Executive Perspective

Risking our Significance

by Paul D. Houston

In my friend Dawna Markova’s wonderful poem “I Will Not Die an Unlived Life,” she writes about the need to “risk (our) significance.” That line always has struck me as I have thought about how hard it is for any of us to risk our significance, but that is especially true for leaders.

Whether we want to admit it or not, most of us ended up in leadership positions because of the pursuit of our significance. Sure, we went into administration because we wanted to make a difference in the lives of children and to make the world a better place and for all the other high-minded reasons that are both true and convenient.

But the reality is that we could have done all that by taking a lot of other paths. We could have fulfilled these high purposes by becoming missionaries, going to work in a homeless shelter or by staying in the classroom.

Instead we chose to take on successively more challenging and more significant roles in administration. We did it to have a greater impact and we did it because of our own needs. Could we just admit that we are administrators, in part, because it feeds that portion of ourselves that needs to feel important? And that ambition is both a blessing and a curse. It has driven us to new heights, but in gaining the high ground we risk losing a sense of why we were climbing. We tend to hold tighter to the ground we have gained for fear of falling.

Appearing Foolish
Having reached the goal of being significant (and it is my opinion there is no position in America today more significant than a public school leader), why then would we want to risk that very significance? That is the interesting paradox of leadership. Just as you can only truly lead by being willing to serve, you can only truly reach a level of significance by being willing to give it up.

What are some of the ways we can risk our significance? One is by being willing to appear foolish. The power of leadership is not in the breadth of our answers but in the depth of our questions. I had a board member say he wanted to compliment me. He said, “What I like about you is that you are willing to ask the dumb question.” And you know what? That was a compliment for it is only in asking dumb questions that you can get to the smart answers.

How many times have we been in situations where we were confused and yet no one was willing to stop and ask some of the basic questions that would lead to clarity? Smart people have led nations to war because no one was willing to stop and ask the dumb questions. School reform efforts have failed because no one was willing to stop and ask why something was being tried as a solution, when the problem was something entirely different.

No Child Left Behind — now recognized, even by those who created it, as having flaws needing revision — was passed because members of Congress didn’t ask some “dumb” questions like “Is it possible to test people into being smarter?” or “Is it really accountability if we are comparing different groups of children?” or “Can we really make certain we are not leaving poor children behind when we won’t deal with the poverty that caused them to be behind in the first place?” These dumb questions could have led to smarter answers.

Another way of risking our significance is by failing to act. I would submit that more children have been harmed by our failure to do something than by our doing the wrong thing to them. Acting without thought isn’t the right way. But thinking without acting won’t get us very far either.

We need to demonstrate a sense of urgency around the issue of educational improvement. This is the only childhood our children have. We need to make certain that it counts for something. Things loom larger in childhood. Dangers are greater, obstacles higher, and time is more significant. At my age, time has sped up. For me a year is but 1/60th of my life. For a 4th grader it is 10 percent of his or her experience.

For children, time goes slower. A year with a bad teacher or hounding by a bully is a big part of their total existence. As their defenders and shapers, we must risk our significance by acting with a greater sense of urgency.

Righteous Indignation
By far the greatest threat to our significance is the need to act courageously. One great paradox of leadership is that our daily effectiveness grows from our ability to compromise and find common ground. But ultimately, the path to the future is paved with our willingness to be unreasonable in our passion and unwavering in our commitment to what is right. And when you act with passion and commitment, you will sometimes break some china — but that is ultimately why you became a leader. Significance comes from your willingness to make a difference.

Leadership, to be effective, must be wrapped in righteous indignation. We must become indignant about the conditions that surround our children. We must become indignant about the wrong-headed reforms that wrap unique individuals into one-size-fits-all garments. We must become indignant about politicians and interest groups who would destroy public education in the name of saving it.

Dawna Markova’s poem speaks to our not living in “fear of falling or catching fire,” and she goes on to suggest we let our hearts become “a wing, a torch, a promise.” She ends the poem by stating that “I chose to risk my significance, to live so that which came to me as seed, goes on as blossom and that which came to me as blossom goes on as fruit.”

Leadership is taking seed to blossom and blossom to fruit, and the first step is to be willing to lose what we have worked so hard to gain. Only by letting go do we learn to fly.

Paul Houston is AASA executive director.