To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
Leaders create directed change. They change things that need to be changed. They develop breadth of perspective and depth of insight, they connect the seemingly unconnected and see optimistically over the horizon.
Leaders serve others. They create environments where people are free to act, guided by a common identity and direction, and supported by the resources, education, and information they need to be successful. They model the desired culture through mature and principled behavior.
That is a degree in organizational leadership in two paragraphs. I know what leaders are supposed to do, but I continue to find it much harder to do than to write about. Impossibly difficult on the practical level, an art form on the emotional level, leadership is a challenge. An old journal entry still sums up best what it costs to lead:
To lead is to assimilate the as-is world and dream the desired to-be, to liberate individual aspirations under a collective identity, to perceive choices and commit to a course, to gain by giving and steward with care, to learn in failure and grow in striving, to leave a legacy of significance and authenticate an ideology. To lead is to love and to hope.
My fifth year as superintendent was also the fifth year of education reform in the state of Washington. Fundamental change finally hit home in every classroom with new standards, new assessments, new report cards and the end of social promotion. Teachers struggled through the most difficult months of their careers and I narrowly survived a no-confidence vote. Rabble-rousers lobbied to leave the collaborative relationship we had worked hard to create and return to the head butting days of traditional labor-management bargaining. On the remaining threads of collaboration, we pressed on aware that leadership is expensive work.
Reforms of the late 90s seem quaint compared to challenges that school districts face today. The fiscal crisis adds a whole new layer of challenge to American education leadership. In some respects, it’s an opportunity to rethink everything, but on the other hand, budget cuts change lives and impact communities. There are new and promising strategies for dealing with the need to do more for less, but they require thoughtful leadership and competent management.
Whether parenting, school leadership, or elected office, leadership is expensive work. But it is how things get better. Leadership is a legacy of love and hope.
[Good Work is a Sunday series that started as journal entries of a young public school superintendent in the 90s]