I have had the privilege of delving into the study of “leadership” for the past 15 years with the amazing @Bergen LEADS program of the @Bergen Volunteer Center. In late June, I graduated my last class, the mighty Class of 2021. And while I am personally sad to be leaving such a wonderful program, I am confident that the seeds planted in the prior classes, and the great foundation we created, will keep the program viable, relevant, and essential for years to come.
As grateful as I am for the many friends I have made through Bergen LEADS, and how much I have learned from and with each class, I am also deeply grateful that my connection with Bergen LEADS gave me the excuse and opportunity to think deeply about leadership at the community level.
Last week, I gave an address to the @William Paterson School of Education Cohort I of the EDD in Leadership. These 15 mid-career professionals are both re-upping and doubling down on leadership, at a time when we need it most. It was truly an honor to be with them at the start of their journey.
Here is a bit of what I said:
After college and a brief stint in graduate school, I moved to NYC. I was one of thousands of 20-somethings with a pretty interesting job that paid almost nothing and a fierce desire to live city life. At the time, maybe it is true today—NY was a pretty cool place to live. If you had more time than money—you could do a lot of things for free—as long as you were willing to wait and wait. I sat half day reading a book to get tickets to see famous actors perform Shakespeare in the park.
I sat all day to be close to the stage for the Simon and Garfunkel reunion concert in Central Park. And by the time my college friends, The Indigo Girls,
had won a grammy and were playing a sold out show at the Beacon—I had learned that hanging out by the stage door often netted a chance to stand in the aisles. That night, I sat on the floor next to seats John McEnroe and Tatum O’Neal had.
So during a period in my life when time was not so precious, sometime around 1989 or 1990, I went to a free lecture and reading by the Pulitzer Prize winning author, Alice Walker. The doors opened early and people began arriving in the early afternoon for the 7:30 event. The mood was communal and festive, but also territorial. People were saving seats and holding onto seats nicely, but firmly. There was the you scratch my back—“I’ll watch your seat while you go to the bathroom”—I’ll scratch yours—“I’m going to get some food. Will you watch my seat? Can I bring you something?” kind of sharing, but no one was moving. By the time Alice Walker took the stage, the auditorium was standing room only.
When she emerged on stage, barefoot, she paused and took in the scene. She seemed surprised, touched, and honored by the size of the crowd. But also, thoughtful and reflective.
So, she began her talk—telling stories, weaving philosophy, history and literature—just whatever was on her mind that day. It seemed unprepared like a conversation, but in the way that writers have—what seemed extemporaneous came out powerful and poetic. So, there we were in her thrall, when she said, “I am going to read some things now. Would you like that?” There was a cheer of approval.
“Great,” she went on.
“But before I do, I am going to drink this water that someone was kind enough to provide. And while I do that, it occurred to me that the people standing in the aisles must be tired. So, those of you with seats should give your seats to those without.”
There was a complete, hushed, stunned silence. We were looking at her and she was looking at us. She went on,
“I believe that in the 21st Century, we will all have to share more—so we might as well start tonight.”
Still no one in the audience moved or said a word, but there was that rustle that occurs when the mind begins to comprehend.
Go on now,” she said. “Change places. I’ll wait.” And she began to drink her water, slowly.
What was fascinating in the audience was that those standing were as stuck—reluctant to be shared with—as those with seats were reluctant to share. In truth, we did not know how to share in this way with strangers. We had a hard time looking at each other at first. Those standing were thinking, ”Dang, if I had gotten here early, I wouldn’t want to give up my seat.” No one—those with and those without were comfortable with the rule change. Because—regardless of your position at that moment—you could imagine yourself benefiting from the system as it was—someday.
First come first served—it was the system we knew—and therefore believed in. But Alice Walker kept waiting. She did not believe in the system as it was—and she was not backing down. She flipped through her folder of writings, drank her water, looked at us over her glasses—but she did not say a word.
And so, we began to move. Those with seats stood and those without sat. In this new culture that she had created—it just made sense. Some of us went and sat on the floor, even though no one took our seats right away. When we were all resettled—Alice Walker looked out over the crowd and smiled. She did not thank us—we had done nothing for her—and she did not want us to think that we had—nor did she praise us—we should not be praised for doing what was evident and right. She just smiled and began to read.
