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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
June 1, 2004
Vol. 61
No. 9

The Wounded Leader

Crisis can challenge school leaders; it can also seriously wound them. Real leadership means learning and growing from the experience.

A wizened and wise school leader shared the following observation on the eve of a long-deserved retirement: “A good school must learn to bend itself around the strengths and vulnerabilities of its leader.” Part of this assertion affirms enduring, conventional wisdom about leadership: that effective leadership in schools requires strength, power, and competence. Yet the notion that schools also need to acknowledge the vulnerability of their leaders and the potential of learning from this vulnerability seems far less acceptable. This paradox nevertheless represents a most hopeful understanding: Although the need for strong leadership in our schools persists, most school leaders recognize that their own leadership is a daily exercise in vulnerability.
The landscape of education leadership in the 21st century offers an astounding range of emotional challenges rarely acknowledged or appreciated. For school leaders, developing a genuine sense of self, grounded in one's strengths and vulnerabilities, has become a primary concern.
For several years, we have listened to the stories of many school leaders who have experienced a crisis event in their leadership practice (Ackerman & Maslin-Ostrowski, 2002). By their accounts, these experiences wounded them to the core, attacking their identity or integrity—the very soul of a person's way of being. As we scan the leadership horizon, we find no simple language in the workplace to communicate the feelings of leadership wounding. Yet an integral element of leadership development is learning how leadership truly emerges from our inner struggles and how we consciously project that inner life onto others.
Our focus is on understanding what a self-described leadership crisis or wounding experience means to education leaders and how it influences their professional and personal growth and development. Two essential questions guide our work. First, how does a reasonable, well-intentioned person, who happens to be a school leader, preserve a healthy sense of self in the face of a host of factors that may challenge that self or even lead to a wounding crisis? Second, what perspective on the work of leadership can shed light on these challenges and produce a mind-set that leaves the individual open to learn and grow from such experiences?

The Wounding Experience

Consider Bruce, a high school principal who had enjoyed nine years of a fulfilling career, replete with accolades for leading a successful, high-performing school. The community knew him as a tough but fair and honest principal who always attended school events and took the time to get to know students individually. Yet one morning he woke up to find a scathing letter to the editor in the local newspaper, condemning him as corrupt.
An angry parent accused Bruce of manipulating grades so that favored athletes could compete in the upcoming football semifinals. He was shocked because he would never do such a thing, and he was deeply disturbed that someone was challenging his ethics, especially in this public forum. Because the charge against him was false, he believed the school could move forward after he assured everyone that he had no part in the matter and that he would get to the bottom of it.
But the situation got progressively worse. The letter unmasked questionable practices in the athletics department, and Bruce found himself embroiled in a major controversy. The school board seemed to use the incident as a political football, and the crisis escalated. Soon agitated parents were storming his office, the superintendent was breathing down his neck, and the story became headline news. Said Bruce, “I feel like I'm losing control of my life.”
On the surface, wounding draws from the intrinsic, chronic tension affecting all leaders. But when others impugn a leader's decisions, motives, and integrity, the leader often experiences wounding at a deeper and more personal level. A crucial event can spark an attack that has nothing to do with the leader's genuine competence. In this situation, wounding feels like an attack on the heart. Like a physical heart attack, such an experience involves loss of control, powerlessness, fear, and vulnerability. It often forces the leader to confront an essential question: Who am I, really?
Bruce thought he knew who he was—a “strong, take-charge” kind of principal—and he thought he could fight back and manage his way out of the crisis. That wasn't the case. Angry and defensive, he lashed out at those individuals who he believed were responsible for his downfall; he disconnected from the people he served and began to doubt his own leadership. Bruce was not involved in the athletics scandal, although he admitted that he should have known what was going on in his school. But he was a high-profile principal who had had some previous run-ins with the superintendent. Ultimately, the board voted to fire him.
At the time of these troubles, Bruce was embittered, full of rage, and able to see only one side of the wound's legacy: He was furious that people accused him of being someone he wasn't. Visiting Bruce a few years later, we found that he was able to reflect anew on the wounding experience. Rather than blame others, he acknowledged that he was responsible for the culture that allowed the incident to occur and that he didn't have the control he thought he had. He believed that he now had a grasp on who he really was as a leader and that he was a different and better principal because of the crisis experience. The meaning of the wound was changing for Bruce; he was using it to learn about himself and to change for the better.

