Guest Column

From the Dais of Diplomacy

by Suzette Lovely

Educational leaders have faced unfathomable events in the past few years — from the tenuous school evacuations near the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 to the tragic school shootings in Minnesota and Tennessee to the more than 372,000 students displaced by Hurricane Katrina.

Superintendents who have dealt with these catastrophes must possess nerves of steel.

Although such events mark the extreme, school executives cope with an array of crises and controversy on any given day. AASA Executive Director Paul Houston wrote about these unsung heroes in his Executive Perspective column, "Who You Gonna Call?" (November 2005).
So what is it that enables courageous leaders to bring about order and reason in times of chaos and despair? A recent trip to Thailand helped me understand the diplomatic coding that distinguishes the exceptional from the average, the fit from the feeble. To put it in perspective, I'll start from the beginning.

Feeling Connected
In December 2004, my husband and I were traveling around Southeast Asia. We planned to hook up with friends in Phuket on Jan. 1. An acquaintance we were meeting works in the foreign service. But after the tsunami smashed ashore on Dec. 26, she was dispatched from her post in Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok to assist in tracking down missing Americans. Her counterparts from the Bangkok embassy were sent to Phuket for the grim task of locating bodies.

As the senior ranking embassy official at the time, our friend was assigned to meet Secretary of State Colin Powell and Gov. Jeb Bush, who headed the American delegation, when they arrived in early January to tour the damaged region. When we eventually met up with our friend in Bangkok, I peppered her with questions about what kind of boss Secretary Powell was.

What I learned was fascinating. Despite supervising employees who worked thousands of miles from the corporate office, Powell had an uncanny ability to make people feel connected. No matter what minor incident or major disaster the secretary of state handled, he always let staff know how pivotal they were to the operationÕs success.
Sometimes Powell would bring junior staffers into the Oval Office to brief the president. Other times he would write compliments on communiques from mid-level State Department officials.

When the secretary encountered my friend in Thailand, he expressed his gratitude for the assistance she had personally offered in the recovery efforts. Even though he was in the final weeks of his job, Powell never wavered in his commitment to let employees know they made a difference.

Words Plus Deeds
This past December, we returned to Phuket to have the vacation experience that eluded us in 2004. In my quest to find out more about Colin Powell's DNA, I scoured articles he'd written for State Magazine. Genuine diplomacy, according to Powell, is the combination of power and persuasion, the orchestration of words and deeds in the pursuit of objectives. In one column, the secretary of state offered these poignant words of advice on the fine art of leadership:


  • Dare to be the skunk at the picnic. Every organization should tolerate rebels who tell the emperor he has no clothes. This is not a license to be rude, but it is a way to speak your mind.



  • The day people stop bringing you their problems is the day you've stopped leading them.Open your door and encourage folks to come in with their opinions or arguments. Those in the trenches are closest to the issues, which is where the real wisdom lies.



  • Perpetual optimism is a multiplier.The Marines call it a gung-ho attitude. Don't pollute the atmosphere with pessimism. The ripple effect of a leader's optimism is contagious.



  • In any crisis, stop and step away from the confusion and shouting.Ask yourself two simple questions: What am I doing that I shouldn't be doing? What am I not doing that I ought to be doing to influence the situation in our favor? Work actively to shape the crisis and create success.



  • Deal with the world as it is to make it more of what you'd like it to be.You can't just impose your ideals upon everyone. If you want to endure without resorting to force, you must be patient and wise in the face of danger and bold in the face of opportunity.


    As Paul Houston has stated, when an anomaly happens in a community, it always will be the superintendent whoÕs called. Even if a problem isn't his or her own, these selfless leaders operate from a dais of diplomacy. Any good leader will tell you the real secret to being successful: There's no such thing as diplomatic immunity inside the superintendent's office.

    Suzette Lovely is the deputy superintendent for personnel services in the Capistrano Unified School District, 32972 Calle Perfecto, San Juan Capistrano, CA 92675. E-mail: She is the author of Setting Leadership Priorities: What's Necessary, What's Nice and What's Got To Go (Corwin Press).