Executive Perspective

Building Fields of Dreams

by Paul D. Houston

I never can visit Iowa without thinking of one of my movie favorites, “Field of Dreams.” Last summer, as I was flying into Des Moines, I was looking out of the window enjoying the lush landscape of varied hues of green, some so deep they seemed blue. I kept hearing the words of Shoeless Joe Jackson asking the Kevin Costner character, Ray Kinsella, if the baseball field he was standing in was heaven. Ray replied, “No, this is Iowa.”

Iowans like that line too and you see it posted on T-shirts and mugs. Coming from a state that promoted itself as “Almost Heaven, West Virginia,” I understand the pride involved. Flying in on that summer evening, it was also easy to see why Shoeless Joe was confused.

But I can never think of “Field of Dreams” without thinking about the work we do. The movie is filled with the themes that I believe make being an educator so powerful — dreams, hopes, redemption, connection and perseverance. It was a movie that made us feel good by reminding us of what is best about ourselves. There are times when educators need to remind themselves of the power of their work.

 

Dark to Light It is difficult to reconcile the work of educational leaders as strictly a management issue. So much of what we do deals with the aspirations and dreams of the people we serve. You can’t manage dreams; you have to pump them up and let them soar. Deepak Chopra said leaders are the symbolic soul of the groups they lead. But for leaders to “thrive on chaos” they must understand the underlying order, which has a spiritual basis. He pointed out that choosing to lead is “choosing to step out of the darkness.” By implication, stepping out of darkness puts us under the lights.

 

Like many across the world I grew up a fan of John F. Kennedy and the magic he sprinkled on America as its leader. I was particularly taken by his espousing and modeling the line from Hemingway about the need to “exhibit grace under pressure.” That is the gold standard for a leader to pursue — an “amazing grace” that allows everyone around you to be better than he or she thinks possible. Leaders must not only exhibit grace, they must dispense it.

But getting back to Ray Kinsella. You recall he was working in the cornfield, minding his own business, when a voice whispers to him, “If you build it, he will come.” It’s mysterious and unnerving. Yet when you think about it, haven’t we all been called to the work that we are doing? Our jobs aren’t to raise some corn and make a profit. And while it is blasphemy in today’s world of assessment and accountability, it isn’t to raise test scores and make AYP either. Our mission is to build it.

Sometimes we get lost in trying to figure out the “it.” You remember Ray needed awhile to figure out that it was a baseball field in the middle of his cornfield. But it wasn’t really about the field, it was about the opportunity for redemption, first for Shoeless Joe and his teammates, but ultimately for Ray and his relationship with his father. We all share the need to make things over.

And what an act of faith it was for Ray. By plowing under his corn, he gave up the profits he needed to keep his farm and support his family, and he lost the good opinion of his extended family and neighbors. They thought he was crazy. Have you ever done anything crazy because you were called to do it? Isn’t that what leadership often entails? But we must remember Ray did it because he was serving a larger purpose — he was preparing a way, making things ready. It wasn’t the field, it was the action to take place on it — a chance to play catch once more with his dad.

Healing Others Building anything requires vision, planning and effort. But it moves quickly from the practical to the spiritual — to build something you also must have faith and you must believe. You have to see it real before it happens.

 

But building the field just led to the next mission: “Go the distance.” For Ray that meant a trip across country. For most of us, it means staying the course, making commitments and keeping them. Leaders must persevere before they can prevail. Leading isn’t just finding the right path. It means staying on it. This requires courage to face the dangers and resilience to recover from the blows.

The final mission given to Ray was to “Ease his pain.” Leadership is at its core the art of “healership.” But leaders don’t do the healing. They create the conditions for the people to heal themselves. But first we must do no harm. Sadly, in many organizations we have leaders inflicting pain, rather than easing it.

Ultimately, Ray discovers that while he thought he was doing all these things for others, it was really for himself. In building and going the distance, he was really easing his own pain. The reality is that whatever we do to others, we do to ourselves and whatever we do for others, we do for ourselves. That is the secret perk and peril of being a leader.

As Ray grapples with how he will hold onto his farm, he is urged by his daughter to keep it because people will pay to come and visit. James Earl Jones tells Ray they will come and pay because it is money they have but peace they lack. Touching a field of dreams offers the peace they need. Ultimately, our task is to offer a chance for peace to others, and peace is only possible when dreams are there.

At the end of the movie Ray asks his father if there is a heaven and his father tells him, “Yes, it’s the place where dreams come true.” The real calling and the real payoff for school leaders is that we can create heaven on earth by helping children’s dreams come true. That offers us amazing grace.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director.