Honestly, I don’t remember much else of what Alice Walker said or read that night. But I do remember vividly-viscerally that she changed the culture in that room that night with one sentence.
“In the 21st Century, we will all have to share more.”
With that sentence, with the power of her expectation, her moral authority—she changed the culture right before our eyes. And made all of us engaged in her new culture.
So what does a reading by Alice Walker more than 30 years ago have to tell us today?
I believe the answer is leadership. Too often that word conjures up some savior or colossus striding in to save the day or snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
For me leadership is actually much more subtle, and much more powerful than that. It is also much more accessible to all of us.
Here is my working definition of leadership:
it is the ability to get others to strive for and achieve more than they otherwise would or even believe they can. It is an action, not a position. It is a vision of what can be.
Now this definition can be seen in great acts of heroism or generosity, but more often and I believe, more necessary and more long-lasting—are the little acts of leadership that REDEFINE the culture, that propose new rules to the game. I believe that Leaders challenge and help us to think differently and therefore, inspire us to act differently. I believe that moments of leadership are present all the time—but are rarely acted upon. Leaders see or are willing to admit they see.
Let me go back to Alice Walker for a minute. The night she read was, actually, the final night of a festival of writers. Each night featured a current literary lion—and each night the crowd had been standing room only. The only reason, I left work early that day was because I could and because I stood the previous night. Like the others around me, I got there early because seats were precious.
No other speaker in the festival had sized up the situation nor addressed the issue. No other writer asked anything of us. Interestingly, Alice Walker didn’t really ask that much of us—it felt like a huge sacrifice at first, but in fact—we all still got to hear her (which is what we came for) and standing for half the evening was a significant improvement over standing for the whole evening.
What she did was REDEFINE the experience—its purpose, its outcome and our role in it. I do not believe that anyone is giving a speech today—retelling this same story and saying, “that crazy Alice Walker—she made people give up their seats”—certainly no one who was standing in the aisles that night is remembering it that way.
You all walked into this room tonight, into this program as educators. And yet, you are embarking on a journey to become Educational Leaders--not the same thing.
Close your eyes for a minute--and as an educator, I want you to picture 2 or 3 students whom you know you changed through your role as teacher or administrator. Can you see their faces? Do you remember that lesson that went completely off the rails and then magic happened? Do you receive a visit or a copy of a thesis or some other--out of left field “BTW you changed my life?”
These are the magic gifts of being an educator--and as educators we play the long, long game. So often, we don’t know what seeds we planted for years--decades, even.
But now you have chosen to become, or claim the mantle of LEADER.
So--one secret, something that I have discovered over many years of looking for leadership and learning how to know it when I see it. Most of the people we label leaders are actually weathervanes--they go the way the wind blows.
Leaders are the folks who make the weather.
So I would suggest to you that we need leaders who are willing to REDEFINE the culture and the rules as we know them
--we need leaders who are willing to seek common purpose wherever we can and work together on those things (rather than focusing on all the things we do not agree upon)
--we need to help people see the self interest in the common interest
--we need to move from a culture of “not my fault, not my problem, not my responsibility” to a culture of taking interest, taking ownership, and taking action
I don’t believe that leaders have to have all the answers—but they certainly have to admit that there are questions and begin to find solutions by redefining the rules, the outcomes, the culture and our role in it.
How will you as a leader build a culture based on
--Meeting people where they are and teaching them where they can go--adults, children, the community outside the school or district
--Wanting as much for other people's children as we want for our own
--Everyone's education is a community investment.
Too often, I believe, that we are waiting for “leaders” to come and show us the way. I suggest to you that we are the ones we are waiting for—and if we don’t step up—the likelihood is no one else will either.
Remember that bumper sticker—practice random acts of kindness. Well, I urge and encourage each of us to exercise random acts of leadership. With a large group or a small one, ask a question, challenge a form of “it has always been done this way,” push past winners and losers and find the win-win, take a stab at redefining the rules of the game.
Here in the 21st Century we all have to share more—and I suggest to you that the first thing we need to share is the leadership to move our communities in a new direction.
Learn a lot, debate hard, be fearless and get ready to make some weather.