Leadership Challenges Today

For many educators, a kind of weariness or wariness has set in as expectations for performance—their own as well as their students'—sometimes far exceed well-intentioned effort. This dissonance in the education profession makes leadership a risky business. Effective and well-intentioned leaders must learn to struggle productively with their ensuing wounds. It makes sense that people who know themselves and who can relate genuinely to others by avoiding self-protective roles have a better chance of succeeding in leadership, especially today. Leaders who strive to acknowledge all sides of themselves and who allow all sides of themselves to be acknowledged will increase their capacity to lead in difficult times.
Our message is ultimately optimistic: Crisis can be an emergent occasion for transformation. Crisis provides the possibility of breaking free of the current image of the leader. Leaders often experience this vision of change with intensity and distress. Although sustained and repeated wounding can disrupt lives and schools in seemingly endless ways, most of the leaders we have been privileged to meet were not incapacitated; indeed, many demonstrated the courage to learn from their wounds.
One such leader, Christopher, had spent two successful years as a superintendent. But when the school board changed, his management style and vision suddenly fell out of favor. Compounding matters was an unexpected budget shortfall. Although the board gave him a vote of confidence, the board chair kept second-guessing his decisions. “Things appeared to be unraveling,” he said. “Confidence in me was eroding.” His response to the crisis was to try hard to please the board so he could hold on to his beloved position. Along the way, he lost sight of his own leadership beliefs.
In the midst of the turmoil, he found the courage to change his life. He negotiated a year off to reflect on his goals in life and decide what was next in his career. Instead of becoming paralyzed by fear, he used the wounding crisis as a foundation for personal growth. He took a huge risk and started over in a new setting as middle school principal. Reflecting on what the change meant to him, he said,For the first time in a long, long time I think I'm pretty comfortable with who I am as an educator, with who I am as a leader. That's probably the healthiest thing that's come out of this [wounding experience].

Lessons Learned

School leaders must expect messiness and must create conditions that allow space for their inner work of self-discovery—and for everyone else's. A principal put it well:The nonnegotiable that I come back to most often is being true to myself—heeding the call of my heart, my core, for better or worse. Sooner or later a true leader is going to stir the pot and, if great things happen as a result, is going to get splattered and slopped on. Spillage is inevitable. (Hallowell, 1997, p. 55)
School leaders will almost always be vulnerable to wounding because they reside at a very public intersection and are often the knowing or unknowing recipients of the public's expectations, hopes, and fears. Many leaders we met described how they learned to deal with the requirements of their roles, developing strategies for deflecting criticism by growing “scar tissue” and “binding” their anxieties in what Donaldson (2001) described so well as “conspiracies of busyness.” But the troublesome feelings that the public's projections create have the potential to bring about new ways of seeing and being, showing leaders how to live up to their own truth and circumstances rather than to some heroic ideal.
Consider Joan, a principal who opened her newspaper one morning to find the headline: “Joan Willow a Dictator!” The article was based on a letter that an irate parent had sent to the newspaper describing a series of school-related decisions that Joan had made. A number of articles prompted by the same parent were subsequently published, detailing further alleged misdeeds.
Joan was told that, as a semipublic official, she was fair game. She said,I had to back down. . . . I had to rely on other people to say “No, she's not that bad, she's not a dictator.” But to choose that word when I take such pains to not be autocratic, to be collaborative, to work with people. It was the antithesis of what I was. It didn't make me question what I was, but to have that in black and white was deeply upsetting because really that article was not just about my leadership style, it was about who I am. It was saying publicly that I was someone that I'm definitely not.
A groundswell of support from parents, teachers, students, and community groups rose to counter the charges leveled against her. The accusing parent subsequently apologized, both in writing and in person. Joan summed up, “There was a kind of redemption, and it was over.”
Never blaming anyone, Joan had moved wisely across a hazardous landscape. Rather than strike back defensively, she had trusted in her own integrity and in her community's faith in her. Joan discovered the restitution of her self; she was a bit scarred but determined to get on with her work. The vulnerability paradox, simply put, is this: Wounding can be a time of the heart's greatest vulnerability, and a school leader can find an honest direction in the very opening that the wound creates.
Many stories—like Joan's, at first glance—suggest that the problem lies “out there,” caused by some uncontrollable force or agency. Such a belief affords school leaders a kind of safety net. Living the genuine leadership life, however, means confronting vulnerability from within and without and not making excuses.
Leaders find that this kind of confrontation requires talking to people they can trust—people who are willing to bear witness to their stories without necessarily trying to fix anything. Sometimes, we simply need someone to listen. Sharing the burden and vulnerability of leadership can offer solace, hope, and healing.
For example, Sharon, a newly appointed principal of a newly built school, was unprepared for the severe backlash from teachers assigned to her—people who did not want to be there and who had an ax to grind. She felt that she had failed, and she started to question her abilities. Despite her strong character, she feared appearing weak or powerless to her faculty and supervisors. She commented,I really did feel alone. You don't dare let the district office know you're not successful. I have two really good friends who are principals, and I would just call and say, “What do I do now?” And sometimes it was even, “Don't tell me anything to do; just listen to me.”
Sharon wisely sought support from people she trusted, which helped her manage her emotions and not act in ways that she would later regret. When we left Sharon, she was more humble in her role as leader, more comfortable with the ambiguities of her work, and less rigid than before the crisis.
The story reminds us that rapidly evolving communication technologies pose crucial challenges to educators who place a high value on natural, open, and honest conversation. Individuals and schools now communicate with one another in timely ways and at blinding speeds. All the more reason to keep our human voices unmistakably real. In the so-called information age, we must nurture humane organizational structures and, especially, leadership committed to human learning.
Fortunately, schools, districts, foundations, and universities are recognizing the need for real connections and are providing forums for leaders to gather and reflect on their practice. Notable today are the home-grown district-based principals' centers, leadership academies, and institutes that are steadily gaining a foothold as integral players in the field of leadership development. Also, new collaborative leadership forms are emerging (Donaldson, 2001), representing a healthy way of thinking about leadership and holding the promise that schools can lead themselves in new ways.

