Michael M. Lombardo and Robert W. Eichinger, consultants in executive and management research and development, suggest that leaders sometimes need to take on the role of teacher, helping others craft their communication to make it more effective.

 

A parent recalled his dealings with an associate superintendent in northern California that illustrate the importance of communication. The board of education, having just undergone redistricting, announced that 250 students would need to attend another high school. The parents took their case to the school board and the news media and even pursued a legal challenge but to no avail. In a final attempt to be heard, a group of about 25 parents decided to picket the central-office administration building. The superintendent refused to meet with the parents, sending his associate instead.

“I still can remember Dr. Beard escorting us into a conference room where we all sat around a large table,” the parent related. “She established ground rules that only one person could speak at a time, that she would automatically suspend the meeting if at any time profanity was used, and she would not tolerate any personal attacks. She promised to stay as long as we had something to say. For three and a half hours she listened, took notes and periodically asked us questions. Afterwards she told us that if we would wait for about an hour she would get some answers to as many of our questions and concerns as she could.”

The assistant superintendent returned after an hour, and while some of the answers were not what the parents wanted to hear, the parents felt someone had actually listened to what they had to say. “Our children still ended up being transferred,” the parent said, “but each one of us still remembers and appreciates what Dr. Beard did that day. She listened.”

• If you compare yourself with others you will become vain and bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself.
Exceptional leaders position themselves to learn from everyone around them. They share information and promote teamwork. They are open to positive and negative feedback and seek more to understand than to be understood. They are loyal to their superiors and do not publicize disagreements or conflict.

A former assistant principal in Prince George’s County, Md., shared: “My principal told me the first day on the job that with the exception of agreed upon confidences, ‘If I know it, you’ll know it. And I expect the same from you.’ In the beginning, staff, parents and even students would try to divide and conquer. They learned quickly that even though we had different personalities and leadership styles and that we occasionally disagreed on some things, the other always knew what was going on, including what the other person’s thoughts on a subject might be. I’ve continued this practice with my own assistant principals.”

Strength comes from knowledge of self. Being open to and encouraging feedback signals to others that you value their opinions. Exemplary leaders do not wait for annual performance reviews or sentiment surveys. Rather, they look for continuous feedback from such varied vehicles as 360-degree surveys, peer reviews and informal lunchtime conversations.

• Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans.
In Management of the Absurd, author Richard Farson, president of the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute, states: “Paradoxes are seeming absurdities. And our natural inclination when confronted with paradoxes is to attempt to resolve them to create the familiar out of the strange, to rationalize them.”

Planning is one of these paradoxes. Effective leaders must be effective planners, yet they cannot be too rooted in those plans. They must be flexible, willing to bend according to circumstances. And while they should enjoy their achievements, they should not let success make them arrogant.

Psychologist John Heider, in his book The Tao of Leadership: Leadership Strategies for a New Age, describes it this way: “If you measure success in terms of praise and criticism, your anxiety will be endless. If the group applauds one thing you do, and then you feel good, you will worry if they do not applaud as loudly the next time. If they are critical, if they argue or complain, you will feel hurt. Either way, you are anxious and dependent.”

• Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. ... Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.
Leadership is not easy, especially during times of change and conflict when trust has been violated or integrity questioned. Exemplary leaders must set aside time for reflection, renewal and relaxation. They must restore balance in their lives.

Balance should not imply all aspects of one’s life should have equal weight. The concept of balance is unique to each individual and means finding what is reasonable in terms of time, energy, interest and commitment. The multiple dimensions of balance include self, family, career/work, relationships, health/exercise, recreation/hobbies, emotional health, spiritual well-being and intellectual stimulation.

Balance means sometimes you have to say “no.” Saying no is not about being mean or insensitive. It is about setting priorities and managing expectations by explaining that these priorities, though significant, may be situational and could subsequently change in the future.

A superintendent in a southern Illinois school district was experiencing stress-related symptoms that did not lessen with attention to diet, exercise, sleep or meditation. His anxieties began to affect his self-esteem and his confidence in his own competence. After talking with his primary care physician, he sought the services of a counselor.

“He told me that for two weeks he wanted me to say no to any person or task that could not be finished in two hours or less,” the superintendent related. “He gave me permission, of course, to deal with work and family obligations that went beyond this time frame, but for all others I was limited to two hours.”

This simple strategy worked so well that by the end of two weeks the superintendent’s symptoms had disappeared. “It was so freeing to have permission to say no,” he said. “I’ve matured a lot since then and find that I no longer require someone else’s permission to say no. However, whenever I start experiencing some of those same symptoms I reflect on all that I am doing and occasionally I put myself on a two-hour, two-day, two-week or two-month regimen of ‘Just Say No.’”

• Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.
When it’s all said and done, it won’t matter how much money you made, the number of times your contract was renewed, the number of successful programs you ran or the various honors you received. What will matter is that you did meaningful work that you enjoyed and that the changes you envisioned, initiated, implemented and sustained made a difference in the lives of children and adults to whom you are responsible.

Karen Dyer is group director of education and nonprofit sectors with the Center for Creative Leadership, P.O. Box 26300, Greensboro, NC 27438. E-mail: dyerk@leaders.ccl.org