Guest Column

Leadership and the Dave Matthews Band

by BRADLEY J. RIEGER
Educational leaders must be able to articulate a story that conveys a sense of purpose and captures the minds and hearts of their followers. These stories can be used to inform, inspire, entertain, challenge or build a team. A story that is personal in nature and provides insights about the human condition can spur faculty, staff and community members to reflect upon their individual roles and how they fit into the broader context of the school district’s mission and goals.

In his 1996 book Leading Minds: Anatomy of Leadership, Howard Gardner states that strong leaders use stories to move individuals and organizations in a positive direction. Stories appeal to reason and emotion, and thus their impact can be multidimensional. Great leaders use parables, allegories and retelling of personal experiences to communicate a higher purpose and create a vision of life for their followers.

Striving to be a Churchillian orator can be a daunting task. The manner in which a story is told is important, but style is secondary to the substance of the narrative. Unearthing an experience, situation or incident that is meaningful to the leader and resonates with followers is the first step to being an effective storyteller. To begin the process, leaders should ask themselves the following: What moves me deeply and motivates me to be a better educator, leader and human being?

Musical Motivator
My zeal for being a school leader comes front and center every time I listen to the Dave Matthews Band. The music of this five-member band from Charlottesville, Va., is inspiring in and of itself. The lyrics are insightful, the melodies smooth.

The power the Dave Matthews Band brings to me professionally lies in the context in which I was introduced to the music. Kyle Hazen was a neighbor kid whom I came to know through his love of sports. As a 10-year-old, Kyle was constantly outside playing hockey, baseball or tennis. Our banter typically revolved around athletics and school activities. I was a principal at the time.

The conversations changed dramatically when at the age of 14 Kyle was diagnosed with Ewings-Sarcoma cancer, a form of bone cancer. After an intricate surgery to remove a tumor from his left arm, Kyle underwent an aggressive chemotherapy regimen that lasted a full year.

The toxicity of the chemotherapy tethered Kyle to the inside of his house. Flu-like symptoms, hair loss and constant doctors’ appointments replaced slap shots, curve balls and hanging out with friends. He spent his freshman year of high school on home instruction. Despite successful surgery and follow-up treatments, Kyle’s prognosis for a full recovery was uncertain.

During his extended convalescence, we communicated by phone and in person across our backyard decks. Music became the main topic. He enthusiastically talked about the sound of his favorite group, the Dave Matthews Band, and lent me several CDs in an effort to convert me. After listening to the band’s juiced up “Under the Table Dreaming” and “Crash” CDs, I promised Kyle that we would see the band in concert when he was strong enough.

In December 1996, Kyle and I caught our first Dave Matthews concert at the University of Toledo. We stood for 2½ hours with 10,000 other enthusiastic fans. The lengthy hospital stays, nausea and bone scans seemed far removed inside the energized concert hall. I remember looking at Kyle during the concert and knowing then that I was a part of something special.

Once the chemotherapy was behind him, Kyle went on to resume a relatively normal high school experience. The surgery to remove the tumor had severely weakened his arm, which forced him to relinquish his main love—sports. Instead Kyle took up playing saxophone in the school’s marching and symphonic bands. He patterned his musical style after Leroi Moore, the saxophonist for Dave Matthews. The saxophone had been a gift from the Special Wish Foundation, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the Make-A-Wish Foundation that grants special requests to chronically ill children. Kyle chose a saxophone instead of a trip to Disney World or another one-shot splurge because he believed in his own future and wanted to do something with his life. He maintained honor roll status throughout his high school career.

Kyle recently graduated from Anderson University in Indiana with a dual major of music and business administration. He continues yearly visits to an oncologist, but his horizon is much brighter.

A Helping Field
Kyle’s story fuels my professional growth and aspirations in numerous ways. Now more than ever I realize how fortunate I am to work in a profession in which I play a part in shaping the lives of young people. Kyle’s experience allows me to use my position to create shining moments for those in my circle of influence. Having the opportunity to affirm the worth of a student, colleague or a community member is the best part of my job.

My impact is greatest when I push aside my administrative to-do pile in order to write a congratulatory note, place a supportive phone call or visit a school or department to thank someone personally. School leaders who recognize the efforts and achievements of students and staff can cement the moment into a lifelong memory.

Knowledge of Kyle’s journey keeps me focused on matters of significance. The fragility of life makes setting priorities and time management less complicated. I strive to direct my attention toward meaningful interactions and activities associated with education’s core business: teaching and learning. The negativity, conflict and ambiguity associated with school administration are manageable if we remain focused on the higher purposes of our profession and constantly remind ourselves that time is a precious gift.

All cancer battles are inspiring and provide us with a new sense of perspective. Kyle’s story has added impact for me because I have had the privilege to walk along side him during this evolving journey.

I have shared Kyle’s account with more than 15 audiences in recent years. Though the points I emphasize might shift based on the audience, the purpose of telling the story is always the same: to motivate and challenge others to use their talents and energy to make a small corner of the world a better place. I also hope to give followers a glimpse into the beliefs, values and goals that comprise who I am as a leader.

Kyle and I have ventured together to see the Dave Matthews Band nine times. Each concert is a fun, memorable and uplifting experience. I sometimes glance at my maturing concert partner and marvel that he is even here. In the song “True Reflections,” Dave Matthews encourages listeners to “find some inspiration, it’s deep down inside of you.” Kyle Hazen is a source of inspiration that I always carry with me.

Bradley Rieger is superintendent of Sylvania Schools, 6850 Monroe St., Sylvania, OH 43560. E-mail: sy.brad.rieger@nwoca.org