The Questions That Count

What am I here for? What do I really do? Every wounded leader with whom we talk asks these existential questions. To answer prematurely is to miss an opportunity. Confronting these questions is what Buddhists call “meeting the enemy”—it's seeing ourselves without deception, the essence of what some call courage (Chodron, 2001). The enemy, in this sense, is really our teacher, potentially showing us parts of ourselves that we fail to see or understand. The courage to endure this in-between state around existential leadership questions requires a tolerance for uncertainty and ambiguity as well as attention and discipline, important qualities for any kind of leadership work.
In our conversations with wounded leaders, we have been greatly inspired by the pioneering work of Parker Palmer (1998) who, in conjunction with the Fetzer Institute, developed Courage to Teach, a program of personal and professional renewal for public school educators. The Center for Teacher Formation (www.teacherformation.org) is expanding Courage to Teach and Courage to Lead programs across the United States. At the heart of the Courage to Teach program is a simple, traditional Quaker practice called a clearness committee—a disciplined approach to conversation aimed at collective personal and professional growth.
A central principle of clearness work is learning to ask honest, open questions. “The best single mark of an honest, open question,” notes Palmer, “is that the questioner could not possibly anticipate the answer to it” (p. 153). The clearness committee's goal, then, is not to solve the person's problems but rather to help the person “hear more clearly the guidance that comes from within” (p. 154). The process requires a willingness to communicate clearly and honestly; change one's mind-set; submit dearly held beliefs, feelings, and preconceptions to the questions of a group; trust the silence; and trust the process. Much of the success of clearness work ultimately depends on the artful asking of the sacred question, a process Joseph Campbell described as “the call to awakening.”
A leader's deepest obligation is to engage continually in a reflective process of making sense of his or her leadership and to trust its influence on others and on the school. We have been fortunate to meet many leaders whose trust in the integrity and vitality of their leadership is inevitably balanced and shaped by their willingness to be vulnerable—to be open to self-doubts, fears, and questions. These qualities help them stay on course.
Guiding others responsibly must entail a deep understanding of oneself. Developing emotional intelligence and interpersonal relatedness means coming to terms with one's own modes of relating. The challenge of a genuine leadership life is to be fully present, passionate, and committed with all of one's fears and desires in tow. The essential work always lies in self-discovery and awareness.

Ackerman, R. H., & Maslin-Ostrowski, P. (2002). The wounded leader: How real leadership emerges in times of crisis. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Chodron, P. (2001). The places that scare you: A guide to fearlessness in difficult times. Boston: Shambhala.

Donaldson, G., Jr. (2001). Cultivating leadership in school: Connecting people, purpose, and practice. New York: Teachers College Press.

Hallowell, B. (1997). My nonnegotiables. In G. A. Donaldson, Jr. (Ed.), On being a principal: The rewards and challenges of school leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Palmer, P. J. (1998). The courage to teach: Exploring the inner landscape of a teacher's life. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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