President's Corner

The Courage To Lead

by Eugene G. White

Transformative leadership, sustainable leadership, situational leadership and all other forms of leadership in the public education domain call for one important attribute — courage. Think about the status of school leadership today and the challenging opportunities it provides. Can we truly be effective superintendents and successful school leaders without courage?

Margaret J. Wheatley, author of Leadership and the New Science, once wrote: “I think the greatest source of courage is to realize that if we don’t act, nothing will change for the better. Reality doesn’t change itself. It needs us to act.” Leaders must take the actions that produce better teaching and learning. We must take the actions that give rise to higher student performance and success. We must take the actions that filter or eliminate as many barriers to good public education as possible. We must lead with courage!

Being courageous means putting yourself in potential danger. Every day, superintendents face threats to their personal safety, health, sanity, morality, ethics and character. The job puts us in situations that range from the unique to the ridiculous. We are called upon to “fix yesterday” those problems that have existed for years and to “change it” without upsetting anyone.

The dynamics of leadership provide shifts and changes, allowing leaders to deal with deprivation and poverty or privilege and prosperity. However, each faction has the same request: “Do something to make it better for me.” This is the bare bones definition of politics. Leadership doesn’t exist without politics and facing the demands of politics requires courage.

Leadership in public education is leadership up close and personal. We are in the people business and to do the job effectively we must interact, communicate and work successfully with people. We must seek input and share ownership for ideas, plans and initiatives, even when we are the ones who have the answers. We must come to appreciate the value of taking people through learning processes because people make leaders or break leaders. Patience is a virtue required of school leaders.

Leadership means encouraging, influencing, motivating, inspiring and sometimes insisting that things get done. It takes boldness and commitment to reverse or transform a failing organization, program or system. Because change creates winners and losers, it puts people on the defensive. Leaders must move the organization forward with the skill and determination to overcome natural defense mechanisms.

When the federal government passed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001, AASA stood alone in its opposition. We could have stepped out of the way, avoided controversy and quietly accepted the law, but leadership is not about taking the easy way. True leaders know that everything legal isn’t right and everything right isn’t legal. It took courage to stand against the federal administration, the U.S. Department of Education and bipartisan congressional support for NCLB. Today AASA is not by any means alone in its opposition, and others understand why we stood resolutely against the law.

Leading with courage is a challenging way to do business. However, the leadership required to Stand Up for Public Education demands courage. Today, more than ever, we need school leaders who are willing to make the right decisions for children. We need leaders who know what they know and are willing to resist ineffective new versions of old solutions.

A soldier does not win the medal of valor by talking about war. The soldier wins the medal of valor by acting courageously in war. This is truly the time to act by leading courageously.