Leading by Tether Through the Storms

By Patty Kero/School Administrator, September 2015

At the end of a long rope in the isolated northern region of Alberta, I learned several leadership lessons. It was my mother, a schoolteacher, widow and mother of four, who taught me.

In this remote settlement of Canada, they did not have paved roads for vehicles yet, so my mother would lead us to school on a frozen trail in the muskeg, a common surface in Arctic areas. In the winter, we trudged to and from school in darkness, through brutal weather conditions. Sometimes the path was illuminated by the Northern Lights, but more often we blundered blindly through whiteout conditions.

Undaunted by the blowing snow of those harsh winters, my mother joined us every school morning with a long rope wrapped around her waist and then around each of her four children. She led the way using her gloved hands to follow the fence along the edge of the subarctic bush. I was at the end of the rope, the eldest daughter, as an anchor and stable follower. Here I learned to trust the leader, my mother, even when she was not visible through the storm and darkness. She was aware of her connection with us, our goal, and how teamwork would help us to journey forward.

When one of us stumbled, the connecting rope pulled us all closer. I felt safe because of the determination of my siblings and the strength of the leader. This is the essence of teamwork. When one person falls, everyone feels it, is aware of it and then helps each other so the team can accomplish its goal. It was her philosophy that followers are leaders in training and that a supportive attitude toward followers stands at the heart of effective leadership.

New Understanding

In our ever-changing times, education leaders face a blizzard of increasingly complex issues. Daily we seek the best path to motivate systemic changes, address federal and state mandates, pursue reform initiatives, cope with financial limitations and settle legal disputes.

Modern problems cannot be solved with the old ways of thinking. Contemporary challenges demand contemporary solutions, and these solutions need to be informed by new understandings. It is the leader’s job to keep all team members moving forward, working together toward their goal.

In fact, the answers may not come through the traditional roles assigned to superintendents and other school leaders. In these dynamic times, we must rely on collaborative decision making and strategies. In my three years as a superintendent, I found the key practice to be that of developing connections where none may have existed.

Durable and Resilient

My mother deliberately selected a rope braided of different kinds of strands. The rope’s diversity of construction gave it durability to last the winter, flexibility for elasticity and resilience, and weather resistance against the harshest conditions. She wanted a rope that would link us no matter what, so she could lead us as a team to our desired outcome. She never forgot the individual needs of each one of us along the rope, youngest or oldest.

In a school system, the superintendent is the rope that connects the instructional community inside and outside the district. Accomplished superintendents know that success in schools depends foremost on the knowledge, understanding, skills, energy and collaboration of the whole community of learners. Strength in diversity of ideas allows us to make decisions and solve large issues in public education.

Just as a braided rope is durable, connected relationships inside and outside the schools are vital to a secure, robust and lasting learning community. Like a connecting rope, superintendents should be flexible. Ultimately, they are the head learners who modify their leadership depending on the needs of the other learners. Those needs are ever-widening because of the exponential growth of knowledge and personal technology. As such, our superintendents should continually reflect on the next steps.

Roped Together

Weather-resistant leadership carries the ability to resist the effects of brutal exposure to negative political trends and crass media portrayals. It means withstanding an array of harsh conditions and stubborn hurdles that might distract us from the course of improvement.

Over the months of being roped together, my siblings and I realized how our mother could think on her feet and change course to avoid obstacles. She set the example of handling problems by finding innovative solutions that always took into account the needs and abilities of each individual. She recognized we must travel as a team for our journey to succeed.

Patty Kero, a former superintendent, is an assistant professor of educational leadership at the University of Montana in Missoula, Mont. E-mail: Twitter: @patty_kero. Contributing to this column was Jeremiah McPherson, a law student at Gonzaga University School of Law in Spokane, Wash.