Thursday, January 25, 2007

Leadership--Nature or Nuture

Ever wonder what difference a leader makes? Nellie gives us an article, passed on by her principal, about what difference a teacher makes. Does a leader make a difference? Sometimes we used to kid a principal that he could be out of the building and nobody would know and school would just go on as usual. Do we even need these leaders?

Are administrators and supervisors the real leaders? Who really leads you and your school? Do you do the leading? Would you rather be led by someone else? Is it archaic to think of a leader as one who is in front of and directing others to do things? Can leading be done from behind?

I never wanted to lead anything in my life. I wanted some questions answered sometimes and some help with a troublesome student or two in the early stages of my career. Where was the bookroom, how do I use this new phone system, can we order these books? Mostly, I wanted people to get out of my way. As a thirteen year old, I was elected the captain of our summer softball team, not because I was a good leader but because I was the biggest, strongest player at that time and was our most powerful hitter. For the first game of a double header, I sat myself on the bench and let another capable player take my position at third base. I thought that’s what a leader should do. After sitting and thinking about it during that first game, I resigned the position of captain and took back my position at third. Just let me play my game.

I never really wanted to be a leader in education either but I realized that the pay increases came with going up the ladder in supervisory jobs so, at age 32, I became a department chair in a junior high school. It was nice being “in charge,” teaching only three classes with the reduced paper load, getting a bump in salary, and being part of the principal’s cabinet. But really lead? How do you do that? How do you get people to move beyond where they are and become better? Michael Jordan is said to have made all of those players around him better? How do you do that?

For years, I have admired the stories told by my good friend, Pat Monahan, or by my friend, Hugh Patterson, or by Victor Jaccarino or Frank Gallo. These English department chairs told about things they did with individual teachers or with their whole departments. They told about handling a difficult teacher, getting materials that helped to bring the members together, getting teachers to think beyond their immediacy. They told of bringing key presenters to the department to speak for them and they told of ways that they integrated some ideas into things beyond the department and into the school setting. I was always amazed. How did they think of these things? Who taught them to do this?

Back in my first supervisory position, our principal and mentor used to hold court after school where many of “his people” would hang out in his office after school. If any of us complained, Ernie would wave his pipe at us and say, “Mahoney, stop your complaining. I took you out of that high school and made you something, made you a somebody,” and he would laugh and we would all laugh. He’d say at another time, “Luciano, what are you complaining about now? I took you out of oblivion down in that elementary school gym you were sentenced to and gave you new life, made you somebody important. You were dying down there, dying!” We’d laugh and wave back and say, “Yeah, thanks a lot, Ernie. Thanks for nothing,” and we’d laugh again. And so it went, often these ritual-like comments would be played out. We would all joke about it but, over the years, we came to see that they were true. We learned a lot from Ernie by watching him build a community with the staff. I learned how to observe a class and write an effective, helpful report. But because I am slow to learn, I never learned how to be a leader.

I moved on to other schools, other districts, other positions. Still, I never considered myself a leader, just someone who was a little organized, would work harder than most others, and had some expertise in the field of teaching English.

So how do you learn to be a leader? None of my administrative and supervisory courses went beyond the fundamentals of running a department and fulfilling the laws and rules of the state. We never touched on dealing with different kinds of teachers and people, being a visionary, cutting through the read tape, fighting for your department or for an individual teacher.

How would you know who in your school or department would make a good leader? How would you lead and encourage the person or persons? Is there any book you would give to them or a set of beliefs you would pass on? Do you have a handbook of anecdotes you would turn over?

We give awards for leadership but is that the same as having an impact? The Beatles and Elvis had an impact. Were they leaders? The destruction of 9/11 had an impact. There are no leaders from this impact, though some leaders did emerge. Publishing and presenting can have an impact but is that leadership and being a leader? How do you make a difference with those you are supposed to lead? Do you have a story of leadership, your own leading or someone leading you? How did you you get involved? Did someone tap you on the shoulder? Did you always know you wanted to be a leader? Why not share your story here?

Jim Mahoney