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April 1, 2004
Vol. 61
No. 7

Perspectives / What Do Leaders Do?

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      As I write this, the Republicans are demanding an apology from Senator John Kerry for muttering words about liars and crooks, and the Democrats are demanding apologies from Secretary of Education Rod Paige for a remark that characterized the National Education Association as a terrorist organization. Neither leader has apologized convincingly; instead, they have defended their comments vociferously.
      Probably these leaders under siege for apologies know what it means to lead in tough times. And if they didn't understand it earlier, they know now that choosing one's words carefully is an attribute a leader needs. Do leaders make apologies? I guess not, these days. But, in my mind, the more important question is, Do leaders listen to people who disagree with them, or do they see everyone who has a different opinion as a threat and an obstructionist? This brings up yet another question: Should those they lead demand apologies for insults, or is there a proactive response that could be more productive?
      In an editorial concerning the choice of the next school chief for the District of Columbia school system, the Washington Post describes the qualifications that we have come to expect from our school leaders. The next superintendent should be, the editorial proposes, someone who has managed an entrenched bureaucracy; someone who has developed a multimillion-dollar budget; someone who knows how to deal with a demanding community and an aggressive press corps; someone who has a mission, leadership skills, political smarts, and management prowess; someone who will aggressively improve teacher quality but who is also an inspiring leader; and, most important, someone who is committed first and foremost to the advancement of all children (2004). (I report this here in case anyone wants to apply.)
      Thank goodness, school leaders—like all educators—are an optimistic bunch. According to a Public Agenda survey, 68 percent of superintendents believe that with the right leadership, it is possible to turn any school district around (Farkas, Johnson, Duffett, & Foleno, 2001).
      This issue on “Leading in Tough Times” lays out many different perspectives on what it means to be a school leader today. Our authors establish that the difficulties are a result of many factors, including a polarized culture and increased accountability with no additional authority. In these pages, you will read not so much recipes for success as thoughtful views about how to nurture the qualities of effective leadership.
      For example, Andy Hargreaves and Dean Fink (p. 8) lead off with a reminder that the goal is not to find a charismatic individual who can do all things well and wisely, but to discover ways to sustain productive change in schools. Sustainable leadership means distributing the leadership throughout the school community, these authors write.If we want change to matter, to spread, and to last, then the system in which leaders do their work must make sustainability a priority. (p. 13)
      Sustainable leadership must be a shared responsibility.
      Several of our authors discuss how leaders can negotiate political firestorms and overcome the unfair attacks that often come with the territory of being a leader. Developing a spiritual approach is not likely to eliminate all stress, Scott Thompson (p. 60) writes, but it can be the anchor that helps leaders stay focused on the goal of improving education for students.
      Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky have some words of advice that all of us might take to heart:When you are too quick to lay blame on others, you risk misdiagnosing the situation and you also risk making yourself a target by denying that you, too, need to change. Instead of setting up a dynamic of you versus them, accept your share of the responsibility and face the problem together. (p. 37)
      Senator Kerry and Secretary Paige, take note. And, as for the rest of us, let's accept nonapologies for ill-chosen remarks, pay attention to the substance of what our leaders say, and accept our own responsibility for setting a tone that demands positive, sustainable leadership in these tough times.

      Editorial. (2004, Jan. 27). The next school chief. Washington Post, p. A16.

      Farkas, S., Johnson, J., Duffett, A., & Foleno, T. (2001). Trying to stay ahead of the game: Superintendents and principals talk abut school leadership. New York: Public Agenda.

      Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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